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A glimpse of the working class

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Dave Sewell looks at what the latest census figures reveal and how the media misuses them to provide a distorted picture of Britain today
Issue 2334
The anti-fascist protest in Walthamstow last year reflected how mixed the British working class has become (Pic: Kelvin Williams)
The anti-fascist protest in Walthamstow last year reflected how mixed the British working class has become (Pic: Kelvin Williams)

Britain has become the Daily Mail’s worst nightmare. That’s according to the findings of the 2011 census, published last month.

The census takes a snapshot of England and Wales every ten years, giving a glimpse into the reality of people’s lives in Britain.

It shows that working class people are more diverse in terms of race, religion and family arrangement than ever before.

And for all the hype about everyone being “middle class” now, the class make up of Britain has changed very little.

Support for key institutions that our rulers uphold is falling. Their ideal of how people should live their lives is becoming even further removed from the reality.

So married people are now a minority in Britain. More people are divorcing—and more never marry in the first place. The number of single parent families has gone up by nearly a fifth.

Support for our rulers’ ideas is down too. They use racism and sexism to try and divide people. That’s why these ideas are entrenched in the institutions of society and of course this has an impact on ordinary people.

But it seems that these ideas are becoming less relevant to the way people live their lives.


Most people don’t seem as concerned as most politicians are about race and immigration (see below). The number of people who identify as mixed race has doubled to 1.2 million—making them by far the fastest growing ethnic group.

There’s a myth of a ghettoised London. Even the Guardian said the capital was like a “separate country”, pointing at boroughs with large Muslim populations and the statistic that “white British” people are now a minority in London.

The idea of “non-white ghettos” is a red herring. White British is still far and away the biggest category nationally. Some 60 percent of Londoners identify as white, and 63 percent were born in Britain.

The “white British” category is in any case artificial. It excludes British people who aren’t white while those who fit the category are themselves the product of waves of immigration.

As the rest of the census shows, there’s no such thing as “British society” or a static set of “British values”. The way people live and think is and always has been changing and rarely in the ways that Britain’s rulers would like.

Besides this the evidence is that people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are mixing more than ever. Other surveys have shown how people are now far more likely than their parents or grandparents to have friends of different ethnic groups.

Women have become more entrenched in the world of work. Fewer than 8 percent of women are classed as economically inactive because they are looking after their home or family. This is a drop of almost a third.

Yet for all the changes in women’s lives, many old expectations of what role they should play remains. The number of people caring for relatives without pay is up by 11 percent.


This burden will fall most heavily on women. More women are in work, but more women are now classed as unemployed too.

The policies of successive governments have driven changes in housing too. Years of attacks on council housing means that the number of council tenants has fallen by 23 percent.

Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher sold people the “ideal” of home ownership. In reality it was the banks that owned the homes until the last mortgage payment was made.

More people today own their homes outright as old mortgages have been repaid. But fewer people actually have a mortgage now than did ten years ago.

And more people in London rent than pay a mortgage. But the beneficiaries of all this are private landlords who have grown enormously following a property boom. There are now four million households paying rent to a private landlord—a rise of more than 50 percent.

These changes have left many people at the mercy of landlords charging high rents for poor and insecure housing. But they do show that much of Britain isn’t part of the “ideal” of home ownership.

The nature of work is also changing. But the reality is far from the myths that we are fed by the media and politicians.

For example, the number of people employed in manufacturing has plummeted from 3.5 million to 2.4 million. There are fewer workers in some other “traditional” sectors, such as mining. But that doesn’t mean we’re now all white collar workers.


Manufacturing remains one of the biggest sectors, with almost nine percent of the workforce engaged in it. It remains a large, powerful section of the working class.

The biggest sectors include healthcare, education, construction and IT. Some use the growth of non-manual occupations to argue that class and class struggle is a thing of the past. Yet all these sectors have seen major strikes over the past few years.

Hyped-up commentary on the census far outweighs the actual changes that it reports. Many of the changes represent trends that have been clear for the past half century.

The census backs up findings from the last social attitudes survey which found that four in five people thought it was fine for an unmarried couple to live together.

Large majorities opposed ideas that homosexuality is wrong or a woman’s place is at home. And almost 70 percent said they are not racially prejudiced at all.

But despite the improvement in people’s attitudes, the census does not prove that prejudice will simply go away over time.

Bosses and politicians will continue to try and stir up divisive reactionary ideas­—and they will always be on the look out for new targets.

The census is just the latest evidence that their ideas are more starkly out of touch with the reality of people’s lives than ever.

Racist scapegoating misuses census data

The census provided an excuse for politicians and the media to launch a round of scaremongering and scapegoating. They all accept it’s too late to come out against immigration as such, but say that immigrants are coming too thick and fast.

They claim this puts too much strain on public services and housing stock—and it pushes “native” workers out of their jobs. They agree that it makes “social cohesion” impossible.

But all of these ideas involve shoehorning dodgy numbers into dodgy categories. Though there was an increase since the last census in 2001, there is far less immigration into Britain than they say.

The rise came when Britain’s economy was booming and as eight new countries were admitted to the European Union. Immigration has since declined as the economic crisis set in.

Tabloids keen to keep up the pretence of Britain being “swamped” trumpet the increase in the net immigration rate. But this figure is skewed by falling numbers leaving Britain.

Unemployment started to rise sharply after the Tories announced their cuts, not as a result of immigration. The housing crisis has nothing to do with immigration or overpopulation either. The ratio of people to homes in England and Wales—at 2.3—has barely changed.

The effects of privatisation, poor pay, insecure housing and pressured living disadvantage all working class people. And the reality of racism is that all those problems disproportionately affect non-whites.

In the 1930s there was virtually no immigration into Britain—yet there was mass unemployment and poverty. In the 1950s and 1960s there was rising immigration and yet workers wages rose throughout those decades.

Under the last Tory government the number of families living below the poverty line rose by 60 percent and immigration was minimal.

Yet for most years during this decade, more people left the country than settled here—and in the other years net immigration was just a few thousand.

Immigrants tend to go to countries where there are jobs available and the economy is growing. Yet that simple fact won’t stop the bosses looking for scapegoats for the crisis.

Further reading

Some recent articles on the working class and racism


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