Who are the working class?

This vexed question comes up repeatedly in discussions about the church and class. How do we define class? Who can rightly be considered working class or not? What are the markers of class?

Paul Embery, in his book Despised, offers a working definition. He admits it is not scientific in its precision, but I think most people would recognise what he says here:

[The term ‘working class’ is] of course interpreted in all sorts of different ways by everyday people, political activists and academics alike. Some believe it is determined by personal characteristics such as accent or lifestyle, or whether a person owns his own home or takes a holiday abroad, or by qualifications or income. Many on the Left argue that it covers all those who are forced to sell their labour in return for a wage; others get sniffy about including certain sections of the middle class – or the ‘petit bourgeoisie’ – in this definition. Then there is the much-used National Readership Survey (NRS) social grading system, which defines class by occupation type, with the working-class falling variously into the C2, D and E categories. Some believe individuals (such as the self-employed) should be free to define themselves as working class, regardless of other factors, if that is how they see themselves.

All of the above definitions have some legitimacy, and all have their weaknesses. There will likely never be a universally accepted definition of ‘working class’. You pays your money and takes your choice.

For the purposes of this book, I have avoided any standard scientific definition except where it is relevant to the point being made. Instead, I use the term ‘working class’ as I have understood it all my life. I use it as many of my friends and neighbours and workmates understand it. I use it in a broad sense in the way that, I suspect, the man on the Clapham omnibus or in the Red Lion understands it – to describe the stratum of society whose members often do the toughest and most grinding jobs (consisting, for example, of physical labour or work in blue-collar industries, factories, call centres, retail or frontline public services); those whose wages and social status are generally at the lower end of the scale; those who own little or no property or wealth, beyond perhaps their own home and some modest savings; those who are likely to have little authority or control in their workplace; those who live in the grittier parts of Britain, particularly our post-industrial, small town or costal communities and those districts of our cities that haven’t yet succumbed to gentrification or been colonised by the professional classes; those who are unemployed or more likely to be in receipt of benefits; and so on.

Given the wide variety of options, I expect some will find fault with my broad definition. That is their prerogative. But if the reader genuinely cannot comprehend my perception of what it means to be working class, and the reasons why I see it that way, I probably cannot help him. I do think most people will get the point.

I should say, for the avoidance of doubt, that when I use the term working class I most certainly do not mean only the white working class, and anyone who infers such a thing when reading these pages has completely missed my argument. On the occasions in the text that I do refer specifically to the ‘white working class’, it is because it is relevant to the point being made.

My working class’ is what might legitimately be described as the ‘traditional working class’ (or, once upon a time, the ‘industrial working class’), but that is not a euphemism for white. It would include, for example, the West Indian who came to Britain as part of the Windrush generation and worked on London’s transport system; the Muslim who settled in a Lancashire mill town; my own late father-in-law who came in the 1960s from India and was employed as a sheet metal worker; and so on. Some on the Left think such people by definition cannot be considered part of our nation’s traditional working class. I think that view betrays their own prejudice.

I do acknowledge, of course, that the working class I describe it is not homogeneous in its beliefs, and not all would have traditionally seen Labour as their natural home. Some might even consider themselves instinctive Tories. But I believe strongly that, regardless of individual party political preferences, there is a common thread running through much of this working class – one that is patriotic, often socially conservative, communitarian rooted, and which places a high value on family, place, social solidarity and cultural stability.

All of this must be set against the emergence in Britain of what some have described as a ‘new working class’ – younger, urban, more likely to have gone to university, highly diverse, less politically tribal, and more liberal and cosmopolitan in outlook. I think there is merit in this analysis, as such a cohort is certainly beginning to take shape. Members of this group may have limited financial means and face many of the challenges that those among the more traditional working class face, particularly, for example, in relation to precarious employment and lack of affordable housing.

Despite this, however, I am sure that several of them would – at least for the moment – reject some of the arguments made in this book. I do not as a consequence suggest that this group cannot be considered a legitimate part of the working class; indeed, such a claim would be absurd. Neither do I suggest that the labour movement should not be responsive to their aspirations and demands. On the contrary, it is the job of the movement to build the maximum possible unity across the class.

Nevertheless, I think it fair to say that as things stand this cohort still constitutes only a minority among Britain’s wider working class and, moreover, is not what the broader population immediately think of when they hear the term. Maybe that will change in time. For now though, I think my use of the term ‘working class’ in its more traditional sense remains perfectly valid and will be widely understood.

Paul Embery, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, (Polity Press, 2021), pp. 12-15