Cooking the Books 2 – How many working classes are there?

In an opinion column in the Times (26 November) James Kirkup, the director of the Social Market Foundation (he is also a Tory journalist), wrote that New Labour was ‘a coalition of voters, including wealthy liberal graduates and the working classes of what we now call the red wall.’

Working classes? How many of them are there?

This was a Victorian term used to describe manual workers of various kinds, whether working for wages or as independents. Earlier it had been in the name of one of the organisations – the National Union of the Working Classes – campaigning for the 1832 Reform Act to extend the franchise to workers. By the end of the century, however, the term employed by politically conscious workers was ‘working class’. Others still used ‘working classes’ as in the title of a number of Housing of the Working Classes Acts passed from 1885 on.

This had an echo in 1929 when the then Earl Cadogan, whose family owned (and still owns) a large chunk of the land in Chelsea and Kensington, sold some of this to the local council on condition that it was to be used only for ‘the housing of the working classes’. Seventy years later some of this land was acquired by a property developer who wanted to build houses on it, to be occupied by people who would not be able to be regarded as being in ‘the working classes’. The current Earl Cadogan, an unlikely champion for the working class, challenged this and the matter went to court.

The property developer won on some other ground, but the judge remarked:

‘I am satisfied that there is a sufficient number of people who in present times would undoubtedly fall within the expression “working classes”’ (Guardian, 22 February 2003,

Today, only out-of-touch – and condescending – Tories use the term ‘working classes’ to refer to people up north and who wear flat caps. It is true, though, that the term ‘working class’ does need to be carefully defined.

In a footnote to the 1888 English edition of the Communist Manifesto Engels defined the ‘proletariat’ (not a word that has ever caught on in Britain) as:

‘the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.‘

Which is also a definition of the working class, as a class made up of all those excluded from ownership of means of production and so forced by economic necessity to sell their mental and physical energies to an employer for a wage, irrespective of the job they do. It includes not just manual and industrial workers, but those who work in offices, or in health or education; with their dependants the vast majority of the population in a country like Britain.

It is a definition of class based on relationship to the means of production. There are of course other definitions based on occupation or lifestyle. Useful as these might be from some points of view, if applied to politics they become harmful as they can set one section of the working class, properly defined, against another. In fact, that’s exactly what the old Class War group used to do, setting the working class defined by occupation and lifestyle not just against the capitalist class but also against the so-called ‘middle class’.

There is only one working class and all its members have a common interest in getting rid of capitalism.

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