‘UP THE workers!’ That was the headline in the Daily Mirror last week. The paper was reporting on a new Mori poll which found that 68 percent of the population agreed with the statement, ‘I’m working class and proud of it.’ That is up from 52 percent of people who agreed with that statement three years ago, and from 51 percent in 1994.
The poll blows a hole in the idea pushed by Tony Blair and New Labour that ‘we’re all middle class now’. The poll found that 55 percent of those who are often labelled as middle class in fact identified themselves as working class. This shows that many people have a very good instinct for what class is. Class is not just a question of what clothes you wear, or whether you work in an office or a factory.
As Karl Marx pointed out in the 19th century, there are a small minority who control the offices, the shops and the factories – the capitalists. The vast majority of people have to work in these places, creating wealth for the capitalists, in order to survive.
It is this relationship built on exploitation that creates class. In between the working class and the capitalist class there is a layer of people, like managers, top legal figures and so on, who run society on behalf of the capitalist class. This is the middle class. They are rewarded with higher salaries than the rest of us. Government classifications lump teachers, nurses, social workers and librarians in with managers and lawyers in ‘Class 1’ or ‘Class 2’ categories.
But the results of the survey show that a growing number of people are rejecting these official categories. This reflects the widening gap between those at the top and those at the bottom in British society. Under 18 years of the Tories, and now under New Labour, inequality between rich and poor has increased.
Between 1997 and 2000, the first three years of the Labour government, the income of the top fifth of the population increased at twice the rate of the poorest. According to the government’s own figures, inequality rose under New Labour. The number of households officially defined as living in poverty stayed the same. Half of all men in Britain got less than £14,000 last year. For women, the figures are even worse, with half getting less than £7,000 a year.
The bottom tenth of all full time workers have seen their share of average weekly earnings fall from less than 60 percent to less than 46 percent. That means they are earning on average just £10,600 a year. There are hundreds of thousands of people unemployed and struggling to get by on benefits.
We are constantly fed an image on TV, in magazines and newspapers and in advertising of a certain kind of lifestyle – whether it’s plush homes, four-wheel drive cars for shopping at Sainsbury’s or even just the posh ‘finest’ supermarket ranges. The number of people who can buy into this lifestyle is very small.
A survey by Barclays Bank found that the richest district in the country is Kensington and Chelsea in west London, where terraced houses cost £1.2 million. But only 12.5 percent of the population in the area get more than £60,000 a year.
Of course, the very rich have sources of income far beyond their salaries. But even so the figures suggest that even in the very poshest places the rich are in a minority. The world of designer clothes, cruise holidays and top restaurants is far beyond the reach of more and more people. It is not just those surviving on benefits who are excluded from the world of the glossy magazines.
It is workers with full time jobs like teachers, firefighters, nurses and lecturers. That increasing numbers of people see themselves as working class reflects growing awareness of the consequences of ‘flexible working’ – lives ruined by long hours, shift working, being fearful of taking holidays and bullying by managers. They are rejecting the idea that class is an old fashioned idea irrelevant to a society where the talented ‘make it’ whatever background they come from.
And today people are not just getting poorer. They are getting more aware of that exploitation and more prepared to challenge it.
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