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.
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.