Over the past several decades of national (and international), social and political turmoil the popular media (Television, Radio, Newspapers, Magazines) has remained dominated by the opinions and assertions of the 20th century educated middle-classes. This is a mileu whose representatives already think they know what is right and wrong with the world, how it should be modified and ultimately what the world should look like in the future. Paid to sit around studio tables in front of cameras, they confidently express their opinions on every conceivable topic. Even when they disagree, they do so only on minor points and it becomes clear that the future they seek is one very much tailored to their own needs and desires.
Therefore it is not hard to deduce that the majority of them envisage a present and future world in which the working classes, dutifully produce all the goods and services necessary for a comfortable middle-class existence. Nor is it hard to deduce from their discussions that they have a shared expectation concerning working people now and in the future. It comprises of the following. That ordinary working people will deferentially accept the inferior remuneration and status granted to them for providing these much needed necessities and luxuries to the classes economically and socially ‘above’ them. At best they have a scenario in mind, which is very much in line with the post-Second World War consensus. In the UK, a sort of renewed ‘Spirit of 1945’ welfare condescension but with ample air miles, prestige cars and luxury hotels for those on higher incomes to ‘experience’.
The bulk of this class are employed in the middle to higher reaches of education, government, media, the arts, law, military, business and politics. Economically and socially they lie between the super rich and the relative poor. Hence, their middle-class status. In most cases, they have a prejudiced view of ordinary working people as being inferior, in intelligence, culture and motivation even though they rarely express this publicly. It is an attitude they share with those at the top of the wealth pyramid of the capitalist mode of production, who are also rarely openly candid about this prejudice. Only occasionally, does this prejudice get exposed publicly as when some working people are described as despicable or they are referenced as living in allegedly ‘shit-hole’ countries.
For this reason the nuanced views and opinions of working people (the ‘despicables’ in the US, or the Brexit/UKIP voters in the UK) are of little real interest to those who are rich, in government, in the media or in politics. By and large, these groups pretend to value working peoples ‘human rights’ but only as long as working people conform to their own neo-liberal, politicaly-correct world view of what is acceptable. Nevertheless, their combined actions speak louder than their frequent rhetorical words or occasional crocodile tears. Zero hours contracts, low pay and austere public services are an infringement of basic ‘human rights’ for working people, but little or nothing was done or said by this class to oppose them. Much earlier, the destruction of trade unions and the removal of free school milk for working class children under Thatcher brought forth no protest from this tier of UK society.
Middle-class complicity in the multiple denial of human rights for workers has been obvious for decades to anyone from the white-collar or blue-collar working class. It became glaringly obvious to those more recently born into the working class who complained and we’re ignored more recently at Grenfell Tower. Even the politicians who seek election or re-election by knocking on working class doors every five or so years to secure a much needed vote, merely listen politely – when they have to – and then pass on to canvas the next on their quinquennial ‘to do’ list. The reason is simple. Politicians of left, right or centre persuasions, don’t need to ask ordinary people or listen to them, because politico’s already know what’s best for us. They have already made their minds up on what we need or had them made up by their executive committees who finalised their election manifestos. You see they have already done the thinking for the rest of us.
The media, when it suits them, broadcast occasional events where ordinary people are allowed, in a controlled fashion, to put questions or venture a short opinion, to be ignored or cut off short as the time or inclination of those in control dictates. But that’s been about the best of it! At least until now! For in the UK a little light has been recently shed on the neglected voices of those at or near the bottom of the income and wealth pyramid.
Demos: and ‘Citizens Voices’.
Between October and December 2017, Sophie Gaston and Peter Harrison-Evans, on behalf of the organisation Demos, led an extensive series of focus groups across England, as part of the research for the project At Home in One’s Past. They have produced a report which gives voice to those citizens so often neglected. The report identifies the locations and participant mix as follows:
“These focus groups have convened a diverse mix of citizens by age, socio-economic status and ethnicity, however the majority of participants have been over-55s and White British. Locations have included a wide range of cities, towns and suburbs, such as Bermondsey in London, Havering, Birmingham, Leeds, Yorkshire, and Sunderland.” (Page 1.)
The title of the report (‘At home in One’s Past’) hints at a strong nostalgic emphasis for undertaking the research, but nevertheless as the authors conclude, the responses also produced valuable insights into “citizens’ perspectives on our contemporary politics, society and culture”. And it is this which to my mind throws a useful and most illuminating light on the current consciousness and understanding of ordinary working people – in their own words. I shall quote a selection of these views and opinions in roughly the same order as presented in the report and make brief comments upon them. However, even a condensed number of extracts from this useful report would make for a too long article so I will consider half of the published categories in this article and publish the rest at a later date. The words of the neglected voices will appear in italics and bounded by quotation marks.
“Years ago, there was thousands of jobs; loads of different factories, shipyards, coal mines and now there’s nothing at all.“
“The North-East, it was a big mining area. I mean, when I was small, my dad was a miner. All along the North-East there was all these coal mines.“
“They could open all the factories again […] It would give everybody like more job opportunities but then that gives us back our status as well.“
Although the heading is De-industrialisation, the real concern shown by these quotes is lack of jobs. From my own experience, the closure of mines, factories, shipyards, etc., would have not been a serious concern if these dirty, unhealthy, dangerous jobs had been replaced, one for one, by other forms of reasonably paid employment, but they weren’t. In fact the term De-industrialisation is only accurate when applied to the western hemisphere, since in many cases these industrial activities were shifted elsewhere on the planet where the returns on capital were higher. The planet is arguably far more industrialised now, than when the industrial revolution occurred in Britain and Europe and more than it was in the immediate post Second World War period.
On the lack of good jobs.
“There was no zero-hour contracts kicking about then, now there are loads kicking about and […] they’re not good jobs at all.“
“It was a time when you had pride in yourself when you had jobs like that.“
“It’s impossible today to get a job being a single mother. It really is, I’ve tried for years.“
“Jobs were secure then; no job is secure now.“
“I think the businesses as well, work on the basis that we can pay people a low salary, a low wage because it’s going to be made up by Government benefits.“
“I think things have changed a lot. When I got my degree, you felt like you were guaranteed a good job, whereas for lots of kids now, they’re coming out of university, working in call centres…Or you know, [they are] a lot less paid than you’d expect from a graduate.“
Again in this section of the focus group discussion, the central concern is still jobs, and in this case also secure jobs. Even some middle class graduates were (and are) experiencing the same difficulty in obtaining secure, well paid, meaningful employment. And the voices confirm that prospects of economic and social advancement have dwindled considerably, hence, for some, a hint of nostalga. Eg.
“My own parents, my dad was a docker, my mum used to work as a dinner lady and […] they ended up buying their house; they ended up quite well. My daughter […] she works long hours […] and she can’t afford to buy her own home!“
Living on benefits.
Lack of jobs have long been a feature of working class life, but the short post-war period of relative full employment in the UK was destined not to last. Closures, changes in methods of production, capital expansion abroad all created unemployment and the need to fall back on benefits.
“So, we kind of get less than nothing. Because we get, we don’t have any jobs, and then everybody gets into trouble for not having a job, but then there isn’t actually any jobs to get!“
“It seems there’s a big divide between them and us, people kind of think people who are on benefits are kind of cheats. And many things feed into that. Television programmes, all sorts of things.“
“It’s not even just the working-class anymore, it’s like, what about the people that want to work who’re on income support, who’ve got kids and they’re like living on nothing to try keep a roof over your head and food on the table…it’s just impossible.“
Rising Stress levels.
The lack of adequate income and income security due to persistent unemployment, low pay, zero hours contracts and/or reducing benefits all create rising stress levels. This cannot be surprising particularly in the class which has no capital, little savings and parents who may well be in the same or similar circumstances. Eg.
“It’s got so much more stressful and more worrying and more concerning, thinking about ‘are we actually gonna have food on our table?’, and ‘are we actually gonna have roof over our heads?’ So yes, life’s got a lot more stressful.“
“Things go wrong really quickly now, don’t they? I mean, they spiral very, very quickly from the point where I can be in my house, in my job, driving my car, and lose my job, not pay my bills, get repossessed, and be out and living in a hostel. […] it’s so easy, it is so easy.“
“It’s easier to fall down a level than it is to go up. It’s easier to fail now than it’s ever been.“
“One of the questions I always have in my mind is […} if I lost my job today — how would I feel? I’d be quite frightened. You just think to yourself, right all my bills are still going out and I really need to get a job, will I be able to fall into something just really easy? You can send 100 applications off and not get any replies.”
These extracts do not reveal the exact levels of stress being experienced by these individuals – and the thousands like them – but it does not take much imagination to understand that most will be desperate and many desperate enough to change their normal behaviour or even previous voting patterns. An underlying theme of these four headings is also an awareness of the unfairness of their situations. For example;
“We’ve all been penalised because we’ve got to work longer now.“
“We’ve worked all our lives, paid into the system and we can’t, well I can’t have my pension until I’m 66 now.“
“Anybody over 50 should have been able to get the pension when they should have had it. We have worked all our lives and we’ve paid into the system.“
“I worked at [redacted] for 20 years, paid into the pension all that time, and 10 years after I left, I got a letter from the pension people saying I may not get a pension when I come to claim it, because the money that they paid in, they invested into Icelandic banks, and Icelandic banks went tits up. There’s nothing you can do about it and it’s absolutely scandalous. They’re just playing with your future.”
The gradual reduction in the relative purchasing power of state and other pensions over the past several decades has led to hardship for many pensioners and the need for what should be embarrassing remedial measures. The winter fuel allowance was only granted because large numbers of pensioners in the UK were having to choose between keeping warm or eating sufficient food during the winter period. Free bus passes were another implicit admission that after a lifetime of labour working class retirees were so poor they could no longer afford basic elements of civilised life. Yet despite these ‘sweeteners’, obvious bitter problems of relative poverty still exist as does a sense of unfairness in the treatment of the elderly as well as undoubted stress levels for some.
“I worked in the NHS […] for about thirteen years and I was really proud to work for the NHS, because the NHS as a body had a really good ethos for caring. Then what happened […] it was all about business focus, it wasn’t about care. Care was a secondary element. In two years’ time, the NHS really went downhill. Today, I think the NHS is really, really on its knees.“
“It’s down to austerity, with the cutbacks in social services, there are more problems landing in the door of A&E. A&E get criticised for not meeting targets, but the problem is social care is not there within the community to the extent it used to be.“
“You go to A&E on any night of the week and a lot of the people going in are on first name terms with the staff because they’re going in time and time again, because really they should be in a care home of some description.“
“If we’re a civilised society, we should be providing care for the more unfortunate in society. And we seem to have just washed our hands of that.“
“We need to go back to grassroots that we used to have. I mean, the ethos of the NHS was free care for everyone and unfortunately now that’s not possible for many reasons. I think the main reason now is that the investment’s not there.“
“What they’re wanting is a superman on £2.50 an hour, so they’re wanting people to be able to perform at this top end and do everything, whereas at one point, three people may have split those roles and done those roles really well. [Matrons] now, they’re having to look at bed management systems, IT systems you know, it’s all business, business, business and whatever care is secondary.“
“[In the NHS] they have this horrendous term called “essential criteria”, and there’s six of them, and if you don’t meet one of those you just go in the bin.“
Again, in these extracts a sense of unfairness and hidden worry is revealed about any onset of illness. Health service personnel are under undue stress themselves even though they are in full-time employment.
“Well I think rich people are taking advantage because, if a rich person crashes their car, they’re not bothered, they’re going to buy a new one. And they’re not really worried about their insurance going up, but yet it affects people who have to use a car to get to work and stuff…they can no longer pay for it.“
Again in this contribution what comes across most is unfairness. Here it is expressed in relation to the knock on effects of increased vehicle insurance premiums on those who need a vehicle for work. It is clear that cut backs and privatisation of transport systems have added extra stress and expense into the lives of many working people.
Break up of Communities.
“I think it probably started in the 80s, I’m biased, but I can remember Thatcher saying ‘there’s no hing as society, only the individual’. And I think the balance changed a lot.“
“I think society is based these days on greed and materialism. I think that is the root of evil, the reality of everything now.”
“People are less willing to help other people. So, because you kind of, you become in your own little bubble, that’s where you see that, the rise of the, of a more sort of selfish being.“
“It takes a community to bring up a child and if you haven’t got a community this is where the problems start.“
“There was a lot of community cohesion there, and as you say, everybody knew each other. We lived in flats and everybody knew each other. […] You know the maternity clothes got passed round. the kids’ clothes got passed round, and you know, none of the kids felt awful about wearing the kid round the corners’ clothes second hand — they just accepted it. I don’t know if that would happen now.“
“People are isolated and don’t look out for each other.“
“They started demolishing rows of terraced houses where people knew everybody in that street and started putting everybody in high rise flats, then nobody communicated anymore.“
“[In] the street, you won’t say a thing now, you’d be frightened of saying something.“
“Right now, if I saw a woman in a car that broken down, there was a time when I would have stopped and said ‘Can I help ya?’. I wouldn’t dare now! If you saw a child in a street and you thought that child was lost, you wouldn’t dare to approach that child now because of what consequences of that simple action might be.“
This group of voices express concerns about changes in social housing, the increased emphasis on individualism, conspicuous consumption and socially engineered tenderness taboos, all of which have tended to erode any actual and potential human social solidarity. Hence again, for some an element of nostalgia has crept into their negative feelings about the present.
In the first eight categories, the overwhelming impression given by these previously neglected voices are existential concerns about everyday life under the current neo-liberal phase of the capitalist mode of production. These concerns extend across the age gaps, between young and old, between unskilled and skilled workers and indeed they extend to white-collar university level areas of economic and social achievement. Growing numbers of young, old, skilled, unskilled and those on unemployment benefits are all now leading a precarious and stressful life in 21st century Britain and have been doing so for many years. Although they experience this precariousness in different social settings and individual households, it is something they all have in common. It is a precariousness that stems, not from individual failure, but overwhelmingly from the general socio-economic conditions of life.
However, what also becomes clear from these neglected voices is that there is an incomplete awareness of the the economic causes of their current situation and no awareness at all that there could ever be an alternative mode of production to the current one. This cannot be surprising, since publicly available information concerning changes in past modes of production, which led to the present one is practically non-existent. It also cannot be surprising, therefore, that there is little or no optimism of things getting better in the future. For millions, the future is bleak. This goes some way to explain the rose-tinted socio-economic nostalgia among some of the older generation, (not shared by the young) for how thing we’re in the past. Looking back and grossly overlooking the bad bits, (of which there were many) only becomes attractive when there is nothing better to hand now or look forward to.
What is missing among these voices so far and which could unite many of these, young old, skilled, unskilled, unemployed sectors of society is a more detailed knowledge of the capitalist system. That would explain the inevitability of their various situations and that of subsequent generations unless the present mode of production is ultimately changed. Clearly that knowledge and understanding cannot and will not come to them from the existing elites who control the dominant means of intellectual production and consumption, so it must come from elsewhere. (More on that in ‘Neglected Voices – 2’.) Until it does, can it really be surprising that there will be no really unified responses to the increasingly precarious and extremely stressful situations working people are in?
Can it really be surprising that, ordinary working people turn this way and that, trying different things and in the present absence of positive collective responses will in many cases also attempt to look after number one? Such varied and volatile working class reactions as those now occurring may cause additional problems for the left – but that is the nature of the period we are in. It is what it is; not how we might want it! As I see it, the problem to be solved from a revolutionary-humanist perspective is not only to more accurately interpret what is really going on within working class communities (blue and white-collar) and the many contradictions there, but also how to engage with these communities in order to help develop their understanding into something more unified and more positive.
R. Ratcliffe (January 2018)
For a direct link to the full report see;