Class survey diverts focus away from power of working class to change society

Ken Douglas

“Emergent service workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains” doesn’t have the same ring to it, was one response to the recently published Great British Class Survey, which itself concluded that traditional social divisions of upper, middle and working class are out of date in 21st century Britain. Can we conclude from this that the working class is no longer the force it was and does it mean that “we’re all middle class now” as the former Labour deputy prime minister, John Prescott, attempted to claim?

The survey purports to present an accurate picture of class divisions in 21st century Britain. As well as questions about income, housing and savings the survey asks about lifestyle, places you like to go to, which people you know and draws out seven ‘classes’.

These range from the ‘elite’ at the top to the ‘precariat’ at the bottom. The other top categories are the ‘established middle class’ and ‘technical middle class’ which are then followed by ‘new affluent workers’, ‘traditional working class’ and ’emergent service workers’.

In this month which has been dubbed ‘Black April’, where the Con-Dem government of millionaires has brought in benefit cuts for us while giving tax cuts to the rich it definitely seems like the traditional class system is alive and well.

The top 1% of the UK population has a greater share of the national wealth than at any time since the 1930s, whereas for the 99% incomes have fallen. 23% of large workplaces (over 100 workers) now use zero hour contracts and although factories have been replaced by call centres, conditions in them have led to them being called the new ‘dark satanic mills’.


The reality is that the ongoing economic crisis and the Con-Dems’ austerity attacks have for most ordinary people and many traditionally middle class people made their lives feel more precarious.

In addition the opportunity to move up in society is very restricted – the link between individual earnings and parental earnings is stronger than in any other OECD country and Britain has one of the lowest levels of social mobility and the highest levels of inequality in the developed world.

Since this government was elected workers have attempted to unite and fight back. 2011 saw events ranging from the 26 March biggest trade union demonstration in Britain since the Chartists, to the public sector strike against the attacks on pensions in November, where more workers were on strike than on a single day in the 1926 general strike.

That movement was only cut across by the right wing trade union leaders cutting a deal with the government.

With a fighting leadership, that movement could have beaten back the pension attacks and potentially brought down the government.

Is Marx and Engels’ famous opening to the Communist Manifesto now out of date and with that the idea that workers have the power to change society and end exploitation? Marxism defines classes under capitalism in relation to production, to the nature of the economy.

The ruling class, the capitalist class, own the means of production, distribution and exchange (the factories, transport system, banks etc) and use their ownership of these and their control of the state to ruthlessly exploit the working class who work in banks, railways, call centres etc.

The position of the working class at the point of production, distribution and exchange makes it the most powerful class because workers can paralyse production in a strike and can go further by controlling production and distribution themselves.

In a general strike they can do that on a national scale and, as in the 1926 general strike, go on to control the distribution of goods and resources and so begin to run society.

Workers in jobs not directly related to production can also have significant economic power – a national teachers’ strike for instance would be massively disruptive as many workers would be unable to go to work as they would have to look after their children.

Workers in Britain today still have all their power to bring the economy to a halt. The Socialist Party is calling for the trade unions and the TUC to organise a one-day general strike through coordinated strike action because such action has the power to stop this government’s austerity drive in its tracks. 2011 has shown the possibilities; left trade union leaders must press the TUC to act.

The Great British Class Survey attempts to introduce artificial divisions between workers. This government of and for the elite is ratcheting back public spending to pre World War Two levels and transferring that wealth into the bulging pockets of the rich.

The ‘divisions’ will fall away under the pressure of these attacks, not just in Britain but across Europe and throughout the world, as workers unite to fight back.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 9 April 2013 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.