It is no exaggeration to say that the working class in Britain is in the throes of an identity crisis. It is particularly noticeable in those towns which a few decades ago were thriving centres of industry – former colliery towns, for example, in the Midlands and South Wales. Places that are far from Westminster; places which voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.
Identities here were once strong, tied to work and community. But in recent decades this proud demeanour has been replaced by something closer to humiliation. That’s why the ‘take back control’ rhetoric of the Brexit referendum resounded so powerfully in these parts of the country: the idea of ‘globalisation’ is here synonymous with the destruction of old industry and its replacement with insecure work in warehouses and call centres, much of not even done by the locals.
In order to look more closely at this issue of working-class identity and how it is tied to employment, I returned to the town of Rugeley in the West Midlands where I had previously spent time researching a book on the low pay economy, Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. It’s the subject of my new audiodocumentary for UnHerd.
This fairly archetypal, former industrial town is not the poorest place in Britain, but nor is it especially affluent either. The Lea Hall Colliery closed in 1991, and as in many former colliery areas, the old jobs in pits, power stations and factories have been replaced by work in distribution sheds, in call centres and on supermarket checkouts.
Audiocast: How dead-end jobs killed small-town pride
In one sense, this is welcome. More than 100 men1 lost their lives at the Lea Hall and neighbouring Brereton collieries during the working life of the two pits. It’s worth remembering this when imagining some long-past golden era which for many was, in fact, dirty, dangerous and oppressive.
There is, however, a palpable sense of loss in Rugeley, and it’s not just a case of residual memories being given a flattering shimmer. The material security of those dangerous old mining jobs has given way to precarity. The largest workplace here today is an Amazon warehouse. When I worked there, all shop-floor staff were employed by agencies on zero-hours, nine-month contracts. “You try getting a mortgage on that!” one of Rugeley’s local councillors remarked to me pointedly. The old colliery may have been dark and dirty, but the money it paid out was at least sufficient to support a family.
Why we can't ignore the working-class identity crisis
We know much of this already. The rise in precarious ‘gig’ work and low-paid, zero-hours contracts is a frequent topic of discussion among policymakers in London. The question of identity, however, tends to receive significantly less attention, presumably because it is a more nebulous concept. But when industry moves out to be replaced by atomised and insecure work that is devoid of the institutional affiliations of the past it has a profound effect on the collective consciousness.
In Rugeley, as in many other working-class towns, identity – particularly male identity – was at one time something that was forged by work, something that was shared. However the organisations through which a person could collectively organise have withered on the vine. Trade unions are bereft of members, while social clubs are shells of the institutions that once provided an opportunity for workers to self-educate and self-organise.
It can be difficult to grasp the scale of the change this represents unless you speak to the people that have lived through it. A culture has effectively disappeared. The new jobs lack the solidarity and social networks of the past. Yet the memory of a more cooperative past lingers, compounding the sense of present loss.
When I travelled to South Wales in 2017, I was told almost upon arrival that the old factories which once stood in towns like Ebbw Vale and Brynmawr had been like “extensions of your family”. These work-related networks were once modest outlets of democratic expression, allowing working people to act on the world– as opposed to simply being acted upon. By this I mean that there existed forums of working class democracy through which the individual and the group could interpret wider events – and more importantly, could exert a pressure of their own on their situation. The owner of a pit couldn’t simply cut your wages or lay you off arbitrarily, or else members of the union would walk out on strike. This feels a long way from companies such as Amazon and Sports Direct.
The disappearance of much of this – and the consequent atomisation of social and economic life – has produced a climate propitious to populism. The more chaotic and tumultuous that life appears to be, the easier it is for demagogic politicians to channel the resultant anger toward their own obsessions. The demagogue succeeds by pointing at the processes of globalisation – the forces that close the local factory, or which produce jobs that only Romanian migrants are willing to do – and proposes simple solutions. These are very often ugly, cynical and violent. It seems clear that we are some way down this path already.
The centre-left will never defeat European populism if it fails to first understand it
So why isn’t there more concern in Westminster? When I spoke to Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, for the audiodocumentary, he made the point that the lack of political focus on the chasm between good and bad jobs is partly a result of our growing obsession with futurology. An influential section of the Left is today fixated on a supposedly workless future. Moreover, parts of the Right appear to view automation as a reason not to tackle poor employment practices in the present day. Travelling around the country talking about my book, one of the most common objections I heard went something like this: “Well, aren’t these jobs going to be automated anyway?” In other words, why bother getting worked up about demeaning work when the jobs won’t exist in a few years time?
The potential for a political backlash should squash such glib complacency. At the very least, our politicians could look at how much bargaining power organised labour has in contemporary Britain; we are a long way from the 70s – exploitative employment practices are a more pressing concern in the contemporary economy than militant trade unions. The state might also take a bigger role in regenerating communities where the market has – for whatever reason – decided not to invest.
Why do some countries have strong populist movements but not others?
To start with, though, we should acknowledge that parts of the country really have been left behind. This requires that we look beyond the headline employment figures and get a real feel for the meaning and sense of identity that many British towns have historically derived from work. Towns like Rugeley are unlikely to meekly accept their lot if ‘progress’ becomes synonymous with a glut of precarious and poorly paid jobs, however much some in Westminster might wish otherwise.
All of us derive some sense of identity from what we do. This is as true in Rugeley as it is in more affluent parts of the country. Until we at least recognise that – and until we listen intently to the people who live or work in such places – our squabbles over the political solutions are largely academic.