Saturday, May 14, 2016

But Which People? (2016)

Book Review from the May 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class'. By Selina Todd. (John Murray £10.99)

This is intended as a history of the working class in the UK from 1910 to 2010. Although Todd’s view of who counts as working class is not always clear, she appears to see it as primarily manual workers, so only part of the story is presented here. However, she is quite right when she describes class as ‘a relationship defined by unequal power, rather than a way of life or an unchanging culture’. 

The narrative she provides can be summarised as follows. In the early part of the last century, there were nearly one and a half million domestic servants, the largest group of workers. Factory workers tended to be regarded as unskilled (and so lower-paid) if any of their work involved using machinery. In the First World War, domestic servants almost disappeared as women went to work in munitions factories and joined unions; they often resented being forced back into ‘service’ after the war. The defeat of the General Strike meant that the labour movement supposedly became committed to constitutional change, with workers’ strength not being used as a political weapon.

The thirties saw Depression, unemployment and the Means Test, and the number of servants increased slightly, as women whose fathers were out of work had to find employment somewhere. Families were broken up, and many people slid down the social ladder, with apprenticeships rarely leading to a skilled job. By the mid-thirties, things were improving for many workers, though by no means all. Mass production on assembly lines was a new development, imported from the US.

The Second World War was ‘the people’s war’, and many workers benefited from increased wages and job security. Their lives improved even more after the war, with higher wages and ‘full employment’. One area where there was little progress, however, was housing, with not enough houses built and council housing generally inferior to private building. By 1951, the metal industry employed 15 percent of male workers. By the late fifties, many working-class families experienced a reasonable standard of living, but only if they had two parents working overtime and relying on debt, especially hire purchase.

From around that same time a cultural revolution took place, by which being working class supposedly became fashionable (as seen in novels such as Room at the Top). In the late sixties, workers became readier to strike for higher wages, and many women got involved in rent strikes as council rents rose. In the eighties, the government attacked unions, most notably in the miners’ strike, and cut social security, leading to increases in inequality. It was no longer clear that children could look forward to better lives than their parents had known. By 2000, 70 percent of workers were employed in non-manual work, yet a growing number of people saw themselves as working class.

As this suggests, there is a lot of useful material here, enlivened by reference to, and quotes from, surveys and interviews with workers, many carried out by Mass Observation. But there is an unfortunate tendency to romanticise the post-1945 era and exaggerate its ongoing effect on the lives of the great majority. We are told that ‘[b]etween 1945 and 1951 the lives of working-class people greatly improved’, but then that ‘the 1950s were a decade of insecurity and fear for many people’. And the book is a bit naive in places, such as the claim that by the end of the seventies the main political parties had made a ‘decision to govern in favour of capitalists rather than in the interests of the majority of the electorate’: when was it ever any different?

An afterword takes the story up to 2015, and is in some ways rather more convincing, as in the statement that ‘class arises from the conflicts between different groups, who are defined primarily by their relationship to the means of production. In capitalism, the profits of the few depend on the exploitation of the many’. A consistent approach to class, with little or no reference to a vaguely-defined middle class, would have made this a better book. 
Paul Bennett

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