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Wes Streeting and the history of ‘the middle class’

Socialist historian KEITH FLETT unpacks the term currently being flung about by the Labour right as an insult and finds its popular association with ‘being a lefty’ is anything but assured in reality

WES STREETING has criticised “middle-class lefties” who he thinks are standing in the way of his efforts to privatise bits of the NHS should he get to be health secretary in the next government.

He might well find that the mostly not-middle-class Unison and RCN are even more formidable opponents.

Streeting will only fit the definition of a “lefty” if it’s one drawn up by Lee Anderson. However, his £90,000 desk job as an MP marks him out as definitively middle class. Social being defines consciousness, as any “middle-class lefty” could tell him.

I consulted Raymond Williams’s Keywords on the history of the term “middle class.” As might be expected it’s quite complicated. The modern usage dates from the earlier decades of the 19th century and developed in the decades after.

Before the 1832 Reform Act, there are instances of references to the middling and lower orders as forming a broadly distinct grouping. That Act enfranchised some middle-class male voters but left the working class without the vote.

The distinction began to arise between the lower or working classes and the upper classes. In between were the middle classes — quite small in numbers at this point.

By the 1880s there was a difference widely understood between workers who did manual work and got paid a wage and the middle class — also workers — who attracted a salary and did desk jobs, ranging from clerks to managers and professionals.

Williams did not touch on more modern developments — reasonable given the book was published in 1975. However, certainly from the late 1960s there developed a trend for middle-class workers to become unionised.

The Robbins Report, by the 1964 Labour government saw a significant extension of university education. It drew thousands more into higher education and created graduates who were able to use their degrees to advance in society. In short, the kind of social mobility that Keir Starmer is promoting and which allowed Streeting to go to university and become a student leader.

The political hold that the Tory Party held over the middle class also began to crack, perhaps in some cases because the salaries the new graduates were paid did not lend themselves to a supposed middle-class lifestyle.

From the formation of the Labour Party in 1900, “middle class” also had a specific political meaning. Two key figures were Sidney and Beatrice Webb. They founded the London School of Economics and were responsible for the first Labour Party constitution in 1918. Webb was a member of the first 1924 Labour government.

In political outlook they were Fabians. In a Communist Party training manual published in 1926, Tom Bell described the Fabian Society as a “middle-class body with a petty-bourgeois outlook.” So in fact not “lefty” at all and something a right-wing Labour figure like Streeting could quite happily align themselves with.

As EP Thompson noted, class is not a static category but determined in practice in relations between people and struggles coming out of that. This will certainly be the case if Streeting does in fact become health secretary in the next government.

There is a wider point. Given that Labour is an electoral party seeking a broad base of support, Streeting’s comments reflect a narrow factionalism which suggests a lack of genuine experience of life as it is actually lived on the shop floor and in the office.

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