Written By: - Date published: 8:36 am, December 15th, 2013 - 175 comments
Categories: accountability, activism, capitalism, class war, democratic participation, labour, mana, socialism, thinktank, uk politics, Unions - Tags:
Hugh Mair reports in The Guardian on the unacceptable decline of working class people in public life. While the decline may not be quite as acute as in the UK, there has also been a middle class capture of public and political life in NZ. So, how is this to be reversed?
A conservative think tank no less, the Policy Exchange reports:
There is a marked under-representation of people from working class communities in many public offices, including the Houses of Parliament and among local magistrates.
The Policy Exchange rejects practices such as quotas as the way forward, but favours positive encouragement:
The new policy should not involve quotas, ‘targets’ or legislative stipulations, but instead special initiatives to encourage under-represented groups to apply for public office.
Of the attributes Britons hold dear, the most potent is stability. Our traditions endure, institutions survive. We seem loth to countenance revolution. And yet we have experienced a coup d’etat of sorts and the question must be asked: just when did the middle classes take untrammelled control of the levers? It always was a force; but now there is hegemony. Today, a glimpse of what has happened to the vanquished.
It’s not so much that UK working classes were a dominant force in the 60s and 70s, to later be “vanquished”. Rather, prior to World War II they began to gain a foothold in public life, only to be banished back to the margins by Thatcher’s mob.
The Policy Exchange incorrectly implies that ‘race’ and gender are causes of the problem. I was active in the London Women’ Movement in the late 70s and early 80s. I lived there through the whole of Thatcher’s time as PM. The grass roots’ Women’s Movement was firmly embedded in left wing networks. That came under as much attack from Thatcher’s political campaign against “socialism” as the rest of the grass roots left (including anti-racism groups). What survived were those elements of diversity politics that were acceptable to the neocons – a narrowed and relatively weak version of such politics, stripped of a class analysis.
Mair makes passing mention to this point, then goes on to look at the main problem:
One can disagree with its diagnosis of the problem. Policy Exchange, true to its leaning, says the diversity policies of the last Labour government were too narrow – too much focus on race and gender – but that feels like scratching at the surface. Still, who can dispute that the problem exists?
One can look to the figures. According to the Sutton Trust thinktank – which focuses on social mobility – 68% of “leading public servants” went to private schools. It says 63% of leading lawyers were privately educated, as were 60% of the upper ranks of the armed forces. Independent schools produce more than half of the nation’s leading journalists, diplomats, financiers and business people. Policy Exchange says just 4% of MPs previously worked in manual trades.
Mair puts the decline of working class representation down to Thatcher’s mob. He recalls the people he knew when he started as a cub reporter in the London Borough of Newham in the late 1980s:
These were people who had graduated to the council having been shop stewards and tenants’ association leaders. Charlie, the taxi driver; Lew, the tube driver; Jim, the car plant worker. I think of activists such as Sue, the diffident single mother who galvanised the residents in one tower block and then another and then built a campaign that culminateding in a clutch of dangerous tower blocks being demolished. There were working-class people in representative positions, voicing the concerns of people from their communities. Fewer now. What happened?
Thatcherism happened. The social geographer Danny Dorling details how the grocer’s daughter from Grantham fractured the post-war reality of the poor becoming less poor and the narrowing of the gap between the very poor and very rich. “By the time Thatcher left office in 1990, the annual incomes of the richest 0.01% of society had climbed to 70 times the national mean.” For them to win, as they did under Thatcher and New Labour, others had to lose. Those who lost most were working-class communities.
The result has been middle class capture of public and political life and the media. Something similar has happened in NZ, possibly aided by the off-shoring of a lot of manufacturing.
In the 1930s’ NZ parliamentary Labour, one third of its MPs were from “workmen or trade union secretaries” (Leonard D Epstein’s Political Parties in Western Democracies, 1967: p. 187).
However, as Epstein indicates, NZ’s Labour Party was never very radical, even in the 1930s. And according to an article on the Fightback site, the NZ Labour Party of the 1930s was one that aimed to administer capitalism rather than dismantle it. Fightback is participating in the Mana Movement.
Is the Mana Movement the way forward to enable the significant inclusion in public life and politics of working class people and others from low income backgrounds?
How can those on low incomes gain a real voice in politics? Should “quotas, ‘targets’ or legislative stipulations” part of the solution, or should it be all carrots?