May 2015

Selina Todd:THE PEOPLE - The Rise and Fall of the Working Class
£10.99 - John Murray

THE PEOPLE book coverThe author attended a socially mixed comprehensive school in north east England. Yet when she went to University to read history she searched in vain for her family’s story before realising that she would have to write it herself if she wanted to ensure that the history of working class people in Britain from the start of the 20th century was properly recorded.

Selina Todd can therefore be very proud of her efforts. Because the result is an easy to read book packed full of personal testimonies, myth busting information, basic facts, official statistics and a very strong conclusion demonstrating that greater social inequality is not only unnecessary but it means working class voices are – still – rarely heard in public spaces.

Rightly, Todd also does not fall into thinking the working class are exclusively male, white and unionised. Which is why she starts her book in 1910 with a chapter titled ‘De-fiance Below Stairs.’ This features the millions of, largely young, domestic servants who when given the chance to enter the munitions factories in World War One did so with relish in order to enjoy better pay and work less hours.

Little wonder most never returned to being a maid and resisted pressure from employers, the government and some men to be coerced back beneath the stairs. Some then took part in the fight for improvements in health care for expectant mothers and young children as well as better housing that pushed Stanley Baldwin’s government into introducing the 1936 Housing Act. Local authorities were charged with providing homes for ‘the working classes.’

Council house building was significantly expanded. When the Second World War ended one of the key moments in many working class people’s lives was when they were hand-ed a key to a council house and they could move out of a slum dwelling.

“The People’s War’ of 1939-45 led to a significant redistribution of power in favour of the working class but did not make Britain classless. Most politicians had no interest in making things more equal and only when it became absolutely necessary did they oblige middle and upper class people to share in the sacrifices being made by workers and ordinary troops.

Today it is generally accepted that the British people were as one in wanting to defeat fascism. Yet Mass Observation, a progressive social research organisation dedicated to exploring how ordinary people lived, found that many were unsure that Nazi tyranny would be worse than the poverty they’d endured under ‘democracy.’

A desperate ruling class was forced to ensure Prime Minister Winston Churchill brought several Labour members into his War Cabinet including Ernest Bevin, the former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. (One of Unite’s predecessor unions)

The greater state intervention that followed proved highly popular. In 1942, when the war was little more than halfway through, Sir William Beveridge was being tasked with drawing up a programme of comprehensive welfare provision that included the creation of the NHS, which duly arrived on 5 July 1948 under a first ever Labour majority government.

The return of the Tories in 1951 was, in part, the result of a promise to build more council houses than Labour and a continuing pledge to maintain full employment.

With employers in desperate need of workers, Commonwealth migrants began arriving in search of a better life after 1948 and thousands of married women took up the chance to work part-time to buy extras for their children and an increasing range of domestic appliances.

Many people became better off, inequality levels fell but Britain remained a society in which class still mattered. That became even more the case in the 1960s when despite material improvements in many people’s lives there was the realisation that these were the result of having two full-time wage earners in the house rather than one. Some couples hardly saw each other if they had children to bring up.

When workers demanded greater pay and control over the organisation of their lives there were numerous strikes throughout the 60s and 70s. Under pressure from employers, governments sought to undermine the trade unions and the collective economic and political strength of ordinary workers.

Lurking in the background was a New Right that under Margaret Thatcher successfully persuaded many working class people that economic growth was being held back by commitments to welfare spending and full employment. Further, that the growth of the public sector restricted the private sector and that local authorities and trade unions obstructed ‘ordinary people’s’ freedom. People were encouraged to build their own independence and to ‘help’ they were cajoled into use credit and debt, including mortgages.

Unemployment leapt – a “price worth paying” said Thatcher as during the 1980s new divisions amongst the working class were encouraged and exploited especially between those in work and those on the dole. Racist rhetoric against immigrants encouraged further division. New laws severely restricted trade unions of much of their economic and political power. Employers exploited the weaknesses by forcing many workers on to less secure contracts. As pay levels dropped, inequality rose considerably.

The arrival of New Labour under Tony Blair resulted in much of the same, with working class people increasingly relying on debt as a means to get by.

In the opening to her book, Todd informs the reader that she sought to write ‘a hopeful history.’ Yet at the end, Todd rightly identifies Britain remains ‘a society divided by class…….and the gap between the richest and poorest is wider than it has been at any time since  the early 20th century.’ She thus uses her afterword to put forward a credible alternative to the current situation.

This involves seeking to demolish five myths:-
❖    The economic crisis was caused by the welfare state.
❖    We can only solve the economic crisis by all working very hard.
❖    Women and immigrants block working class people’s opportunities.
❖    Social mobility, promoted by selective and private education, can solve inequality.
❖    People’s greed and selfishness prevent us from creating a different sort of society.

She makes some important points in her attempt to reveal ‘an alternative way to live better than neo-liberalism’, which as a system is continuing to impoverish more and more working class people.

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