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Prescott: the class system and me
Reviewed by Andrew Price, Campaign for a New Workers Party national steering committee
On 27 October, BBC 2 viewers watched a programme fronted by former deputy prime minister John Prescott, purporting to explain the class system in contemporary Britain. Although making a few valid points, the programme failed to explain class and exposed Prescott's hypocrisy as a major figure in the 'modernisation' of the Labour Party.
Prescott's origins are undoubtedly working class, as he began his working life as a seafarer, playing a key role in what was then the National Union of Seamen (NUS). On TV he could have used the opportunity to explain how important trade unions are in representing working-class interests and how the organised working class needs to be politically represented.
Or he could have explained how a particularly ruthless set of employers led him as a young militant to play a key role in the national strike of the NUS in 1966.
No longer believes in trade unionism
Instead we heard none of this, because Prescott no longer believes in trade unionism as his resignation from the RMT (successor to the NUS) amply demonstrates. Instead Prescott chose to focus on trivia on what he thought the working class eats and drinks and how its members speak.
On more than one occasion he railed against private education and the huge correlation between the numbers in society who are privately educated and the percentage of such people occupying elite positions. Fair enough, but he needs to explain why this inequality persists after eleven years of a government in which he was a prominent member.
The system of British private education has a charitable status, meaning the schools can claim tax exemption. This in turn means that the working-class taxpayer subsidises the fees of those who want to pay £30,000 annually.
In the past there were debates in the Labour Party between those who favoured the outright abolition of private education and those who believed that such a policy would frighten middle-class voters. They argued for the expediency of ending private schools' charitable status.
Yet Prescott was a major supporter of the creation of New Labour. This has ended this debate totally, to the extent that his was the first Labour government that the bastions of educational privilege felt safe with.
Many trade unionists, especially those like me who are involved with education, will note the hypocrisy of Prescott's attack on private education.
His and Tony Blair's government privatised part of English secondary education through the development of academy schools. Similarly Prescott's posture as a champion of opportunity for working-class students could be taken more seriously had he not supported the introduction of fees and then top-up fees for university students.
Whatever facile remark Prescott or the BBC chooses to make, the British class system is not principally about fee-paying schools, Lords of the Manor or correct pronunciation. It is principally about an economic system, capitalism, that divides people on class lines between those who own wealth and the means of producing it and those who live by selling their labour power through work.
However much beer or tea he drinks or however much Prescott likes fish and chips, he cannot conceal the fact that under the government he served, the rich became considerably richer at the expense of the rest of us.
The reason why Prescott and his mates got away with this is that they succeeded in changing the class nature of the Labour Party, from one whose roots were in trade unionism and socialist values to an unashamedly pro-business party, which in Peter Mandelson's disgusting phrase "is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich".
At the end of the day Prescott's programme was of little use to those attempting to understand class today, but of some use to those fighting to bury New Labour and build a new working-class party.
In The Socialist 12 November 2008:
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War and occupation
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
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