Lindsey German on class, leadership and this week's strikes
I once took part in a radio programme about class in which pupils at Roedean, one of the most expensive girls’ public boarding schools, talked about their parents not being really rich. They all compared themselves to people much richer than they were, and sometimes even regarded their own families as not very well off. Yet the fees their parents paid were in the tens of thousands a year – as much as many people earn in total. They judged themselves not in terms of how much better off than most people they were, but in terms of how much less wealthy they were than the super-rich like the Beckhams or Rupert Murdoch.
I was reminded of this by the reaction to the Labour manifesto launch.
'The suggestion that Labour’s manifesto might actually be popular with voters is bound to surprise FT readers, many of whom will see its prospectus as little more than a throwback to the economics of the 1970s….The uncomfortable truth, however, is that a lot of voters believe the time has come to reverse the Thatcherite legacy.’
This from a Financial Times article a few days ago sits alongside the startling intervention from the man on Question Time who claimed that even though he earned over £80,000 a year this didn’t put him in the top half of earners in Britain. In reality, it puts him in the top 5% - people who can well afford to pay the very modest increases in tax suggested.
What both attitudes suggest however is class differences which are too often overlooked by the political pundits, and a degree of ignorance and insouciance about the state of those who are on lesser incomes.
First, the class differences: only in very rare instances do working class people hit this top bracket. Even in traditionally professional jobs such as doctors, lawyers, accountants and university lecturers, it is only those in the higher echelons – and often those in high managerial positions – who are in danger of paying a bit more tax. Look at it another way – 95% of people have incomes way below £80k.
Secondly, the ignorance and insouciance: most people on these incomes don’t really have much idea of what it’s like to be on the average wage or below it, let alone on benefits, homeless or dependent on food banks. The millions of children living in poverty, the parents doing two or three jobs, the people trapped in unemployment because their bus service has been cut, all of these are out of sight and out of mind.
These are the people who drive buses and lorries, who clean houses, who look after children, who pick crops, who work in hospitals, who serve coffee, who work in shops. They are on low wages – some on minimum or below, often depending on in-work benefits, struggling to pay for school uniforms or trips, having to care for elderly parents.
And these are the people who would benefit from Labour’s manifesto. This is about the very rich but also sections of the middle classes paying a bit more to restore elements of a civilised society through public provision. Britain is a broken and damaged society after decades of Thatcherism, and acquiescence in much of this by Blairism. Labour is quite right to say the scale of the problems demands a lot of spending and urgent action.
One reason why we have reached this state of affairs where the richest and most influential people in society are very relaxed about inequality and poverty on record scales is because a highly successful element of Thatcherism was the attack on the unions. They are still hampered by anti-union laws which Labour must repeal (and not just the 2016 act which effectively outlaws much industrial action). At present the manifesto does not have a firm commitment to this, and it really has to restore the right to withdraw one’s labour.
So working class people have found their organisations weakened. It looks to me that there are signs of change here. University lecturers are on strike in 60 institutions for 8 days starting today, communications workers and tube cleaners both voted overwhelmingly for strike action – although stymied by the law for now – and there have been strikes by FE college teachers, hospital workers and civil servants in recent weeks.
I think whatever happens in the election this agitation will continue. We shouldn’t underestimate either that the objections to Labour are not just about paying a bit more tax. Many of those who own industry or manage it are fearful that a Corbyn victory will unleash demands for real change in society – and that petrifies them. Bring it on.
Winners and losers
The Question Time leaders’ debate was a pretty accurate reflection of their qualities. Jeremy Corbyn was impressive and did well, despite the aggressive Tory question on antisemitism. Nicola Sturgeon ditto, despite her very mainstream policies aside from independence. Jo Swinson also showed her true colours which weren’t pretty. I notice she’s a bit more modest in her expectations since – so she’s not going to be prime minister. Who knew? As for Johnson… well really. He looks like he’s out of his head, and shifty with it. And he really can’t deal with ordinary people.
The takeaway from it by the BBC was of course that the audience won, rather than give credit to anyone but Johnson. And the obsession with Corbyn saying he would stay neutral in campaigning in a second referendum. Not a great position, but not bad given the People's Vote crowd have saddled him with too much of a Remain policy. Which leads me to the polls. The Tories are way ahead but mainly because they have eaten up the Brexit party (Farage seems to have wrecked his second party), but even with this it doesn’t seem accurate to me. I can see Labour losing seats over Brexit, but also can see them winning in some marginals. Crucial to this is hitting the Lib Dems who are already going down.
There will be UCU picket lines across the country this week and next, plus the climate strike by school students on Friday. These are not separate from the election but part of the argument for change. Make sure you get down to support them, and prepare for the following week, when Donald Trump and the Nato crew hit town.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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