Selina Todd has assembled a rich narrative based on research and interviews showing how over the last century the condition of the working class has risen and fallen according to its collective strength.
Starting with the militancy of the Great Unrest in the years before 1914 — which destroyed the perception of the working class as “the poor” — she shows how by 1945 with full employment and the recognition of working class organisation, “the workers” had now become “the people” and the force that had won the “People’s War”.
Then through the 1950s and 1960s the collective confidence of workers continue to grow until the mid-1970s, when under a Labour government, it went into reverse.
Much detail is powerfully presented, such as her description of the lives of domestic servants — the largest single working class occupation until the Second World War — as well as her portrait of the upper middle class strike-breakers of 1926. Todd also visists Huw Beynon’s excellent Working for Ford and other descriptions of 1970s working class militancy.
If the strength of the book is in the detail, this is sometimes selected without clear justification.
At times the book feels like is history without theory. In particular, her decision to run the story of Viv Nicholson — a working class Yorkshire woman who had the biggest ever win on the football pools only to finish back in poverty.
This is a curious choice as the main thrust of her book is that the working class can only progress through its collective organisation.
Todd celebrates the fact that Nicholson could return to her roots without any regrets. But in doing so she comes close to using an idealised version of working class culture which she criticises elsewhere in the book.
Sometimes the explanations Todd gives are wrong, such as her claim that the 1926 General Strike was lost because of the strength of the government and strike-breakers, and that fascism failed in Britain because the labour movement was so much stronger than in Germany.
At other points Todd gives us not an analysis but anecdotes, such as Virginia Woolf’s observation that the key moment of social change is in 1910 because that is when she sees that her cook’s behaviour changed.
The book finishes with a call to learn from the history of working class cooperation and camaraderie in order to “begin to imagine a different future”.