Progressive politics has to talk about class and race, and challenge the false divisions of the right
The National, 24 May 2022
These are divisive times in politics and public life; strident voices stoking division are all around. Many of them tell us that the age we live is shaped by “culture wars” and “cancel culture”.
Cheap talk is everywhere – surrounded by noise, charge and counter-charge. New media platforms like Rupert Murdoch’s Talk TV assist loud men such as Piers Morgan to broadcast their ill-informed opinions to the world – even when there is next to no audience.
At the same time, how division is talked about and understood has become more problematic. This is true across many areas of life, and particularly in how we frame issues of class and race.
Last week the centre-left Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) think-tank released The UK Race-Class Narrative Report which explored this terrain and conducted extensive polling and interviews. This illuminates how people see class and race, how it is framed in politics and media, and the consequences in how we conduct ourselves in a divided society.
First, it found significant support across the UK public for progressive positions. Thus 58% of respondents said people of colour face greater barriers than white people; 60% think focusing on and talking about race is necessary to advance greater equality; 60% think working class struggles are due to the unfair nature of society; and 65% think wealthy people are wealthy because they know how to use opportunities not because they are more talented or work harder.
Second, dig deeper into the research and it throws light on how people see class in the UK. Class is not understood in relation to inequality and power but as a ladder to climb that is more difficult for many. It is seen as a system with rankings and hierarchies that is rigged against most people.
Third, key in all of the above is understanding the diverse nature of the working class – in age, occupation, background, gender, race and ethnicity. Terms such as “the white working class” are divisive, loaded and racialised, deliberately dividing the working class by race.
Fourth, class is enduring – despite decades of mainstream politics and media trying to deny or dilute its relevance. This is not just politicians such as John Major proclaiming that he wanted to turn the UK into “a genuinely classless society” and Tony Blair saying that “I want to make you all middle class” but much more pervasive is how class is represented in media.
This typically links working class identity to ancient, obsolete images of cloth-capped men working in manufacturing industry in massive sized plants, usually with pictures of strikes, picket lines and tales of trade union power in the 1970s. The underlying message is that class and working class are relics from Britain’s past and that today we live in an age of individual aspiration and choice.
Hence one of the major takeaways from this report is the enduring nature of class, even though politics and media attempt to diminish and marginalise it, and to sell us a version of ourselves and society individualised, fragmented and divided, where we are all reduced to atomised customers. Increasingly this account has come up against the very different reality of the UK – even before the current cost of living crisis.
The CLASS report proposes that the language of the right – of talk about “culture wars” and “cancel culture” – seeks to disguise the fundamental divisions that exist in society and aims to prevent us holding those with power to account by inventing a whole host of spurious divisions which obfuscate matters of substance and galvinise the forces of reaction.
It is not surprising that right-wingers want to launch “culture wars”, defend statues the length and breadth of Britain and divert our gaze now. They have dominated the politics of economics for the past 40 years. The grim landscape we inhabit is a direct product of their dogmatic policies with rising poverty and hardship and millions of people unable to feed their families and heat their homes.
Rishi Sunak, the richest MP in the Commons and richest person to be Chancellor, cannot possibly grasp these realities as he is so far removed from them but also because he is a Thatcherite ideologue and product of corporate class groupthink. In this world “winners” matter – if you cannot eat or feed your family it is because you are a failure and it is your fault.
The CLASS report poses that the left across Britain needs a better set of stories to deal with the right’s “culture wars” and to talk about class and race. One aspect on the former is to talk about the issues which unite people and which people care about. But on this the left has shown an ill-ease and nervousness, similar to how it has approached class and race.
It is not enough in today’s insecure world just to talk about the abstracts of “inequality” and “privilege” – which are particular favourites of the left in their critique of neoliberalism. Most people do not see the world by such relational terms, and as for “neoliberalism”, very few people outside of the left-wing tent or academia has any grasp of what the term means.
The stakes are high in this terrain for get it wrong and the political discourse will be filled even more with angry white men blowing off with outrage about some petty injustice while not offering any insights into how society is run and how it could be changed for the better.
It is also not enough to hope as John Harris did in The Guardian yesterday that the serious times we are living in will produce a weariness for the superficial and a yearning for the substantial. That does not happen automatically; it has to be willed. And parts of the media have been over decades become even more trivial and blatant in their propaganda – witness the Mail and Express on Boris Johnson’s many crises.
The CLASS report shows that people still see themselves in terms of collective identities and want to see collective solutions as answers to the problems of the present. But this needs to be advocated, nurtured and advanced through accounts in which people can see themselves, allowing them to recognise that they have power and, as in previous generations, that they have the potential to change the nature of the economic and social order.
After forty years of a class politics of reaction and the right we have to restate the power of class and the working class, of trade unions and other organisations of workers and work. And that might be a problem for politicians, even on the centre-left in Scotland and the UK, who have grown up accommodating themselves to the politics of individualism in recent decades.