In this blog, I want to begin talking about class and social democratic futures. Since we all begin our understanding of social class through our own sense of our relationship to the rest of the world, let me begin with an autobiographical statement. I was born in the mid-1980s to a teenage mum and a dad who was barely into his twenties. We were always poor – my parents would often skip meals to provide for their baby (for me). By the time we moved from the West Country to South Wales right at the end of the decade, dad had got a stable job at quite a famous restaurant outside Cardiff, and mum stayed home to look after us. They had both gone to catering college, so it could have been the other way around. The move to the valleys was fortuitous because in those days children from Rhondda Cynon Taff could start school at three (they can’t any more, the Labour council abolished the scheme). It eased the burden on mum and gave her, aged twenty-three, freedom for the first time since she was seventeen. She eventually got a job at the primary school my sister and I went to, it was the only job she ever did.
The village was a former mining community – the pit closed twelve months before we moved in – with a rich and appealing history. Life in the valley can be documented over a thousand years and with Roman roads and iron age hill forts (of sorts), the human story is even older still. But what I remember is poverty. The kind of poverty that would not be out of place in the End of Eddy, for instance. It was the sort of poverty that expressed itself in queues outside the public telephone boxes in the village (there were only a handful to choose from); in the distinct bounce of the stamp on the family allowance book at the Post Office, the tear of the perforation, and the speed with which every mother put it into her purse even though it was the same amount of money; and in the buy as you view boxes attached to most televisions in the village. Into them went a pound coin, on came the television, and a fraction of the interest rate charged on a television was ticked off. The local rugby team was sponsored by the main company – Just Rentals (later it became Buy As You View). There was nothing equitable about it, of course, but the measure of the way in which this kind of hire-purchase credit captured post-industrial South Wales lies in the 100,000 customers the company had as recently as 2010. It went bust last year. And there were the mail order catalogues, like Kays, through which clothes and toys were bought on credit. We evaded Just Rentals, but the Kays catalogue was far too useful.
It was that kind of poverty. That kind of working-class consumerism on credit which appealed past the male breadwinner to working-class women who wanted to provide the best they could on the slimmest of budgets. Kays allowed you to pay off sums that today seem paltry – £7.99 here or £5.99 there – over twenty weeks at seemingly affordable rates. A sweater priced at £7.99, say, would be paid off over that period at 40p a week. Christmas was arranged in similar ways with women grouping together to start a savings club, usually based around one of the famous hamper companies. Another catalogue, another line of credit, of course. Similar impulses drove lottery syndicates which flourished, for a while, after the launch of the National Lottery in 1994. It was a major event watched for posterity on television. It was the 1990s, I tell myself today.
For scholars, and readers, of a certain age, some of this will bring back memories. Perhaps nostalgic ones. Historians have long written about working-class consumer credit, about the role of women in managing household budgets, on the value of education for younger children and the commensurate freedoms provided to women, and so on. Eventually those themes will catch up with the 1990s too. But there’s a bigger question to be posed, which is about social class, and the ways in which historians formed in that period as children and young adults might come to think about the world now that we are in our thirties. Class matters but perhaps in ways not anticipated by historical materialism or its post-modern reaction, or the compromises reached between the warring factions after the linguistic and cultural turns in the 1980s and 1990s. None of which had any real impact on life as we knew it, but which has now hit the media like a storm of snowflakes.
My thoughts on this have been framed by literature emerging from France, from that remarkable set of books produced by Edouard Louis, Didier Eribon, Annie Ernaud, and Arthur Dreyfus, amongst others. Between them, in different ways, and for different reasons, they have exposed the relationships between class, gender, sexuality, generation, and locality, that relates intersectionality but also something more fruitful – social violence. In an intellectual sense, this can also be related to the work of Geoffroy de Lagasnerie. There is no immediate contemporary comparator either in the Welsh context or in the British one, unfortunately, although Raymond Williams is a clear starting point historically, but sometimes it is worth stepping outside what you know to look upon it with different eyes. Just how can we restore social class to the discussion and in so doing engage in the act of, as Eribon has put it,
[elaborating] theoretical frameworks and … political modes of perceiving reality that enable not an erasure – that would be an impossible task -, but as great a neutralization as possible of the negative passions that are at work within the social body, especially within the popular classes. Other perspectives must be offered and a different future sketched out on behalf of what might then deservedly once again be called the left.
Class is central to such a project. Having been abandoned by mainstream social democratic politics (and history) in the 1980s and 1990s, as they struggled to find ways of beating back the post-conservative neo-liberal revolution, class re-entered the political stream during the Great Recession which began a decade ago. It provided two answers: that of the far right (UKIP and the Front National) and that of the old Left. The centre – identified with moderate social democrats, liberals, and centre-right “one nation” conservatives – crumbled away, although they were hardly innocent of their own downfall. It’s not difficult to see the similarities in language, particularly around class. Both the old Left and the far right appeal to working-class voters seemingly on their own terms. A little over ten years after the British National Party was on the march and Billy Bragg was singing tunes like “All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose” (a twist on a Guthrie classic), BNP policy is now mainstream – cut immigration, re-introduce grammar schools, withdraw from the EU at any cost, English Votes for English Laws, and a more traditional school curriculum.
And think it’s just from the Right, think again. Here’s the BNP on the NHS in 2005: ‘we are wholly committed to a free, fully funding National Health Service for all British citizens … we do not put enough money into “front-end” staff’. They proposed to get rid of targets, to boost pay, to be given ‘interest free mortgages from the government to buy houses’, and to pay nurses a ‘decent wage during their training’. There was a commitment to ‘properly fund and upgrade Britain’s public-transport facilities to get people out of their cars’, and a denunciation of ‘the fiasco of rail privatisation’. They even offered full rail electrification. Starting to sound a bit familiar, isn’t it? And it is not just the left-populism, there’s also the shrill antagonism towards the media. The 2005 manifesto warned about a ‘media “elite” [who] have lied and conned us’. Think about that next time you see someone, a Corbynite MP for instance, decrying that sort of thing. The reason they do so is not because they necessarily believe in the validity of that accusation but because of its political appeal, it is a performative act as Judith Butler might put it, and it has made the media far worse. Whatever the claims of the current Labour Party’s leadership, and its online media spin houses such as Novara, Britain has not moved a single notch to the left in the last ten years.
As sensible as those policies seem when spoken from the left, there can be no doubting that some of the foundations of the groundswell of support for the kind of left-populism that Jeremy Corbyn now offers was made in the North, in South Wales, and elsewhere, not by Momentum but by the brief wave of BNP support in the mid-noughties. The racist elements ended up in UKIP, wedded to anti-immigration policies and Brexit, the left-populists had to wait a little longer to find their champion. He too speaks about Brexit. It’s an uncomfortable assessment, but one that is difficult to deny because of the reasons for its existence in the first place. That comes down to class. Through the BNP, UKIP, and more recently Corbynite Labour, those who were once invisible thanks to “the end of class” discourse of New Labour and post-Thatcher conservatism, seemed to be seen again. In Edouard Louis’ words, ‘these people support the FN because they’re excluded, dominated, poor and abandoned’. They vote for people who can talk like them, as he concludes.
But is such an appeal really the way forward, a means of developing a new mode of politics and intellectualism? I don’t think so. It’s all very flimsy and based on promises, on discourse, on never actually having to act. It’s the kind of rejectionism that startled Labour in the 1920s and 1930s but which never seriously challenged their authority in industrial areas. It is an electoral bubble waiting to burst. There are too many ironies. A movement rife with gerontophobia and a disgust at the baby boomers but which has built a leadership cult around a sixty-nine-year-old baby boomer and a theme tuned dating to 2003. A movement that claims to provide answers to the present, but which is supported by an intellectual wing determined to right the wrongs of the 1970s and 1980s and to admonish the myths that arose thanks to Thatcherism and New Labour. But any power shift will fall on the shoulders not of those born in the 1990s and 2000s, but those who grew up in those decades – the thirty somethings whose views are rarely canvassed and who have been hit by the worst exegeses of post-Thatcherism and the Great Recession. For those born in the mid-1980s, to make this point as clear as possible, Section 28 was a factor of our entire school career. (Don’t take my word for it, Andrew McMillan has set it out brilliantly here)
The project to articulate the meanings of class, to clear out the negativity of isolation and rejectionism, on the one hand, and of populism on the other, must inevitably fall to us. We are the pivot. My purpose in this revitalised History On The Dole is to begin to fashion some of my own ideas about this project, to discuss books that I’ve been reading, and to provide something more constructive to the debate about the future of both this country and its (at present wayward) social democratic idealism. It is my belief that Britain can once again be Labour Country, but we’re further from that reality that many imagine we are.
To be continued…