• Chris Fairley

Why Class Matters


We live in a time where socioeconomic class seems to be both the single most important part of our lives and a relic of the past that doesn't matter to modern Britain. The same papers and politicians that use 'working class concerns' or the plight of 'White Working Class Boys' to undermine progressive causes or stir up hatred of immigrants are the first to remind us that striking workers are the enemy, that Working Class solidarity is 'outdated' and, famously, that "we're all middle class now".


But the numbers don't lie: the pandemic hit Working Class communities disproportionately hard, and both before and after Coronavirus structural classism means that Working Class lives are harder and shorter than they need to be. As austerity seeps in as the new normal - and as inequality, precarity and struggle increasingly define our lives, Working Class people understanding, organising and expressing ourselves as such is as important as ever.


We can argue about what it actually means to be Working Class until our teeth fall out. Decades of industrial decline[1], the huge expansion of higher education and a constantly shifting national culture mean that you can no longer neatly divide people into Working, Middle and Upper Class by their job, education or cultural tastes - if you ever could. But what remains clearly, painfully true is that socio-economic class shapes our society and ourselves - our relationships to health, work and education. Our access to culture, to justice and to the world around us.


While in recent years politicians and journalists in Britain have defined class by what kind of coffee you drink or if and where you go on holiday, we think it’s more useful to define it by your relationship to power. Can the government and police afford to ignore or oppress you? Does your ability to survive depend on your relationship with your boss or the DWP? Do you feel an increasing sense of worry that things are getting harder and more precarious for you and your community? Yeah, us too.


Regardless of what you think of class, it defines large parts of your life:

  • Only 7% of Brits go to private school, but private school graduates make up half of senior civil servants and journalists, and over 70% of top barristers and judges. MPs are over four times as likely to be privately educated than the average person [2].

  • The class difference in life expectancy is clear and widening - people born in Barking die 6 years earlier than people born 45 minutes down the District Line in Kensington. The 35 minutes from Allestree to Arboretum on Derby’s 114 bus represents a 10 year difference in life expectancy [3] [4].

  • Nearly every single creative sector - including publishing, TV, film, radio and music - has a dramatic underrepresentation of people from Working Class backgrounds [5], setting Britain’s cultural path while excluding the majority of its people.


A cultural focus on meritocracy and “hard work”, the idea that we can ignore the economic and political systems pressing in on us if we just put our mind to it, doesn’t stack up to reality. Instead, it alienates us from any realistic, sustainable path to change by undermining our connections to each other, and our understanding of our shared interests.


Under our rigid, backwards class system even much of the aspirational “middle class” is a fantasy. Your car and house can be as nice as you want, but unless we change something fundamental about how each of us relates to power, politics and money, most Middle Class people are just an accident, economic downturn or bad boss away from the same uncertainty and scarcity that defines so much of life in Britain. The pandemic has laid this bare - 6 million workers fear being out of work in 6 months, and 60% of workers are just 3 months or less away from defaulting on their rent or mortgage [6].


Beyond the uncertainty it represents, Britain’s unspoken class inequality also fuels so much of the anger and division that’s been felt in politics the last few years. Without a constructive, accessible narrative around class inequality and the future of Working Class communities, the fear, frustration and decline present in so many parts of Britain can bubble over into hatred, bigotry and violence.


Class is messy but undeniable: class inequality shortens our lives, limits our horizons and manufactures our misery. Class politics meanwhile - the idea that we have a shared interest in everyone’s health and freedom, and that those interests can only be secured by collective Working Class action - is vital to creating a future for ourselves and our communities.


When we are conscious of and organised around class we create things like the National Health Service, universal education and fundamental workers’ rights. When we’re divided and unable to organise on mass we get decades like the one that has just passed, where austerity drove 600,000 children into poverty [7], tens of thousands to foodbanks [8], and soaring numbers of people into crowded, poor-quality housing [9].


Everything defining the last year-and-however-long of Coronavirus, culture wars and economic crisis has had class somewhere at the heart of it. It's up to us whether we use that to work towards solidarity and justice, or if we leave the future of our society in the hands of the wealthy and powerful who've failed it so many times already.


Class inequality doesn’t define you, and to be Working Class doesn’t mean living a lesser life. More often than not, though, it means living a life that’s harder and shorter than it needs to be - it’s about time we changed that.




Chris is a Working Class organiser and activist from Luton. He can be found at chris@britainhasclass.org.

[1] Between 1980 and 2011 the UK saw the greatest de-industrialisation of any large economy - https://www.theguardian.com/business/2011/nov/16/why-britain-doesnt-make-things-manufacturing

[2] http://classonline.org.uk/docs/class-facts-and-fixes-2019.pdf

[3] https://www.bmj.com/content/364/bmj.l1492

[4] https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/news/theres-ten-year-difference-life-1043916

[5] https://www.arts-emergency.org/files/reports/Panic-Social-Class-Taste-and-Inequalities-in-the-Creative-Industries1-1.pdf

[6] https://www.classonline.org.uk/pubs/item/coronavirus-and-the-workers-emergency-labour-market-realities-2020

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/26/uk-faces-child-poverty-crisis-charities-warn

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/52462814

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/31/overcrowding-social-housing-england