Saturday, September 20, 2008

Working class zero

Went to Starbucks this morning to meet someone. When I got back, Cathy asked me what I'd had.

"Grande Latte with an extra shot of expresso," I said. "Do I sound like a class traitor saying that?"

"Yes," she said encouragingly, "you do."

Class is a funny thing. My parents are very aware of their 'status'. They came from working class backgrounds and both went to university when it was the preserve of the well-off. I don't know whether they're consciously aware of it, but the way they talk about us being a 'doctor's family' shows a bit of insecurity about their status, which I'm sure is linked to being made to feel slightly inferior at university.

A comedy example, which has gone down in the annals of our family is when we were eating toegther once and mum said in all seriousness: "I'm not sure many doctor's families eat meals based around the humble sausage." The 'humble sausage' has entered our family vernacular now, if the conversation is veering towards being classist.

I guess I'm just lucky that for my generation the class system has slowly faded. True there is still a stigma attached to coming from certain places, and it's a tremendous advantage to have a good education, but generally there are more opportunities to advance on merit, rather than on who your father was.

But there is still a division between the working poor and the working wealthy. It's a different type of work for a start. I'm acutely aware, living where I do and mixing with the people I mix with, that my job is indoors and involves no heavy lifting. And we're relatively comfortable and secure, even in worrying economic times like this. But I have done my stint in Minimum Wage Hell and I can tell you that those who are stuck there aren't having it easy.

The thing is, with the exception of going to football matches before that became an acceptable thing in polite society, we were a very middle class family when I grew up. You can tell that by the expectations of my parents that me and my brother would both go to university, and in fact, that was what we both planned to do from very early on.

I can't deny my middle class upbringing, and nor would I want to. That's me and I can't help that. But I have always recognised my ancestral roots among the working class. My one grandad was a baker. My other was a miner, then a rail ganger. Both my grandmas worked in retail. I think there's a certain dignity in that - working hard to provide for your family; to see them take advantage of the opportunities offered to them as the universities opened up to the working class.

I guess my deep antagonism (hatred?) for Tony Blair stems from my deep-rooted conviction that in many respects he was a class traitor. True, he wasn't from a working-class background as far as I can tell, but those who supported him were. The unions, and the long-time Labour voters who stuck with his party when it was suicidally unelectable, have been ill-served by a Labour government.

True there have been more working class students than ever before, but their advantages have been cancelled out by apalling levels of student debt. And those families where a baker or a rail ganger are trying to put bread on the table and shoes on their children's feet, seem to be struggling to make ends meet, pay the rent or mortgage, and keep a car on the road. There is now a minimum wage, but we still have to have a tax credit system and benefits for working families, so obviously the minimum wage is below the minimum levels families need.

Blair might not have betrayed his own class (the middle class) to the same extent. But the people who looked to him as a saviour of the working man have discovered he wasn't a messiah after all. If Labour get horrifically trounced at the next election, and the odds are they will, then frankly the only people they will be able to blame are themselves. When you betray people's trust, you can't be surprised when they don't trust you any more.


  1. Anonymous21/9/08 15:28

    Interesting post, Jon. Salient point about the Labour party's predicament. Why are some words in bold?

    Matt Redd

  2. It makes the post easier to scan, and therefore read. Online copywriting tip, there.