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Blowing Their Winnings

Marc Mulholland

The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010, by Selina Todd, John Murray, 456 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1848548817

In this brightly written, flesh-and-blood history of the British working class, Selina Todd eschews recondite theorising about what “class” might actually mean. She rejects at least the egregious excesses of postmodern history: class, she insists, “was not simply a cultural identity, to be chosen or discarded on a whim”. Though she does refer to the working class in objective terms – wage-earners rather than owners of productive property ‑ it is clear that she sees it as primarily as a relational category, inferior to and exploited by the rich. Her emphasis is on working class weakness. “What really made people working class,” Todd argues, was “the fact that they lacked power.” This, perhaps, is not a surprising judgement for the historian of the British working class.

There has never been, in the classical sociological sense, a more proletarian nation that Great Britain in the twentieth century. For over a century from the 1840s, the percentage of British workers in manufacturing remained remarkably steady, between about thirty-five and forty per cent. But equally there was never an episode when the British working class appeared able to challenge the social order itself. Germany had a worker-led revolution in November 1918, and until elections to a constituent assembly in February 1918 it was run by the workers’ councils, making it, in effect, a soviet republic. Italy’s sit-down strikes of September 1920 seemed to put the country on the brink of socialist revolution. Austria’s Red Vienna rose up in an armed last stand against quasi-fascist authoritarianism in 1934. France had the great strike wave following the general election victory of the Popular Front in 1935. Spain’s Civil War saw a moment of social revolution, with worker militias controlling the streets. Even Ireland had the 1913 Dublin lockout. Northern Ireland’s insurgencies of Catholic working class districts from 1968 to 1972 and the loyalist Ulster Workers Council general strike of 1974 were, in their own ways, striking examples of proletarian agency. Almost all these outbreaks had something in common: a feeling that the traditional elites, mired in unearned privilege and power, had brought disaster down on the heads of their society, or simply had no idea how to cope humanely with the demands of a modern society.

We have to go back to the Chartist era of the 1830s and 1840s to find anything of the same scale of heroism, threat and tragedy in British working class history. The closest we come to it in the twentieth century is the general strike of 1926. And this wasn’t actually “general” (the Trade Union Congress general council always referred to it as a “national” strike). Only a limited group of industries were called out: railway and other transport workers, iron and steel workers, builders, printing trades. It was called off after nine days and saw little by way of even rhetorical threat to the established order.

Beyond that, the history of the working class in Britain has been one marked by a definitely deferential cast of mind. Until the twentieth century, most radical workers supported the Liberal Party. When Liberalism slipped into third place after the Great War, much of this vote went Labour, which also sucked up a good deal of a formerly Tory working class vote. This combination does much to explain Labour’s notably uncritical attitude towards the constitutional structure of the United Kingdom until the advent of New Labour in the 1990s at least. And a great deal of the Conservative vote – usually about a half – came from the working class throughout the twentieth century.

The deference – if that is the right word – of the working class in Britain was first recorded in a reasonably scientific manner in 1949. David Glass’s research team conducted a pioneering survey on “social mobility in Britain”. They found an almost universal endorsement, shared across all classes, of the meritocratic ideal, whereby differences in individual wealth and power are justified as resulting from hard work, effort and talent. This of course meant that the British working class accepted inequality in so far as privilege was earned. A poll on “just desserts” commissioned by Will Hutton for a 2010 book confirmed that the picture had changed little.

It seems likely that this ethic stretches back to the nineteenth century. It certainly impressed foreign observers, who found Britain to be peculiarly meritocratic avant la lettre. Max Hoelz, a proletarian leader of ultra-left fighting detachments in post-First World War Germany, recalled nostalgically his pre-war sojourn in England:

In England, where I was applying for a job, no one asked me who my father was, what schools I had attended, or whether I was a Jew or a gentile. … In England a man was taken for what he was. He was judged according to his own ability, and not according to the profession or the position of his father.

This wouldn’t have surprised Karl Marx, who in the 1870s argued that the working class shared prevalent norms of “fair distribution” that “recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but … tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege”.

The British working class has always respected “unique individual endowment” and only bucked against inequality when its “betters” appeared to have unearned privilege. Radicalisation was most evident immediately after the First World War due to resentment a profiteers who had made easy money from state-guaranteed contracts for munitions and other war matériel. Such radicalism remained evident for the entire interwar period in mining communities, which bitterly resented the dunderheaded authority of mine-owners who just happened to possess land rich in coal deposits. Notably, the miners were perhaps the only section of the labour force to consistently favour nationalisation of their industry. The general strike, which was impressive in its solidarity, speaks volumes of the contempt in which mine-owners were held in by almost the entire working class.

The inter-war decline of heavy industry in the north and west, with all the attendant misery of unemployment, did seem to lead to a more general class resentment, but not to rebellion. Workers felt demoralised but not evidently outraged at mismanagement. Indeed, managers and owners seemed more helpless than wicked. Jack Wylie, who worked in the shipyards on Tyneside in the 1930s, recalled that it was foremen who “had a lot of power and were able to hire and fire men without recourse to the management”. Men would give their foremen presents – a packet of Woodbines with a ten shilling note tucked in, garden produce – in the hope of keeping their jobs. Managers as such were more irrelevant than wicked.

It took the Second World War, which proved that national management could ensure full employment, to convince the working class, almost in its entirety, to vote Labour in 1945. At the same time, this was no revolutionary upsurge: the working class unquestionably saw itself at one with the rest of the nation in having fought a war for liberty and democracy. (Todd is surely wrong to argue that “The harsh truth was that many British workers weren’t sure that Nazi tyranny would be any worse than the poverty they had already endured in the name of ‘democracy’.” In fact, workers were at least as attached to liberty in its own right as the middle classes.) The nation recognised the centrality of the manual working class to the war effort. During the conflict, manual earnings more than trebled, with the unskilled and semi-skilled winning the biggest increases.

As Todd shows, the Labour victory was very definitely not a rejection of inequality as such. “The top-down nature of Labour’s reforms, with its emphasis on managers and planners, emphasized a distinct role for the educated middle class.” The “People” who were victorious were not just the workers, but the professional and managerial middle classes too, united by a belief that state intervention could sweep away the sheer inefficiency of an economy based on rewarding property ownership regardless of talent. The New Jerusalem was quite deliberately an alliance of the working and middle class. Labour sought to maintain this through gentle social engineering. Public housing estates very deliberately included higher quality homes to house professionals and thereby add leaven to the working class lump. It was only from the 1960s that social housing lost its middle class residents.

The postwar boom saw levels of unemployment running at less than 2 per cent between 1948 and 1970. This had profound importance for working class morale, as Labour MP Charles Pannell predicted in 1948: “Full employment means a regular wage at the end of the week … But it can mean something more … It means that the great bulk of the self-respecting working classes … can stand on their feet in the full stature of manhood and be men on their feet rather than toadies on their knees.” Workers could “shop around” for jobs. “Now the boys interview the Boss,” the Daily Mirror remarked in 1955. There was pressure on employers to show their mettle.

But this turn revalidated the middle and ruling classes as having earned their superiority, to the Conservative Party’s advantage. Even at this time of class alignment in voting patterns, many workers still voted Tory. In the 1955 general election – during which the Tories offered a vision of a “property-owning” rather than a wage-earning democracy – 9 per cent of the Conservative voters were from the wealthiest class, 31 per cent from the middle class, 48 per cent from the working class and 12 per cent from the poorest classes. The comparable figures for Labour support were near zero per cent, 9 per cent, 65 per cent and 26 per cent. Fifteen per cent of all trade unionists voted Conservative.

It became clear by the 1960s, however, that the British middle classes were failing to modernise the nation. Todd shows that the rising militancy of the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s owed much to workers’ belief that Britain’s managerial elite was stubbornly inefficient and deserving of no respect. Industrial militancy was often in reaction to incompetent bosses and about workers demanding “greater control of their lives”. Still, though there was a spike in demands for “workers’ control” in the 1970s, these did not survive the decade. In 1977, Lord Bullock – the historian and Master of St Catherine’s College, Oxford ‑ chaired a government inquiry which recommended the placing of representatives of trade unions in equal numbers to shareholders on the boards of any large private sector company employing at least two thousand people. The trade unions, led by the engineers, the general and municipal workers and the electricians, rejected the idea. One problem here was size: trade union representation on the boards of mammoth enterprises could hardly be anything other than an enticement for bureaucrats to buy into the objectives of managers and shareholders. Perhaps more fundamentally, many trade unionists rightly felt that traditional industries were sinking ships and were unwilling to go down with them.

The New Right largely agreed with workers that existing industrial management was inefficient, and in the 1980s the Thatcher government welcomed, even at an atrocious cost in unemployment and collapsed industries, the forced-pace reallocation of resources from lame-duck industries to the burgeoning services sector. At least in the first half of Margaret Thatcher’s administration she had a good deal of working class support for her campaign against the sclerotic old order. The mammoth industrial plants, jointly run in effect by sectional trade unions and lazily patrician mangers, were broken down. Workplaces markedly reduced in size as large organisations reorganised their structures and outsourced.

By 2011 only one in 11 (9 per cent) of the British labour force worked in manufacturing industry, just ahead of the 8 per cent in construction. Four out of five (81 per cent) worked in the services sector. As Todd shows, the nature of “services” has changed. We are no longer talking about a “class apart” of domestic servants and shop workers. Now about, 4.2 million people, 16 per cent of the working population and about a fifth of everyone working in service industries, is employed in wholesale retail and distribution, including care and maintenance of vehicle fleets. Services are a mass employer, but organisationally fragmented.

There was a collapse in demand for unskilled labour from the 1970s as such work was increasingly automated. A certain residuum, lacking social skills, became more or less unemployable. On the other end of the working class, pressure piled onto those with skills, who were in an increasingly competitive environment. By 2008, about 30 per cent of the workforce was overeducated for their jobs, and this percentage has undoubtedly risen since the 2008 Great Recession. Increasingly, the “efficiency wage” – the strictly market wage plus a premium to encourage job loyalty – shifted away from the skilled manual worker to highly skilled professionals and executives. Printers in the 1980s, before technological changes, could earn as much as doctors due to their ability to literally stop the presses. Such workers with an ability to halt entire systems are now rare – perhaps the London Tube workers are the last major hold-outs.

This new order puts a premium on professional and managerial competence, and this tends to reduce working class hostility to their privileges. For specialists, professionals and middle-management, the pace and monitoring of work increased markedly. Today, almost half of UK managers work an extra day of unpaid overtime per week. They feel justified in their wealth – they believe themselves to be “the real workers” – and are generally felt to be deserving of higher salaries by those worse off. If the working classes generally admire the hard work and commitment of the bourgeoisie, the feeling is not mutual. A 2011 survey of attitudes found the working class associated with such words as “lazy” “greedy” and “drug-users”, the middle class with “hardworking” “effort” and “talent”. This stereotyping is delusional, but says much about a worker tradition now either patronised or held in open contempt.

This cultural shift derives from real economic changes. Marketisation means that key-workers with rare skills are now fought over in the job market, leading to a “winner-take-all” economy. Such skills are “positional goods” that cannot be other than rare if they are to provide any edge in the market. They need not even be tangible skills: most individuals with a “reputation” are simply a product of being in the right place at the right time in an already strong firm, but they can give a headhunting corporate employer that key market advantage. This obsession with lavishly rewarding so-called “talent” can and did lead to disaster, with the 2008 recession being largely due to the egregious bonuses and uncontrolled excesses of highly remunerated whiz kids. Though the recession in Britain hit both wages and profits as productivity plunged, the rich remain rich and it is the average worker who has had to bear most of the pain since.

Oddly for a historian bent of bringing attention to their powerlessness, Todd is notably hostile to voluntaristic alternatives to state-centred welfarism. “Self-help was no real alternative to state assistance, and no substitute for a living wage,” she writes. But the labour movement historically saw full employment precisely as an alternative to demoralising state dependency, and the living wage as the basis for self-help. State assistance, unless it encourages self-help, is the road to powerlessness.

Todd points out a brief moment when the British working class appeared to be far from helpless: around 1919, when industrial militancy put the middle classes in “fear of the working class and of what they were capable”. This was also the high point of “The Movement” and the “guild socialist” ideas put forward by GDH Cole and his comrades. In these heady days trade union shop stewards took to the idea of fighting for the intriguing idea of “Collective Contract and Encroaching Control”. By this was meant workers in an enterprise bargaining with their employers as a whole for a collective price for any job they were asked to do, either by state or capitalist. Workers would then divide the proceeds according to principles fixed by themselves, and would appoint their own managers. The aim was to “wrest bit by bit the functions of management out of the hands of the employers”.

Cole himself moved away from these ideas as industrial militancy was defeated and the great industrial conglomerations appeared beyond any plausible control by any but highly paid experts. But he was never happy with this retreat to industrial serfdom, no matter how prettified and garlanded by flowers. In 1958, at the very end of his life, Cole perceived dimly but hopefully a “retreat from bigness” in the economy opening up new possibilities for the “federalists” of socialism. He saw clearly. While ownership of capital continues to concentrate, only about 28 per cent of private sector enterprises that recruit workers now employ more than fifty people and only 5 per cent employ more than two hundred and fifty. These days really large workplaces are typically found in the public sector – universities, hospitals, and so on ‑ but even here fragmentation into sections is the norm. As a result, the old days, characterised by chronic rent-seeking industrial action by well-positioned elite workers, are past. But, as we see in the rise since 2008 of self-employment ‑ which is partly but not entirely a function of employers shredding fixed contracts ‑ the desire to be one’s own boss remains strong.

Will wage-earners long continue to take for granted powerlessness in the small and medium-size workplaces? Cooperative pooling of management skills and contracts negotiated by stakeholders rather than shareholders is already evident in IT start-ups and retail organisations such as John Lewis Partnership. It’s symptomatic that even the Conservatives celebrate cooperatives, at least rhetorically, as an alternative to the big state. History has shown that it’s not unusual for worker movements to begin where bourgeois reformers leave off. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party has promised that cooperatives and mutually-owned enterprises will be able to bid for state contracts, including even those for the railways when their disastrous privatisation contracts come to an end. These intimations of “democratic renewal” are straws in the wind. How much stronger might the wind blow if an active worker movement ceased merely shoring up welfarism and wage labour and instead set out to win boldly transformative ambition for social change?

Todd has running through her book the life story of one worker, Vivian Asprey. It’s an arresting but mostly unedifying tale of individualistic amorality. Viv would lie to her parents, telling them that because her husband didn’t work she needed the old dears to mind the kids while she took a job. In fact, her husband was working overtime, and Viv just wanted to go out on the town. Subsequently Viv won the pools, lived the high life, and blew all her winnings. A class that doesn’t seek to control its own means of life, even if individual members chance across opportunities for individual licence, will always blow its winnings.

Marc Mulholland teaches history at the University of Oxford. His most recent books are Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservatism (OUP, 2012), Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2013) and Terence O’Neill (University College Dublin Press, 2013).