Class is often the missing element in politics, and when it is raised, it is in terms of suffering or aspiration, rather than power.
A quarter of a century ago socialist journalist Paul Foot observed, “When the Labour Party was first formed, and had to win votes from the Liberals, politics for Labour Party people was saying what you believed and persuading people to vote for it. Today, stricken by psephology, politics for Labour is finding out what most people believe and pretending to agree with them.”
Considering the current Labour leadership battle, the approach now appears to be to concoct a phantasmagorical people — composed of immigrant-baiting John Lewis shoppers — and proffer whatever the party’s deluded spin doctors believe they want.
Particularly exasperating is the talk of “aspirations”.
“We need to show people that we understand their aspirations and ambitions for the future,” says Liz Kendall, before promising to “wrap her arms around business”.
“People felt that Labour didn’t understand their aspiration,” says Mary Creagh, before vowing to stand up for small firms and entrepreneurs.
Andy Burnham’s very definition of aspiration centres on “helping all of our businesses…to get on and grow”.
All of this is ignorant of the actual aspirations of most potential Labour voters: less pressure at work; decent pay; reversing NHS privatisation; the chance for their children to attend university and perhaps even afford somewhere to live at the end of it; and so on.
A new book by Joanna Biggs, All Day Long, eloquently captures this feeling.
Biggs interviews a wide range of people, mostly workers, although with the odd businessperson or hereditary lord thrown in, about what they do all day and how they feel about it.
We hear from Lynsey, who works at a pottery company, about how people just “keep their heads down really because every second counts” as they try to meet their quota of mugs celebrating the birth of Prince George.
A Pret worker explains how workers are hired at 3 pence an hour above the minimum wage and how their weekly bonus, worth about a fifth of their basic salary, is withdrawn if insufficient “passion” is on display during secret inspections.
A call centre worker details the life of drudgery that earns him £20,423 a year. Rochelle, a care worker, deals with the needs of patients with complex physical and mental illnesses for £6.25 an hour and struggles with her waiter husband to support a family.
There are always limitations to these kinds of surveys. As Biggs acknowledges, they are not particularly representative.
Two huge areas of employment, construction and supermarket work, do not feature, whereas there are interviews with a Rabbi and a crofter. Large workplaces — half of workers in the UK are employed at a site with 100 or more people — are underrepresented.
More importantly, a work like this only gives a snapshot of the mood. That mood can change once workers begin to organise and fight, something the book constantly hints at.
So the bosses at the pottery just barely prevent workers winning recognition for their union.
One of the Pret workers realises after a year of employment that he can no longer be summarily dismissed and begins challenging management bullying, and again comes close to establishing a union for Pret workers.
At the call centre a union campaign wins agency workers the right to be on the same pay scale as permanent employees. The care worker is a committed union member. Even the ballet dancer interviewed is a rep for Equity, the actors’ union.
It is likely that Biggs sourced some of her interviews through unions, but in part these stories also reflect the persistence of workplace organisation in areas such as the public sector and a desire to organise elsewhere.
According to one survey, 40 percent of non-unionised workers in Britain would join a union if they could.
Workers do not simply suffer. There remains huge potential power lurking here.
It is crucial to remember this because, if there was a moment when the Tories and their austerity could have been decisively smashed, it was not at the ballot box in 2015, but in 2011, when unions briefly mobilised 2.5 million workers to strike over pensions. The union leaders must bear the responsibility for closing down that struggle.
In the past, strikes and protests have challenged Tory rule. That was true in 1972 when a strike movement defeated anti-union laws. It was true in 1984-85 when the Miners’ Strike, had it received the solidarity it deserved from union leaders, could have broken Margaret Thatcher; it was true in 1990 when a rebellion against the poll tax did finally finish her off.
Such struggles are the alternative to waiting five years to bring down Cameron. Battles like these can give workers the confidence that they can collectively take on their rulers and win.
But the feeble display at the top of the Labour Party reminds us that along with these struggles we need a radical political alternative that can match the real aspirations of the working class — those it has today and those that will emerge from its struggles tomorrow.
All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work by Joanna Biggs is published by Serpent’s Tail at £14.99