In May, the Oxford Union Debating Society, with its £150-a-year membership fee, met to discuss the class basis of politics.
Dave Nellist, former Labour MP and now a member of the Socialist Party’s national committee, took part. Alongside him was Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper and Labour’s Shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry MP.
The other side included the 8th Earl of Carnarvon – the real owner of Downton Abbey! Dave was introduced to the university audience as the MP who, for nine years, took only a worker’s wage. Dave’s side won decisively. We print below a condensed version of his speech.
Marxists argue that in a class society based on the market – capitalism – the two main classes are those with ownership and control of production, the capitalist class, and those who only sell their labour power, the working class.
The first is tiny – tens or hundreds of thousands at the very most. The second and main class in society, the working class, is huge, with nearly 60 million people. There’s a third, smaller, middle class of perhaps 5-10 million in between. The trick for the ruling capitalist class is to mould British politics to act predominantly in their interests when they are such a numerically small section of society.
Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures indicate that the richest 1% of the UK population, some 700,000 people, have a total wealth of almost £3,000 billion. The bottom 70%, some 48 million people, share £2,000 billion.
Fifty years ago, Britain was one of the more equal countries on the planet, with the gap between the rich and the rest at its narrowest during the 20th century. In 1973, roughly 65% of the country’s annual output went to working-class families. That was because of several factors, including a much larger trade union movement.
After Margaret Thatcher and a succession of prime ministers who have essentially maintained her path, that proportion is now down to around 50%. In today’s figures, that’s an extra annual transfer of over £300 billion a year from ordinary families to the richest layers of society.
Maintaining that disparity and the structures which keep it in place is the job of a system of politics that essentially represents the interests of the ruling class.
Institutions such as private education and Oxford and Cambridge universities (Oxbridge) have a particular role in the preparatory ground for that politics. They provide a homogeneity of outlook and a cohesiveness of shared values. Essentially, they defend the status quo, the continued existence of an unequal society, against any ideological or organisational challenge.
29% of current MPs attended private schools (four times the rate of the general population). For Tory MPs, the figure is 41%. Three-quarters of all MPs – nearly 500 – went to Oxbridge or other Russell Group universities (the top 24 universities in the country). Almost every prime minister over the last 75 years who went to university, went to Oxford.
The figures for MPs have changed over time. Forty years ago, 73% of Tory MPs were privately educated, compared to 41% today. For Labour MPs, the decline is less, from 18% in 1979 to 14% today. But while the percentage of Tory MPs who went to Oxford or Cambridge fell over that period, the proportion of Labour MPs rose. Arguably, the British elite’s talent base has expanded as more MPs across the parties share a background that leads them to naturally defend the current market system, not fundamentally challenge it.
While capitalism remains the foundation of our society, the elite who mainly benefit from it will seek to bring on the next generation who will maintain it.
That’s why the establishment hated Jeremy Corbyn so much. His radical policies gained the support of millions, including many young people, criticising the sytem. But that same establishment, however, is politically relaxed about the current Labour leadership, as long as it’s wedded to the profit system.
21 years ago, at a Conservative fundraising dinner in Hampshire, Margaret Thatcher was asked “what was her greatest achievement?” and she answered: “Tony Blair and New Labour – we forced our opponents to change their minds.”
That success – from the establishment’s point of view, a reliable second eleven to take over when the preferred government is in distress – is matched again today with the sharp move to the right of the leadership of the Labour opposition. There is an essential overlapping of key policies between the Labour and Tory parties. In their attitudes to protecting the relatively low tax rates on serious wealth, or the extent within the economy of planned public ownership, Rachel Reeves and Jeremy Hunt have an overlapping agenda and strategy.
A Labour challenge under Jeremy Corbyn was different. It was radical, from abolishing tuition fees to the public ownership of essential industries. In 2017, it brought the largest rise in the popular vote for any political party since Clement Attlee 70 years earlier.
It was a brief period when Labour was seen, paraphrasing Shelley, as “for the many, not the few” – fundamentally different from the Tories, and promoting a political alternative for the working class.
That period – the Corbyn experiment inside the Labour Party – is decisively over. As Keir Starmer said at the British Chambers of Commerce global annual conference, after three years where he and Rachel Reeves have had meetings with every one of the CEOs of the 250 largest businesses in the country: “Labour is now not just a pro-business party; we’re a party proud of being pro-business.”
So, those of us who want to see a socialist, anti-austerity political agenda, that talks unashamedly about planning the economy through public ownership and transferring wealth far more equally across society, have a problem. We are in a similar period to the last quarter of the 19th century, when radicals looked at the Liberals and the Tories, saw no essential difference, and decided that they had to start afresh and build a new political voice for working people.
That is our job today. And it can only be successful if a new party is built and rooted in the organisations and communities of the working class.
My argument is that it is class interests which dominate politics. The current political choice serves the interests of the minority, capital-owning class within society, not the majority.
Our side isn’t currently on the pitch. Something new needs to be built, so that the interests of the working class can shape British politics in its favour and end the domination of the ruling class, which currently defines British politics.