A People’s History

by Steve Warby

Selina Todd's new book is a passionate account of the gains made by the working class in the 20th century, how they were lost and why we should fight for them again.

First published: 08 June, 2014 | Category: Book Review, Class

Selina Todd, The People: 1910-2010 (Hodder and Stoughton, 2014) 

Selina Todd’s mission with this book is to demonstrate how the working class has been systematically and repeatedly shafted by those in power over the past 100 years. Governments of all stripes, the press, and even at times the trade union movement – all have a share of the blame. The book is not a depressing read, however:  in telling this story Todd wants to inspire hope, and show that the gains made for the broad masses of people between 1945 and 1975 can be made again if they are defended and fought for.

Todd has a refreshing approach to class. For her the ‘working class’ is defined simply as anyone who lacks the economic power to sustain themselves without having to sell their labour. This is most of us: although only 60% of British people identify themselves as ‘working class’ today (compared with over 75% in 1910) many of those who define themselves as ‘middle class’ have to work to live, and many work long hours. Todd’s argument is supported by her interviews with a rich range of people: shop workers, bus drivers, car factory workers, administrative workers. This is a people’s history, with people at the centre.

Todd exposes many striking parallels between the raw deal working class people received in the past and the raw deal the same class receive today, and housing is a key example. After the First World War, working men were promised decent housing by the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George. But after Lloyd George was forced out of the governing Coalition, the house building policy was in Conservative hands. During the subsequent period, Todd argues the post-war housing problem was not addressed “because private builders constructed very few houses for rent, local authorities were not given the money or incentive to build many council houses, and those that were built had rents which were beyond the reach of poorer families.” This all sounds horribly familiar.

Todd argues that the governments of the 1920s and 1930s clung “to the principle that the poor could be held responsible for their hardship”, again sounding a familiar contemporary note. There is even a nasty little precedent for today’s ‘bedroom tax’: the 1926 Board of Guardians (Default) Act enabled Guardians responsible for assessing the level of need in a household to reduce a claimant’s unemployment benefit if there were ‘surplus chairs’ in a house. The middle classes of the time were encouraged by the press to take a suspicious view of the poor and unemployed, just as they are today: Todd uncovers Times editorials and letters that talk of benefits “drugging” the poor, and providing “an alternative source of almost permanent maintenance”.  She emphasises that then, as now, the problem for much of the working class wasn’t fecklessness, but low wages, citing numerous studies showing that 20th century poverty was caused not just by unemployment, but also by insufficient pay. Clearly there is a long history to current press scaremongering about ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’, and today we still see right-wing politicians and press stick to the narrative that poverty is caused by individual failure and ‘shirking’. As Todd says, “the myth that the poor caused their own poverty [is] a persistent one…because it [serves] powerful people’s interests.”

Todd’s central argument is that the great gains for ordinary working people in the 20th century came as a result of the post-World War Two ‘social contract’ between the working class and the state, whereby workers provided their labour, and the state guaranteed the workers’ welfare. Trade unions were accepted as the legitimate representatives of the workers, governments negotiated with them seriously, and wages and working conditions improved. The ‘social contract’ also produced the National Health Service, comprehensive education, council housing, and full employment. Todd accepts there were many problems with this settlement: unskilled workers not benefitting as much as skilled workers from union representation; state provision rightly regarded as too distant and bureaucratic by many; state housing and education being seen as ‘second rate’. But she shows how all this made Britain more egalitarian than ever before, and the workers more affluent than ever before.

This, of course, stands in clear contrast to today, when the fundamentals of this arrangement have been torn apart. Our current government has no aspiration to forge any such contract with the working class: instead it expects workers to work hard, fend for themselves, and be ‘flexible’. Meanwhile it wants the state to be as small and limited as possible: businessmen sponsoring chains of academy schools, benefits slashed, social services left to the voluntary sector and public services run by private companies. The result: inequality at levels not seen since before the Second World War.

The People does not mythologise working class people as the common broad-shouldered, noble, collectively-minded stereotype. Todd doesn’t try and tell us that all workers were members of unions and committed to socialist ideals and community action. Throughout the twentieth century working people wanted comfort for themselves, and independence and control over their own lives. The 1950s and 1960s stand out as the decades where this was most closely realised for many ordinary people: years of full employment and rising wages, greater access to consumer goods, housing, education, foreign holidays and high aspirations. In these years huge numbers of workers were in more comfortable ‘white collar’ employment, and enjoying living standards far higher than their parents and grandparents had experienced.

But these were precarious gains, built on debt and overtime, and they were gains not enjoyed by all working people. The incomes of semi-skilled and unskilled workers failed to keep pace with the incomes of skilled workers, who benefitted most from trade union negotiations with employers. In hindsight, this is perhaps a key moment in the evolution of the working class in the twentieth century: the separation of the skilled, consumerist, aspirational worker from the struggling, unskilled, workers in precarious employment – those whom we might now call the ‘Precariat’.

Todd’s disappointment with the Labour Party from the 1960s onwards is palpable. Their acceptance of this division between skilled and unskilled workers was used as justification for policies aimed at the consumerist, aspirational working class, at the expense of the struggling ‘precariat’. They failed to emphasise that those who have to work for a living have more in common than they have differences. She cites J.H. Goldthorpe’s 1959 study which found that workers still identified strongly as working class, and saw their interests as fundamentally different to those of business owners, professionals and the upper classes.

The Labour governments of 1964-70 sought to restrict the power and ability of trade unions to secure wage increases and job security for their members and, for Todd, this was a reaction to growing international economic competition. Harold Wilson believed workers needed to be more ‘mobile’ and ‘flexible’ to cope with international competition, and this inevitably meant short-term unemployment and conflict with trade unions. Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife White Paper of 1969 emerges as a key turning point: the moment from which “successive governments would treat the economic and social power of the working class as a threat to social democracy, rather than as a prerequisite for a democratic state.”

There was, in 1974, she says, the brief hope of a renewed ‘social contract’ between government and the workers. But these hopes were dashed by Britain’s acceptance of IMF loan money in 1976, on condition of ‘liberalising’ the economy. This is a decisive point, ending the post-war consensus period of ‘Butskellism’: a broader distribution of wealth and moderate state intervention to promote social security. It was this moment which gave neoliberal Conservatives their founding myth, which has defined the political consensus ever since: that governments committed to full employment and welfare states are profligate and undisciplined, and only the harsh medicine of the free market can save the country from economic ruin.

Todd argues passionately against the dominant idea that the working classes accepted the individualistic, materialistic neoliberal philosophy from the late 1970s onwards. She shows how there was always a strong impulse amongst working people for material advancement throughout the 20th Century; but that it was collective agreements negotiated by trade unions, and central government provision of fundamental social goods like healthcare, education and housing which brought the key advancements for working people. These did not eradicate poverty or inequality, or create a perfect, harmonious society in which working people were fully liberated and in control of their lives. But they did counter these ills and open up unprecedented opportunities for working class people to advance themselves.

For Todd, the dismantling of this social contract has eroded many of these gains; working class people now face many of the same problems of the early decades of the 20th century. Current anger over benefit recipients is the consequence of frustration amongst working people that work simply doesn’t bring the rewards that it should: decent pay, manageable workloads, and job security. She is angry at the Labour Party, who, over the last 30 years have failed to prioritise the interests of working people and they have a large share of the blame for the declining belief in collectivist social and economic policies.

The book ends with a rallying call, in which Todd lays out her hope for the future. She has shown us how gains for the majority of working people were made in the mid twentieth century and she wants to inspire hope in the current generation to fight for even better in the 21st century, writing that “we need to create a world committed to economic and social equality”. How we do this, or even persuade others that this isn’t just a utopian dream, is surely the key challenge of our times. What The People does show us is that government provision of key social services – primarily housing, education and health – makes an enormous difference to inequality. This is the lesson of the 20th century that we must not forget in the 21st.     

Steve Warby is an A Level History teacher in a sixth form college. 

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