Author: Kenan Malik
What is it to be working class? The conventional image is of the industrial worker, usually male and white. But, as Claire Ainsley, executive director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, shows in her book The New Working Class, such traditional workers make up less than a third of the actual working class. Four out of 10 workers are in the service industry, while 30% form the “precariat” – lacking job security and benefits, often shifting from one short-term position to another. It’s a working class more precarious, less organised and comprising more women, migrants and minorities.
Ainsley’s aim is to explore the attitudes and aspirations of the new working class and define the policies that political parties need to pursue to connect with it.
But perhaps we need to take a step back. Attitudes and aspirations are given shape, at least in part, by the organisations that bind a group and the consciousness of belonging to a group. The old working class was often divided along sectional and regional lines and by race and gender. Nevertheless, there was a consciousness of being part of a cohesive class, buttressed by the power of labour organisations.
What defines the new working class is its fragmented character and lack of organisational power. Few, Ainsley observes, identify themselves as “working class”. So we need to think not just about policies that might appeal, but the organisations and struggles that might create political and social coherence. Cleaners striking for better conditions. Tenants battling to retain public housing. Unions, such as the IWGB, representing workers in precarious jobs.
These are the struggles and organisations shaping the new working class. Without them, it may be the very fragmentation that hones both its aspirations and the attitudes and policies towards it.