Hands off the working classes

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This week, the Power Commission – set up by a charitable foundation to investigate voter apathy and the widening gulf between the British government and the people – presented a series of lukewarm recommendations aimed at stopping the perceived democratic rot. Power should be handed back to local government, it suggested; the voting age should be dropped to 16; citizens should be able to initiate public inquiries – oh, and more women and people from ethnic minorities should be encouraged to stand for parliament.

But such measures will do no good at all. British democracy is in dire straits and voter turnouts are at historic lows not because people have tired of its virtues. Rather, it is because the mediating institutions that glued ordinary citizens to government and the state – the trade unions as collective representatives of labour – were demolished or fell away. We are still dealing with the aftermath.

The traditional working-class institutions that buttressed relationships between citizens and the state in most western democracies were smashed 20 years ago after the intellectual victory of Thatcherism. Who could have predicted that today, governments and social policy wonks would be sifting through the debris to put them back together? A good deal of the coded vocabulary that oils the wheels of social policy and public life today is based on avoiding the idea of the working classes – giving rise to the concepts of “social exclusion” that dominated last week’s policy launch by Tony Blair, prime minister, the supposed “alienation” of citizens from government, the “social capital” that so many academics deem is necessary to make communities work.

For most of its history, representative democracy in western countries has depended on organised religion and organised labour to introduce it to its electorate and divide that electorate up into political parties. In the absence of those mediating institutions, politicians, desperate for initiatives to supplement the fragile system of representative democracy, seem happy to involve all sorts of specious lobby groups in their decision-making. Through commissions, focus groups and consultative bodies, western governments seem increasingly keen to hand at least a vestige of power back to the people; but too often, there is no one there to receive it.

Karl Marx first envisaged the working classes as a spectre that had not yet come fully into existence, but which unnerved society even before its arrival. By contrast, our 21st-century affection for the workers looks more like kitsch and nostalgia. We are haunted by the absence of the working classes from political debate, and routinely pay lip service to their memory. In Britain, two cabinet ministers – John Prescott and John Reid – are among various politicians who owe their continued political existence to their working-class credentials – credentials that are wheeled out regularly to remind the Labour party of its past.

In the last US general election, George W. Bush triumphed in part because his Texan homeboy patter spoke better than John Kerry to “ordinary people” – the workers, in other words. The ghost of working classes past can also be seen in British culture. Soap operas such as Coronation Street and EastEnders usher us into life in mythical working-class communities. We want to live among the workers – it helps us feel part of something. Whisper it at the board meeting, but many employers know they might be better off with a strong and organised group of employees too.

The working classes still exist, but they have mislaid their political and organisational voice. The priggish, middle-England puritanism of many Labour parliamentarians, who refused to exempt working-men’s clubs from a smoking ban (a ban that does not apply to parliament itself) has only re­inforced their alienation. An organised working class is the tried and tested guarantor of representative democracy – the best way to stimulate its political renewal would be to call off the non-governmental organisations and the do-gooders and leave it alone. The working classes are accustomed to being remade and reshaped as both technology and the economy change, and can even withstand being dashed occasionally against the rocks of modernity. They will renew themselves if left to their own devices. After all, if they did not exist, we would have to invent them.

The writer is director of talks at ­London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where a month-long series of talks and events, Whatever Happened to the Working Class? begins on March 6

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