By Jack FarmerMark L Thomas
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The contours of class

This article is over 11 years, 3 months old
The huge TUC organised demonstration in March has shown that the working class is still a force to be reckoned with. Mark L Thomas looks at the reality of class in Britain today, while Jack Farmer unpicks the debate within the Labour Party over how to relate to the cuts
Issue 358

After the huge TUC-organised anti-cuts demonstration at the end of March, one thing should be clear: the contours of British society remain profoundly shaped by class.

It wasn’t just that the 26 March protest was huge, though it was. With at least 500,000 demonstrating – perhaps even as many as 750,000 – it was the second biggest demonstration in British history, after the February 2003 anti-war march.

But what marked it out as something new was that it was visibly the organised working class on the move. Hundreds of thousands of workers took part in the giant Stop the War march, but they did so by and large as individuals.

This was different. It was the unions that called the demonstration, organised it and marched together in vast contingents of Unison, PCS, UCU, GMB, Unite members and the whole range of the union movement.

Of course, the idea that class still matters in Britain runs against all the accepted wisdom not just of the right but across much of the left too over the last three decades.

The argument has been that working class power, so visible in the great upsurge of working class militancy during the early 1970s, has been fundamentally, perhaps fatally, eroded with the decline of manufacturing and the rise of globalisation. As a result it has been accepted that the unions too were in a largely irreversible spiral of decline, ever more marginal to British political life.

And alongside this has been a belief that the battle of ideas in society has largely been lost by the left. So, for example, Tony Blair’s hold over the Labour Party was based on the widespread acceptance that Labour could no longer win elections on a programme of redistributing wealth and control over market forces.


Yet despite the real defeats the working class movement suffered at the hands of the Thatcher government in the 1980s (after the Labour government of 1974-79 prepared the way by successfully containing the militancy that had destroyed Ted Heath’s Tory predecessor) the reality is that workers still have immense power, their basic organisation remains intact and the dominant set of ideas inside workers’ heads is still shaped by the post-war social democratic settlement established by the Labour government of 1945.

It is certainly true that manufacturing has been in relative decline as a percentage of the economy over the last four decades, but overall output has risen. In 2007 British manufacturing output reached an all-time high, and Britain is the world’s sixth largest manufacturer.

This means that, though the manufacturing workforce is considerably smaller today, each worker in manufacturing is producing much more and is potentially more powerful than 40 years ago.

We have also witnessed a transformation of white collar work over the same period. Jobs like teaching, civil service and local government have been subject to the same routinisation and control that governs a factory production line. Where once these were relatively privileged jobs, they have now been “proletarianised”. This reality underlies the unionisation of these sectors – a fact reflected in their huge presence on the TUC march. This process is continuing. University academics were not part of the labour movement en masse 30 years ago. Now visiting the picket lines of striking higher education lecturers in the UCU the week before the TUC march was no different from visiting a PCS or Unison picket line.

Trade union membership stands at around 6.5 million, or just over one in four workers. This is of course sharply down from a peak of over 13 million in the late 1970s, a fall largely explained by the loss of unionised jobs in manufacturing, rather than workers leaving unions.

The unions remain overwhelmingly the biggest voluntary organisations in Britain (though there is, of course, little place for them in Cameron’s “Big Society”). And their potential reach is greater than the overall membership figure suggests, with nearly half of all workers in a workplace where a union is present.

Private sector union membership is much lower than in the public sector. Trade union density (the proportion of workers in a union) is around 15 percent in the private sector compared to 56 percent in the public sector. The unions are present in nine out of ten public sector workplaces but only three out of ten private sector ones.

But the picture in the private sector is more complicated and contains some important strengths that point to the potential for a fightback. The low overall level of private sector unionisation masks some very significant concentrations of union implantation in key industries. So union density reaches 40 to 60 percent, even as high as 75 percent, in electricity, gas, water supply, transport, storage and communications.

And key manufacturing sectors like engineering, the car industry and food production retain significant levels of union membership.

Tea Party

And, of course, in launching an onslaught on the public sector the government is attacking the biggest concentration of union membership. The attempt by a Tea Party backed Republican governor in Wisconsin to do the same provoked the biggest labour rebellion in the US in a generation.

And whereas that attack was in one US state, the Tory-led attack is across the whole working class – something Thatcher carefully avoided for a decade in government, until the introduction of the poll tax provoked opposition on such a scale that it drove her from office.

The potential for a generalised fightback is real, and if it turns into reality it is likely to win widespread sympathy from workers in the private sector. A serious strike movement can both directly draw in the private sector and inspire workers there to start raising their own demands.

Nor has the battle of ideas in society been lost. So, for example, the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey, published last December, points to an underlying resilience of broadly social democratic ideas.

So, for example, 78 percent of people think that the gap between high and low incomes is too large, a figure that has risen from 73 percent in 2004. And 60 percent think that working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth. Again the percentage holding this view has grown, rising from 53 percent in 2004.

There are a number of points to be made about this. Firstly, these figures reflect the views of the whole population, and it would be surprising if those views were not held still more strongly among the working class. Secondly, they exist on a widespread scale despite the fact that the Labour Party no longer seriously defends these ideas, let alone implements them in government.

Interestingly, the reports’ authors comment, “Support for how to reduce income inequality depends on how questions are asked – there is support for redistributive policies, but less when words like ‘redistribution’, ‘poverty’ and ‘poor’ are used directly.”

“The public is deeply concerned about the level of inequality. They see government as responsible for taking action whether shaping the opportunities available to people, raising the National Minimum Wage or even through redistribution.”

Labour’s retreat on key elements of the social democratic programme has eroded some support for a defence of some welfare benefits, or immigration, for instance, but the potential to make the case for class solidarity is real, if it is done confidently.

And the financial crisis and global recession that followed it in 2008-9 is widely held to be the responsibility of the bankers and more broadly of the whole system of untrammelled power of the rich to make money. The British Social Attitudes Survey reveals a staggering collapse in public confidence in the banks. In 1983, 90 percent of people believed that the banks were well run. That figure now stands at just 19 percent.

The continuing hold of social democratic ideas is perhaps above all reflected in the deep attachment to the NHS, in many ways the cornerstone of the 1945 settlement, as Andrew Lansley is learning to his cost. The proposals to drive the market much deeper into the health service are creating a serious crisis. The government has been thrown onto the back foot and risks provoking massive opposition if it continues with its plans but looking weak if it retreats.


Frederick Engels once made the point that the class struggle takes place on three levels: the ideological, political and economic. Since at least the late 1990s a rising level of political anger and ideological generalisation has thrown up a series of mass movements: over anti-capitalism, climate change and most significantly in opposition to the war in Iraq.

But these have not been matched by the level of economic struggle, with strike figures (though they never tell the whole story) for the decade 2000-2009 averaging just 692,000 days of strikes per year, slightly up from the 1990s (666,000) but a fraction of the levels of the 1980s (7.2 million), let alone the 1970s (12.9 million).

The government’s attempt to significantly accelerate the assault on the post-war settlement that has been taking place over the last three decades is now producing a serious clash with the prevailing levels of working class consciousness and organisation. This raises the possibility of driving the generalised political anger in society into the economic struggle.

Since the autumn there has been a rising arc of protests against the cuts. The 7,000-strong demonstration organised by Right to Work at the Tory party conference in Birmingham in October was followed by the 20,000 who marched at the Scottish TUC’s demo in October, by the explosive student rebellion in November and December and by a wave of protests in cities and towns across Britain.

This culminated in the giant TUC demo. It was a bridge that can take the political and ideological radicalisation into the economic struggle. The sense of confidence it gave workers who felt they were no longer isolated in the face of the Tories’ assaults has shifted the balance of forces inside the unions, at least for now, in favour of those who want to fight.

The argument that was heard from the platform in Hyde Park on 26 March was clear. Dave Prentis of Unison and Paul Kenny of the GMB argued for a strategy of voting Labour in the May local, Welsh and Scottish elections in the hope that this might curtail the Tory-Liberal coalition’s enthusiasm for cuts, or at least pave the way for a return to office by Labour in the next four years. But Mark Serwotka of the PCS, echoed by Len McCluskey of Unite, offered something different to this passive approach. Both argued for coordinated strikes by unions against the cuts as the next step in the campaign.


After the TUC demo it is clear that it is the left of the trade union bureaucracy that is currently setting the tone. As we go to press, four unions – the PCS, UCU, NUT and ATL – are planning a joint strike over pensions, most likely on 30 June. Every effort must be made to ensure this becomes a reality. In place of the sense of shock and passivity at the Tories’ offensive that dominated last summer, when the TUC were planning to invite Cameron to address their conference in September and Derek Simpson, then leader of Unite, proclaimed that mass strikes wouldn’t happen in Britain because “we don’t have the volatile nature of the French or the Greeks”, we are seeing a real opportunity to launch a counter-offensive against the government.

A window of opportunity has opened up. A successful coordinated mass strike of between 700,000 and a million workers in the early summer would create real pressure on the bigger unions to join in in the autumn.

In a situation balanced between the rising anger among millions of workers and the conservatism of large parts of the trade union bureaucracy, which plays on the still very real lack of confidence of workers after decades of defeats, socialists have an immense responsibility.

We have to argue for national action, coordinated wherever possible, inside our unions while also delivering local action whenever we can, as we saw with the joint strikes by Tower Hamlets council workers and teachers together with teachers in Camden in the week that followed the TUC march.

Alongside this socialists need to be fighting to develop resistance to every cutback in local services and attack on the NHS. We need to develop a “culture of resistance” that feeds into the workplace and can create networks of solidarity with any groups of workers that fight back.

Mass strikes can break the coalition’s austerity drive, destroy their political will and raise the spectre of a revival of working class militancy. Their nightmare must be our ambition.

Mark L Thomas

Labour’s debate

A battle is taking place over how the Labour Party should position itself over the government’s drive for austerity. Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership are increasingly caught between calls to give some expression to the rising opposition to the cuts, not least to secure votes, and pressure to show that they can be trusted with putting the interests of big business first.

So Ed Miliband launched Labour’s local election campaign with a pledge that “Labour will be your community’s first line of defence against the damage being done by a Conservative-led government and their Liberal Democrat allies.”

This came after Ed Miliband became the first Labour leader for decades to address a major demonstration – and not just any demonstration, but the largest trade union organised demonstration in British history. And he wasn’t alone: significantly there were 70 Labour Party banners on the march.

Nevertheless, Labour’s attitude remains full of contradictions. Not one Labour council has voted against implementing cuts. Instead, as Miliband put it, “we want to…share the burden of cuts as fairly as possible.”


The media constantly demands that Labour demonstrates its economic “credibility” – a code for the complete acceptance of the need for swingeing cuts. This is one form of the pressure on Ed Miliband not to carry through his limited break with New Labour’s legacy over Iraq into the realm of social and economic policy.

This is echoed inside Labour by the Blairite old guard, led by David Miliband, who are determined that Labour should give no ground to any hint of a return to anything that smacks of “Old Labour” class politics.

David Miliband gave a widely overlooked but important speech at the London School of Economics in early March in which he argued that only the politics of Blairism can deliver success for Labour-type parties across Europe: “It is not the new doctrines of the 1990s that made these parties [ie social democratic parties] unviable; it is that these doctrines staved off unviability… The good things about progressive politics in the 1990s…are the basis of winning again.”

Such arguments are expressed by the academic Maurice Glasman, who argues for “Blue Labour”. Glasman was recently ennobled by Ed Miliband. Blue Labour is styled as an answer to David Cameron’s “Big Society”, and aims to court the much admired “squeezed middle”. Glasman argues that Labour “need[s] to get away from this obsession with absolute fairness, with material equality”.

Yet Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership continue to accept many of the Blairites’ arguments about the decline of class in British society. So Peter Hain, chair of Labour’s national policy forum, has produced a report on “Refounding Labour” which floats the idea that Labour supporters who are not members of the party should be given a vote in the Labour leadership elections and possibly over policy too. The aim is to further weaken the influence of the unions inside the party, widely seen as decisive in swinging the last leadership election for Ed rather than David.

Hain explicitly justifies this move by pointing to the fall in union membership, pointedly saying that “If unions could rebuild their membership they would speak with a stronger voice in society… Despite improved union recognition rights under Labour they have been unable to do so.” At the very least the TUC demonstration should give Hain pause for thought about the union’s potential to “speak with a stronger voice”.

Yet the irony is that Labour’s vote at the general election was a class vote. The real threat of a Tory victory drove millions of working class voters to support Labour at the polls. Despite everything, around 9 million people still voted Labour last May, and though this remains one of Labour’s worst ever performances at polls it was clearly better than many in the Labour leadership expected and crucially it was enough to deprive the Tories of an overall majority. Labour claims to have 50,000 new members since last May, as a layer of people look to it as a shield against the open class enemy, the Tories.

The continuing links between the working class and Labour, however frayed, mean that their arguments still get a hearing among workers. Socialists need to engage with these arguments confidently and argue for a complete break with New Labour’s acceptance of the market and for a return to class politics.

Jack Farmer

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