In the lovely new British film Pride, a busload of London gay activists heads for a Welsh village to support the coal miners in their 1984 strike. The first evening in the community hall is awkward but the activists and the miners become unlikely best friends. By the end, a bunch of Welsh miners’ wives are having the night of their lives in a London leather bar.
Both groups had a gruesome 1980s. A gay friend who lived in London during the Aids epidemic remembers that he was always burying his friends (because their families had rejected them) and inheriting all their possessions.
But later the gay community recovered, whereas miners didn’t. While gay marriage spreads worldwide, the western working class keeps losing status. This reflects the contrasting fates of two political ideas. “Rights” – for gay people, women and other suppressed groups – are in the ascendant. By contrast, the old notion of uplifting the working class en masse has died. This class now gets dismissed as an embarrassing relic of the industrial era, like a disused factory.
It deserves better.
The rights revolution is racing ahead with one simple proposition: there are no second-class humans. Women, black and gay people haven’t yet achieved first-class status. Still, as Microsoft’s chief executive Satya Nadella discovered this month after dissing women, all western leaders today right up to the Pope himself must at least pretend to support the struggle.
Now even more marginalised groups are claiming their rights. The children’s activists Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Transgender people are next. In many American liberal-arts colleges, students can now choose which gender pronoun they want to be addressed by – including “‘ze’, ‘ou’, ‘hir’, ‘they’ or even ‘it’”, reports The New Yorker magazine. (Where expensive American colleges go, the world eventually follows.)
But one group no longer gets respect: the working classes. Politicians rarely mention them any more except to mock them. Barack Obama spoke of “bitter” jobless small-town Midwestern voters who “cling to guns or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them”. David Cameron evokes a “broken Britain” of dysfunctional jobless slackers. Mitt Romney identified 47 per cent of Americans “who believe that they are victims . . . who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it”. And French president François Hollande, at least according to his angry ex-girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler, calls poor people “the toothless ones”.
The one promise typically still made to working-class people is “upward mobility”: work hard and leave your class. Fulfil yourself as an individual – which is an injunction straight from the rights revolution. In Pride, a gay man orders a Welsh miner’s wife to go to university. Don’t waste your mind, he tells her. In the film’s closing credits, we learn that she obeyed and is now the Labour parliamentarian Siân James. This supposed happy ending echoes an earlier British movie, Billy Elliot: the boy ballet dancer escapes his mining village to play the male lead in Swan Lake.
But upward mobility has its downsides. Firstly, it’s becoming scarce in western countries. Secondly, it cannot work for everyone: every society is hierarchical, and so there will always be people at the bottom. “It would be amazing if everyone could move up,” chuckles Frank Field, the Labour MP who has campaigned against poverty for 40 years.
And upward mobility always entails loss. Field, himself a factory worker’s son, told me that when a working-class child did well and went away, the parents’ pride “was always doused by sadness, because in a working-class community you aren’t supposed to go away”. Had his own parents felt that sadness? Field replied, “My parents were very good at disguising what they felt.” Another working-class riser, the author Zadie Smith, describes the loneliness that comes with moving up: you leave the old neighbourhood, live alone in a big house, even go on holiday alone.
When I reported recently on a poor neighbourhood in Manchester, I was struck by the omnipresence of community. People needed each other in ways that middle-class neighbours don’t. They minded each other’s kids and grannies, popped to the shop for neighbours stuck at home, and gave relatives a roof. They had had to replace the fading state with community.
Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, is sceptical of upward mobility. Instead, he argues for an older political ideal: help working-class people rise with their community. That would entail raising the minimum wage, building more social housing, improving healthcare, etc.
The left might as well try it. Many working-class people are now shifting to parties that still promise community – a national or ethnic community. France’s Front National and the Scottish, Catalan and Flemish nationalists have never done better. The US Republicans own most white working-class votes. The UK Independence Party just won its first parliamentary by-election, on the largest increase in voting share for any British party in any by-election ever. Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, says: “We are now tearing great holes in the old Labour vote in the north of England.”
The left discovered rights. Now it ought to rediscover community.
Illustration by Luis Grañena
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