As part of its Race-Class Narrative project, the think tank CLASS have just published a new piece of research. They Look Down On Us challenges a number of misconceptions about the working class and concludes that two of its defining characteristics today are diversity and precarity.
The working class is far more diverse than other class groups, notes the think tank. It “cannot be characterised by a particular skin colour or ethnicity nor through stereotypes and cliches.”
Ellie Mae O’Hagan writes in the Foreword of the report: “The analysis CLASS has carried out shows that the British working class is depicted in the mainstream as white, usually male, and socially reactionary… According to the mainstream story, working class people are revolting against elite liberals or ‘woke bullies’ who heap privileges on undeserving minorities at the expense of salt-of-the-earth (or, more simply, white) working class people.”
She continues: “This story fails working class people. It does not depict the reality of working class life in the UK, which – more than any other social class – is defined by its diversity.”
From their research, CLASS conclude that seven in ten working-class people believe that the system is rigged against them. “Working-class life today is defined by precarity, prejudice, and a lack of place and power.”
Precarity is at the core of working-class life: the lack of a solid sense of security and safety, both economically and physically. Work insecurity is the norm for working class people and it’s increasing – at a rate of 200% compared to middle class jobs – “in almost every industry, in every region, age group, and disproportionately impacts working-class ethnic minorities and women.”
This is reinforced by prejudice and social stigma. “Every single person we spoke to mentioned an experience of prejudice in some form,” says the report. Unsurprisingly, this was most prevalent for people of colour and migrants.
Lack of Place is also a feature – working class people live in neglected and fractured communities, suffering exorbitant housing costs, a lack of collective spaces – especially for young people, loss of services and facilities or gentrification.
Lack of power and voice compounds these problems. All those interviewed felt this and concrete examples were cited of neglect and indifference by public services.
“Working-class identity is not strong right now,” concedes the report. Yet, while many people do not have a clear understanding what working class means and some of those interviewed felt it was a divisive term, potentially separating those in work from those on benefits, the research uncovers some grounds for optimism. “A shared working-class identity emerges from the shared values, challenges and experiences identified in this report. Above all, the diverse working class share desires including safety and security, decent livelihoods, jobs, housing, education and health and social care.”
The report concludes with some radical policy proposals to tackle the problems it identifies. These range from a New Deal for Workers, a Green New Deal and anti-poverty measures, including a right to food, through to the repeal of all anti-union laws, ring-fenced money for community spaces, public ownership of services and police reform.
It will be interesting to see if the mainstream media pay any attention to the report’s findings. Zoe Williams offered an excellent overview in the Guardian, in a piece that focused particularly on debunking the myth of the ‘white working class’ and how it had been exploited by right wing politicians. She concluded:
“Since the category itself – a non-diverse working class – was a fiction, it could never be meaningfully studied, and its views were instead ventriloquised by newspaper hunches and what politicians ‘heard on the doorstep’. It’s all been a giant confidence trick, to which the rebuttal is quite simple. If you want to talk about the working class, you need to say what it means, figure out who’s in it, and then ask them.”
They Look Down On Us is available here.
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