Guest blog: The new working class is diverse – & political parties need to listen to it

Thursday 24 May 2018

Claire Ainsley and VanessaTalking about social class went out of fashion for a while. Maybe we don't want to be seen as defined as where we've come from. But more recently there has been a lot more discussion about social class in today's Britain, and what it means. 

In May I launched my new book, 'The New Working Class: how to win hearts, minds and votes'. Vanessa, a young woman from Manchester, involved in the Reclaim project of working class young people, spoke at the launch event about what it means to be working class. She said: "Being working class means having less access to opportunities. Working hard to make up for my lack of privilege. Facing stereotypes every day by social media and the papers." She described how she felt not listened to because of her age and her class, and how it felt to be part of a group now articulating their own futures for themselves.

I wrote the book because I felt that particular groups in society were being overlooked in politics and in public debate, who might be described as working class. But the idea of what being working class means has completely changed from the days when heavy industry dominated the economy. Now our jobs are more likely to be the service sector, many of those jobs not paying enough to make a decent standard of living. 

There is a new working class, but it's really different to the traditional working class. It's made up of people employed as cleaners, carers, teaching assistants, cooks, drivers, bar workers and so on. People living on low to middle incomes. It's multi-ethnic, and diverse. And these days, more likely to be female than male. 

I looked at the issues that people living on low to middle incomes, who might be thought of as working class, said mattered to them most. Broadly speaking, money and debt came top; followed by health; immigration; caring responsibilities; work; and housing. I then looked within each topic to see which kinds of policies might gain their support, and had some kind of evidence behind them. What I didn’t do was ask “what do experts think” should happen for this group to improve their lives. I started with where the public is, and then brought expertise in.

I have lived and worked with and for people who have some kind of disadvantage compared to those who are better off all my working life. The conclusion I've come to is that the biggest obstacle to progress is the lack of equal representation of all of us in politics, democracy and institutions. The voices of the powerful often crowd out the concerns and interests of the many who have an equal right to be heard.

And the most effective way of overcoming those obstacles is through coming together with others to represent yourselves, whether in youth, community or trade union organisations. As Vanessa told the audience at the launch event "I strongly believe that my life began to be the voice of my class and my community." 

The young people at Reclaim are an inspiration to young men and women everywhere of how coming together with others in their community or workplace organisations, like unions, can be life-changing. Let’s hope that more and more young people are able to find their voices and achieve equal political representation.

‘The New Working Class: how to win hearts, minds and votes,’ is by Claire Ainsley, Executive Director of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The book is written in a personal capacity.

RECLAIM is an organisation which exists to end the leadership inequality that prevents working class young people with talent, imagination, ambition and drive, from fulfilling their leadership potential.