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AS the debate around Brexit has heated up, there have been growing references to the interests of the “working class” versus those of the “middle class.”
On this topic, as on so many others, this is the wrong way to pose such discussions about our society.
Dividing the overwhelming majority of people in this way benefits only the powerful who run our society.
As I write this on International Workers’ Day, it is worth reminding ourselves what we mean by the working class in the 21st century.
Posing this correctly will allow us to be better placed strategically not only to defeat this cruel Tory government, but to set about building a new socialist government that can fundamentally change society and stand up for the interests of the many, not the privileged few.
One common mistake is to pose class as determined by culture rather than by people’s place in economic and power structures.
Class is not about whether someone has a regional accent. Class is not about whether someone’s work entails sitting in an office with a computer or working outside undertaking physically demanding tasks.
Class is not about whether you live in the north or the south. Class is an economic question — not a cultural one.
Fundamentally, class is about your relationship to the means of production. That is whether you are part of the overwhelming majority that creates the wealth in society through your labour power and that carries out the socially essential tasks in our society. Or whether you live off the profits made by others.
The famous Clause IV that formed part of Labour’s constitution for decades was clear on rejecting the divisions between the working class and middle class, stating: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof…”
Just as it is essential not to engage in false divisions between the so-called working class and middle class, it is essential we recognise the working class as it actually is composed today if as a movement we are to best connect with – and represent the interests of – the working-class majority.
Changes in our society and economy constantly affect the character of the working class. Within the economy, the shift towards services and away from manufacturing is one such change.
The growth of precarious and zero-hours contracts and of people being forced to declare as self-employed are others.
Women, black communities and migrants play a much more central role in the modern workforce than just a few generations ago.
All these trends and more need to shape our understanding of the working class in the 21st century.
One image that always springs to mind when looking at the working class as it exists today in Britain is the photo of a bus driver — who happened to be a woman, who happened to a Muslim, who happened to be wearing a hijab — trying to do her job, surrounded by snarling far-right extremists of Tommy Robinson (the stage name of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) during a demonstration last year.
That bus driver reflected the wonderful diversity in the working class today and that image should act as a spur to tackle deeply anachronistic portrayals of “the working class” in our country.
That image also underlines how vile social oppressions — sexism, racism, homophobia and religious bigotry among others — are not only abhorrent in and of themselves and need to be fought wherever they are found.
They also foster divisions instead of the unity that we need across society to build a better world. The wonderful film Pride about the common cause forged between striking miners and LGBT activists against Thatcherism in the 1980s beautifully depicts the importance of this unity — and how it has to be fought for.
As so often is the case the old trade union slogan gets to the heart of this: together we are stronger.
The most helpful slogan in recent years in terms of popularising a proper understanding of the true class divisions in our society is the idea of “the 99 per cent” that sprung out of the Occupy protest movements.
Those who wish to prevent a socialist Labour government which represents the interests of the 99 per cent will do their best to scapegoat and sow divisions.
We must take care to ensure that our movement challenges that.
Thatcher did a very successful job of redefining in much of the public consciousness what it means to be “working class.” She pushed the idea that only the very poorest are “working class.”
She also pushed the idea that if you lived in anything other than a council house you were middle class.
She sought to whip up hate against migrant communities to divide the working class.
Such notions seek to reduce the working class to a minority, robbing it of its collective agency and its potential to transform society.
In doing so, Thatcher convinced many people whose economic position made them objectively working class that they were somehow “middle class” and that they could therefore “look after themselves” and certainly didn’t need collectivist institutions like trade unions or collectivist ideas like the socialism of the Labour Party.
However such ideological attempts to trick people constantly clash against the reality of the global economic system.
Since the imposition of neoliberalism in the 1980s, wealth, both nationally and globally, is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very wealthiest.
The World Inequality Report 2018 showed that in the UK, the richest 1 per cent account for 22 per cent of the country’s wealth, up from 15 per cent in the 1980s.
The very richest 0.1 per cent had fared even better with a doubling of their wealth from 4.5 to 9 per cent.
Those trends and the Tory project of neverending austerity since the banking crisis of 2008 have seen many who may have viewed themselves as “middle class” — or may have been erroneously viewed by others as “middle class” — realise that they are in fact part of the concept of “the 99 per cent.”
The prospect of climate catastrophe will further focus the minds of the public on the real class divisions in our society.
It is the capitalist class and its short-termist pursuit of profit regardless of the environmental and human consequences that is driving our world to the brink of destruction.
Their use of resources to defend the interests of a tiny minority will not be feasible if we are to best limit the effects and protect the communities affected by climate change.
Inequality, poverty, war and climate catastrophe can only be averted by a movement that changes the economy, the energy system and the international order so that it works in the interests of the many, not the few — that is, the 99 per cent.
As we mark International Workers’ Day let’s redouble efforts to forge the unity of the working class in all its diversity that’s needed if we are to build a better world.
Richard Burgon is shadow justice secretary and MP for Leeds East. This column appears fortnightly.
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