Working-Class Anger, Brexit and the 2019 General Election
13 January 2020
Brexit and the 2019 general election result were 40 years in the making – the result of a relentless class war waged against the British working class.
The making of the European Union referendum and now the 2019 general election has been a 40-year process. In a sense, I was writing about Brexit long before it happened. I had picked up in my life and my research a growing anger amongst working-class people, and out of that anger came a desperation for change – but also a growing mistrust towards politicians, the media, and anything connected to Westminster or the town hall. I am not a Brexiteer and never have been. I honestly don’t know whether leaving the European Union is a good or bad thing. But I do know that the idea of democracy – that we all get a say and we should all be represented somehow – is important in British society. What my experience, and my research, showed was that the idea that working-class people were being heard and represented had been steadily eroded.
Where Did it All Go Wrong, John?
“When John Prescott announced in 1997 that ‘we’re all middle class now’, he was greeted with derision; 13 years on, he has been proved to have demonstrated a rare prescience,” gushed Judith Woods in the Telegraph in January 2010.
I remember reading this a few weeks after my PhD viva and actually laughing out loud. Firstly at John Prescott and how easily he had gone from working-class, trade unionist man-of-the-people to Tony Blair’s working class beard, and, secondly, at the author’s enthusiasm to talk about how everyone now shops at Boden and declare that class politics no longer mattered as she looked forward to a progressive Conservative government led by David Cameron. When this article was written, Gordon Brown was still prime minister. How long and how far away does that seem now? Here we are in a new decade, the 2020s, and with a new government, and the British class system is still right at the top of our collective to do list, although we all have different stakes in how we manage that list.
Those of us that understand and have been at the sharp end of the British class system know very well that you should never underestimate its resilience, and its power to shape British politics. I have been writing about this since 2001 when I entered higher education as a very “nontraditional” mature student – entering the grounds of the University of Nottingham in my home town for the first time at the age of 31 from an access course at a Further Education college. The only reason I went to the University of Nottingham was because I had read a book, Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen, by Ken Coates and Bill Silburn, researchers during the 1960s at the University of Nottingham. The book was based on research they had done with the Workers’ Education Authority in St Ann’s in Nottingham, where I lived. The book shows clearly that, despite all of the social goods that had been fought for and then introduced by the post-war political consensus, there was still deep poverty in Britain. Working-class people were living in slum housing without indoor bathrooms, suffering overcrowding, high levels of infant mortality, poor levels of education, and extremely low wages, insufficient to feed a family. I knew this poverty: I had grown up in it. The mould on the bedroom wall still sits on my lungs 50 years later. I had grown through and into Thatcher’s Britain but protected from the cruelty of neoliberalism by a close-knit mining community, until the vindictive politics of class hatred violently penetrated my world in the 1984 miners’ strike. My community, my family and my class were no longer the backbone of the country; we were “the enemy within”. And that is where we have pretty much stayed ever since.
Eventually, the Tory Party dumped Thatcher. The right-wing ideological Terminator with a handbag was replaced by a man who had run away from his music hall, working-class family to become a Tory. John Major: a man led not by ideology but by the pages of The Daily Mail, The Express and The Telegraph, the love of warm beer and leather on willow, and the middle-class hatred of the working class. His vision was “Back to basics”, which meant the purposeful division of the working class into rough and respectable. Class hatred for the former was narrated by headlines of working-class women getting pregnant to obtain council housing. Major pushed through some of the most harmful policies directed at working-class women, like the Child Support Act. His government has recently been re-narrated by the political classes as a time when Major was primarily occupied with fighting the “bastards” in his own party over Europe. The truth for working-class women at the time was that John Major had his sights on our bastards: the bastard children of those that would spoil his idealism of British respectability. During this time, Bev Skeggs produced one of the most important books ever written – Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable – which outlined perfectly how working-class women were judged mercilessly as rough until they proved otherwise.
New Labour and Gentrification
Tony Blair, who followed Major in 1997, was marketed as a brand-new hope. We bought into this hope. We needed it. New Labour apparently had something for everyone. The sociologist Tony Giddens sold us the snake oil of the “Third way”. The middle class no longer needed to feel guilty about their unfair and unearned privileged class positions; they could send their children to private schools in the knowledge that “things could only get better” for the rest of us. And, indeed, money was spent on community centers, New Deals, Sure Starts: millions of pounds were poured into Labour cities. There were free cinema tickets for kids on council estates; everyone could do a course on being a DJ – no expense was spared. The Blair rhetoric was that the working class was finished, old fashioned. It had to move on into a new world where individuals would become mobile, civic beings, a Britpop world where Noel Gallagher and Tony Blair were the future.
And yet, like Coates and Silburn before me, I knew something was still very wrong. Undoubtedly money was being spent, but there were people and places that were not part of the New Labour future, either because they couldn’t be, or they didn’t want to be. The people on my estate in inner-city Nottingham still couldn’t find enough work that payed enough, and the people in my old mining town did not even exist in this time of new hope and New Labour. They were being run-down through policy and on purpose. Working-class women were even more pressured as New Labour sought to change “the culture of working-class families” through their social exclusion policies, which were sodden with disrespect and contempt for working-class people. John Prescott’s voice chided working mothers to do better – to be better – because we were all middle-class now. But, of course, we could not, and did not; we were not middle class. We were deemed failures for refusing to change, despite all the money that was being pumped in.
Working-class people do not like to be disrespected and they know when it’s happening. They live with it daily. They also do not like charity – and when I talk about charity I mean where you are given something very small, like a food parcel, but the price you have to pay is massive: the ultimate shame that you are a failure as a mother because you cannot feed your children. The way that social goods like council housing, pensions, and education are now narrated is linked and connected to failure and charity. You want to live in a council house on an estate near your family where you feel supported? The price you pay is that you are an utter failure, at the bottom, immobile, residuum.
One of the most widely recognised legacies of New Labour has been gentrification. This is largely understood in the way Ruth Glass intended the term: to mean an urban process concerning property, community and people – the replacement of one group of people – working class – from an area by “better” people – more affluent and middle class. However, another process of gentrification has been happening simultaneously in our politics, our culture, and our media. The very few spaces where working-class people could exist in these areas –the Labour Party, the trade unions, and popular culture – have been steady closed off. Even the term “working class” has been stripped from our language: the mainstream media avoided it, the Labour Party and the trade unions abolished it. Instead, they preferred “working people”, while the Tories preferred “hard-working people”. The term “working class” became more offensive than the word “cunt” in polite society. I know when I tell people that I am a working-class academic I hear their gasps, and when I talk about working-class people I feel the unease of the middle-class people around me that would rather that I would not mention it, and instead talk on safer ground, using words “social mobility” or “inequality”.
Which brings us to 2020, where Boris Johnson, an Etonian toff, has been put into power not only by his traditional Tory voters but also traditional Labour voters. “How could this happen?!” The panic across the faces of Guardian readers. The dismay of the new Corbyn demographic of “young people” (whoever they are), who have not yet had the experience of living a life, and having a community and family over generations that, whoever has been prime minister, have still not been represented at Westminster. The cries of those Labour supporters of “how could they do it? The Tories have been in power for a decade and caused so much pain!” This is true, but there is another statement missing. In working-class communities, Labour has been in power forever: in the town halls, and with parachuted-in Members of Parliament, whose constituents had never heard of before they were elected and then rarely saw afterwards. Labour’s second referendum policy simply pushed working-class people over the edge.
The idea that this vote, or the Brexit vote before it, was about white men nostalgic for empire, is nonsense. The anger underpinning both votes has been boiling up for decades, and nor is it limited to men; indeed, working-class women have special reason to be angry. As a little girl, growing up in a poor working-class community in the late 1960s and 1970s, expectations of me were very limited. I would become a factory worker, then a mother, and I would raise the next generation of factory workers and miners. But for my generation, leaving school at 16 in 1984, these limited routes to respect and dignity closed along with the factories and the mines. Instead of producing the next generation of workers, our reproduction became a threat. We were producing a generation of working-class people that was surplus to requirements – hence the specific policies targeting working-class women under both Conservative and Labour governments. Working-class women and families have been under pressure for generations; the political earthquake of the last four years is intimately related to a dramatic loss of dignity and respect at the hands of policymakers.
So, like Brexit, the 2019 General election was about the British class system. The British working class know the Conservative Party, and they also know the Labour Party. They are not fools. They are not turkeys voting for Christmas. They are still with us, working in the new workhouses, like Amazon and Sports Direct. They are cleaning your offices and your homes. They are visiting food banks and still trying to hold on to all they have left – their dignity. They are mothers and children being forced into homelessness or banished to the north by Labour councils in London. And they are angry. They need and want change, and if the political class, the media or academia think the working class can be fooled by “We are all middle-class now” or “We are all in it together” or “For the many not the few”, or even “Get Brexit done”, then they are making a big mistake.
About the Author
Dr Lisa McKenzie is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Durham University, and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (Policy Press, 2015). Her research on working-class attitudes to Brexit can be found here and here.
Readers who enjoyed this article might like to read Chris McGlade's TFB blog post, Why Labour’s “Red Wall” Finally Crumbled.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.