Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Murals

This essay, on the importance of class as a political issue, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Boris Johnson and lies.) It was published on 2 June 2019, under the headline ‘Forget culture wars. Class is still the defining force shaping British lives’.

If you are a woman living in working-class Middlesbrough, you are likely to die seven years earlier than if you were living in affluent Hart in Hampshire. If you are a disadvantaged child, you are 27% less likely to achieve five or more GCSEs at A*-C grades. If you attend a private school, by the time you are 40 you will be earning 35% more than if you were a state school pupil. If you are homeless as an adult, you were almost certainly poor and working class as a child.

Class shapes our world. For many, it constrains their life chances and checks their aspirations. For a few, it confers a life of power and privilege.

Yet class no longer seems to shape our politics. The key divide in politics today, as many have observed, is not class but culture. What’s your view on immigration? Are you patriotic? Does multicultural London still feel British? On such questions, rather than on traditional economic issues, does Britain today seem to cleave.

The two parties that traditionally gave political expression to the class divide appear lost. The relationship between the Labour party and much of its working-class constituency has become unstitched over the past three decades. Brexit has exacerbated that process. The Tories are suffering a similar fate.

On Friday, the CBI warned Tory leadership candidates that a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous. The Tories seem disinclined to listen. ‘Fuck business,’ Boris Johnson suggested not so long ago.

The European elections revealed a polarisation between the Brexit party and the Liberal Democrats. Last week, a YouGov poll suggested that in a general election, too, the electorate might divide on similar lines. It’s a single poll that needs to be viewed with scepticism, but it does capture the new zeitgeist. The main political faultline, not just in Britain but throughout Europe, is less about left and right than about those who feel at home in – or willing to accommodate themselves to – the new globalised, technocratic world and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless.

What happens, though, when political boundaries no longer map on to social or material divisions in society? When class shapes the social world but is no longer represented on the political landscape?

Look more closely at the political faultline and the significance of such questions become clearer. Those who feel disaffected by the new globalised world range from millionaire globetrotters such as John Cleese, who last week bemoaned the fact that ‘London was not really an English city any more’, to south Wales steelworkers whose lives have been turned upside down by global capital. Those much more at ease with the new world stretch from Sri Lankan cleaners working night shifts in London to Lord Bilimoria, the Indian-born founder of Cobra beer and a leading figure in the Remain campaign.

Faced with his sense of disaffection, Cleese can swan off to the Caribbean island of Nevis, where he now lives. South Wales steelworkers are trapped in the insecurities of their lives. Millionaire Bilimoria can prevaricate over cuts to tax credits in the House of Lords. A cleaner may be forced into more than one job to accumulate even the most basic weekly wage.

The new political cleavage doesn’t, as many suggest, reflect the distinction between the ‘elite’ and the ‘masses’. It obscures it, helping conceal the fact that the political interests of the cleaner and the steelworker are far more similar than of either to Cleese or Bilimoria. Whether in south Wales or south London, workers suffer from the casualisation of work, the stagnation of wages, the imposition of austerity.

The cultural divide in politics cannot erase the material reality of working-class lives. But it has transformed the way that many view that reality. On the one side, many have come to see immigration as the cause of their problems and a more nationalistic politics as the solution. On the other, many dismiss working-class voters who backed the Brexit party as bigots.

Against this background, many influential voices insist that the class politics is passe and we must accept the new cultural divides. There are, though, no cultural solutions to the social problems confronting us. To pretend that there are will only exacerbate popular anger as people’s lives remain untransformed. We need not to deny material reality, but to change the way that people perceive it, challenging both the view of migrants as a social problem and the dismissal of the disenchantment of sections of the working class as mere bigotry. It has never been more important to remind ourselves of the importance of class and of its impact on the lives of millions.



The image is from Diego Rivera’s ‘Detroit Industry murals’. The photo is mine.


  1. scholar73

    This analysis is right, but ignores the fact that there are, nevertheless, cultural problems as well.

    Many jihadis were the children of wealthy families, cf bin Laden, or the family which perpetrated the recent massacre of Sri Lankan Christians. To take a less violent example, parents and organisers politicising the demonstrations outside Birmingham schools, where primary schoolchildren and their teachers are being intimidated, also illustrate a cultural division.

    Irrespective of class, the demonstrators don’t want their children to see a book in which two male penguins take it in turns to keep an egg warm. They say they should control what goes into their children’s minds not only at home, but when the children are at school.

    From their side, the teachers say that they are mindful of the government’s policy on inclusivity, and are running an age-appropriate programme called No Outsiders. The headmistress has received the usual threats, and the programme has been temporarily suspended. So we have to decide what constitutes bigotry here –

    ignoring the wishes of a minority religious group, which is also an ethnic minority, by telling parents they aren’t allowed to dictate what their children learn; or denying the children the opportunity to take for granted, from an early age, the idea that families come in all shapes and sizes. Ownership of the means of production certainly creates the limits imposed on the lives of others, but in itself, doesn’t provide an answer to this problem, which is an expression of two completely different ways of seeing the world.

    Formerly, there was a clear division beneath those countries which had a long tradition of evolving towards secular democracy, and those in which people lived under a tighter, more rule-bound government which prioritised stability over experimentation. Now, citizens of both occupy the same space, and each requires its expectations to be satisfied.

    A lesbian parent went to speak to a Muslim mother to explain why she thought the demo was hurtful. The mother, when she ascertained she was speaking to a fellow parent, demanded that the police remove her from the area, saying ” I don’t have to talk to you”. Again, two different views of dispute resolution, & the function of the police.

    As a white westerner, I’m with Nazir Afsal, who says that a minority group can’t reasonably claim tolerance for its preferences while denying the same tolerance to others.

    Polygamy is not legal in this country, yet multiple marriages which took place outside the UK are recognised here, and the benefits system allows merged households. Jews and Muslims are not obliged to adhere to the laws about animal slaughter. One might suppose, therefore, that the demonstrators are sawing off the branch they sit on. But louder voices are clearly prevailing at present, and a class analysis won’t fix that.

  2. Scholar73 unwittingly illustrates the reality of the Brexit debate. Cultural conflicts that have nothing whatsoever to do with migration between the UK and the rest of the EU have been successfully harnessed to the Brexit cause.

    Brexit is an act of class warfare, carried out by the very wealthy on the rest of us. It is designed to shield the UK’s most affluent from the effects of European human rights laws, health and safety and other standards, and to thwart pending moves to inhibit tax avoidance by offshoring. Why Labour is not using these arguments to lead the opposition to Brexit is beyond me.

  3. kevinwhitston

    Class, not cultural divisions defines the material reality of social life, including the life of the working class; there are no cultural solutions only political ones that ‘change the way that people perceive’ class-structured social realities. So far so good, but class isn’t quite the ‘defining force’ it once was because classes are in a state of flux and re-composition. Nor is class only a structural phenomenon; it is a more or less defining force to the extent that people think of themselves and others in class terms. Class and culture turn out to be intimately connected, and often by politics and the ideologies that underpin them.

    Kenan Malik knows all this of course but it is worth saying because class in no longer as easy to sum up as it was in the Python sketch, and changing the way people think about class and social reality, never easy, has never been so difficult. It is not enough to have a pop at middle class critics who dismiss the ‘disenchantment of sections of the working class as mere bigotry’. The headlong retreat of social democracy and class re-composition combined have led sections of the working class to move to the right. There are some uncomfortable class, cultural, and political realities to confront here. Along with acknowledging the legitimate roots of disenchantment the political drift to the right of part of the working class needs to be challenged, and not only on immigration. The working class is not an innocent bystander, let down by capitalism and scorned by middle class critics.

  4. damon

    Class may well be the biggest factor shaping our lives, but culture seems to be right up there in importance too.
    I can work with colleagues in a job where we share class interests, but can’t discuss issues across cultural lines that easily. And there can even be cultural divisions running through the workplace environment.
    You can see it at break times when people separate out into friendship and cultural groups.
    And while many of those Muslim parents protesting against sexual equality teaching in those Birmingham schools might be working class, I really have little in common with them, or much empathy for them and their causes.
    They are showing their “Muslimness” quite openly, and I find it rather unpleasant.

    Open borders advocates insist that it makes no difference what kind of make up a town or city has, and people from anywhere in the world are all the same. But in reality I don’t think that’s actually true.
    When someone like John Cleese speaks out, it causes waves of protest and comment.
    Englishness has had to have its meaning changed to be much more inclusive …. which is fair enough.
    But then the idea of “an Englishman” has to be gotten rid of because it can mean anyone who lives in England.
    And the idea of an “English gentleman” must be deleted from the English language too, as you don’t think of those men protesting outside the Birmingham school when you imagine what such a gentleman would be.

    Class maybe the framework which rules over our lives, but there’s a lot more going on as well.

    • This is a perennial debate; see Daniel Defoe’s satire, A True Born Englishman. What is, in my experience, new is the way in which this debate is now dominating our politics

      • damon

        Thanks for that bit of education. I’d never heard of the Defoe poem, but have read it now.
        So these things have been happening for hundreds of years. OK, I can see that.
        What might be different now is scale and the maturing of our diverse societies.
        There’s integration – but there’s also a new kind of sectarianism brewing I think.
        And it’s between different sections of the working class, plus supporters and leaders of different factions of them in the more upwardly mobile and higher classes.
        Just read the Guardian every day to see this continuous culture war against “the ignorant but privileged” subsection of society.
        Personally, I feel this assault more keenly than I do my lack of power in a capitalist labour market.
        It seems more immediate and focused. Also, any feelings of class solidarity I might have, are mitigated by living in a much less stable and rooted society. Work colleagues come and go. As do neighbours.
        And given the slightest opportunity, I’d be turning my back on “the rat race” too and going off to find a place in the sun if it’s at all possible.

        This woman “Shola” is a great example of the new sectarian culture warrior.
        It’s a zero sum game. No compromises to be given.

  5. yandoodan

    This article in Politico profiles American labor union members who are against the Green New Deal, a policy proposal to radically alter the American economy along environmental lines. The Green New Deal is pretty much universally endorsed by Dem presidential candidates, but union members see it as attacking their jobs.

    The point: the schism between the upper class culture that dominates left-leaning parties and working class union members is pushing people with working class cultures into conservative parties that have no problem with policies that protect jobs. (See also the class warfare over Trump’s trade policies.) In America, the schism has already pushed significant working class people into the Republican Party — enough to flip several states to Trump in the last election.

    The upper class Dems who control the party have, so far, had three reactions:
    1. Retraining.
    2. Give lots of money to rent seekers like Elon Musk to become Green capitalist titans.
    3. Call those who disagree with this ‘deplorables’.
    In other words, “We, who are smarter and better educated than you, have decided that we will spend your tax money by creating a new class of billionaire capitalists to run the economy, then retrain you to be their docile employees. Only racist bigots could possibly object to this.”

  6. FormerGuardianReader

    Class is still the defining force shaping British lives but it no longer shapes our politics but it’s not because “the two parties that traditionally gave political expression to the class divide appear lost” and “the relationship between the Labour party and much of its working-class constituency has become unstitched over the past three decades”. Class doesn’t shape our politics because politics is dominated by a small middle-class university-educated elite, as is much else of public life (the media, literature, film, comedy and even music).

    In the case of the Labour Party the roots of that domination lie in the transformation of the party which began under the leadership of Neil Kinnock who appointed Peter Mandelson as the party’s Director of Communications. As more people from that elite were selected as candidates, elected and promoted the party shifted further to the right and they eventually became known as Blairites. In order to win the 1997 general election the Blairites created New Labour and wooed business, the Murdoch press and middle class voters and produced New Labour policies which wouldn’t scare them. However, the Conservatives effectively lost the 1997 election when they imploded in office in late 1992 so Labour could have been more left-wing and focused more on policies for working-class voters and still won but that wasn’t what the Blairites wanted. They wanted a Labour Party and a Labour government for themselves and people like them. If you don’t believe that politics, policies and public debate (and particularly on the left) have become skewed towards middle class people and their interests consider three issues.

    Firstly, consider housing. When the Thatcher government won power in 1979 the thrust of its housing policy was that the market would decide and the role of the state in housing would be reduced to a minimum. That laissez faire approach largely continued for decades under the Conservatives, New Labour and the Coalition but in the last few years housing has gone up the political agenda and greater government intervention in the housing market is now necessary. Why? It’s because university educated people from middle class families in London have been struggling to buy houses and been forced to rent so something must be done. Working class people have been struggling with housing for decades but at that time the most important thing was that house prices continued to rise. When middle class graduates found that they couldn’t get on the property ladder that their parents’ generation had been pulling up for over three decades politicians started caring about housing again.

    Secondly, consider Brexit. British voters were promised a referendum on the European Constitution by Tony Blair in 2004 but when the constitution was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands in 2005 the British referendum planned for early 2006 was scrapped. When the European Constitution was superseded by the Lisbon treaty (which was first proposed in Tony Blair’s last few days as Prime Minister and was drafted after Gordon Brown has succeeded him) that was ratified by the UK Parliament without a referendum. The divisions over the UK’s relationship with the EU festered and in 2015 David Cameron stood for re-election on a manifesto promising a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. He won the election but lost the referendum but nearly three years on Brexit hasn’t happened and may not happen. The most vocal opposition to Brexit has largely come from middle-class university educated people. If the most vocal support for Brexit had come from those people do you think they would have put up with delay and the possible denial of Brexit by Europhile working class people who lost the referendum? They wouldn’t and they would have insisted that their views and their victory should be respected but because middle-class university educated people oppose Brexit they must get their way. At the very least there should be a People’s Vote because some of those who voted for Brexit aren’t really people: they didn’t go to university, they don’t buy The Guardian and they don’t shop at Waitrose so they are barely human.

    Thirdly, consider rape. In recent years student unions and feminist campaigners have been saying that there is a “rape epidemic” in universities in the UK and the USA. Their claims have been reported in the media and universities, politicians and students have been told to take action against this rape culture. For at least twenty years in the UK gangs have been raping underage girls on a scale that has been described as “industrial”. Some of these girls were supposed to be in the care of local authorities and some of these crimes were reported to the police (as well as the health service and schools) but hundreds if not thousands of girls who have been raped were failed by the authorities in various parts of the country at the same time which was the time when the country had a government which claimed that it would be “tough on crime” and “tough of the causes of crime”. After ten years in which mass rape took place under the nose of the government there was a prosecution and more prosecutions have followed but the latest three trials of so-called “grooming gangs” which ended in convictions in 2019 were barely reported, never mind were the subject of outraged calls for action against this rape culture. Why? One reason is because rape victims only matter to the Labour Party, The Guardian and most feminists if they have a university education. Any number of men could rape any number of underage working class girls and the Labour Party, The Guardian and most feminists would say nothing but if a middle-class university-educated woman says she has been raped the Labour Party, The Guardian and most feminists say that they believe her and support her and it takes them less than twenty years to get around to saying it.

    Class is still the defining force shaping British lives but it no longer shapes our politics because politics is dominated by middle class people who have decided that working class people are worth less than them or worthless. If you think that class is important and want the lives of working class people to improve you need to challenge the middle-class interests, institutions and individuals who have decided that working class people aren’t important.

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