Jim Murphy is one of the many senior Labour figures to have begun his political career as president of the National Union of Students. During his mid-90s tenure there, he dropped – against the union’s own conference resolutions – all opposition to the abolition of student grants, helping to ensure that in future an education would come at the cost of crippling debt and insecurity. When reading the following, bear this in mind.
“My biggest priority in politics,” the shadow defence secretary said this week, “is about working-class parents having middle-class kids. I want parents to have the chance to bring up kids who do better than them.” On the face of it, this is a normal centre-left response to the very real decline of social mobility, however much that decline might have been assisted by Murphy’s tenure at the NUS. It’s given some additional pertinence by Labour’s admission that currently the next generation will be worse off than their parents. An “inherited poverty”, as Murphy puts it, now stands in the way of young working-class people’s “aspirations”.
The details are pretty light on the ground, but given the lack of much change in Labour’s ideas about education – after all, it commissioned the Browne report that trebled tuition fees and proposed 100% cuts to arts funding – we can expect the solution to be the debt, marketisation and expansion that were New Labour education policy. Sotto voce, there’s something else going on here – the explicit abandonment of the idea that, for the labour movement, you “rise with your class, not out of it“.
Rising out of your class can lead to all manner of things. Kicking away the ladder after you’ve climbed up, as working-class Glaswegian Murphy did as a student leader; or the kind of up-by-the-bootstraps rightwing individualism that Norman Tebbit specialised in; or, at best, an acknowledgement that your privilege and success are deeply unusual and unrepresentative.
My father is a middle manager at a software company. He left school at 14 and worked as a sheet metal worker (as had his father) for most of the next 30 years, becoming shop steward and then convener, and a Labour, or rather Militant, activist. He read, and reads, voraciously, in history, politics and economics, everything from Marx to Thucydides, to the point where he’s far more erudite than many people I know who went to university. This didn’t make him “socially mobile”, at least not until he finally got sick of bending pieces of metal every day and sought a promotion off the shop floor. The working class was no longer showing much signs of rising; so he rose out of it, at least in economic terms.
Later I did the same, through the conventional route of university. A decade or so after that my mother followed suit, going via a job in the NHS from a council estate single mum to a qualified radiologist. In theory we are all marvellous success stories of social mobility. So why does Murphy’s rhetoric make me feel so uncomfortable?
What made all of us able to rise out of our class was a culture based on the class rising collectively. The culture of the Labour movement – its literature, its debates, its prizing of learning as a means of struggle, its insistence that “knowledge is power” – is what made my parents educate themselves in the first place. Being brought up in that environment, being unafraid of books and intellectual argument, meant that I had the confidence to cope easily with the very different intellectual culture of university, without being intimidated by its privilege.
Those books in the shelves at home – EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, say, or Lenin’s What is to be Done? – were about the class, as a collectively organised body, educating itself and advancing itself, with the aim of abolishing itself and creating a society without classes, something both my parents once thought they might live to see. We used that culture of knowledge and self-education for advancement into a different class. We did well. The working class as a whole very obviously didn’t, as the culture that helped us up had been deliberately destroyed. For my parents especially, it was at the very least a pyrrhic victory.
Labour has never, even in its more leftwing moments, been that concerned about abolishing class altogether, though some of its leaders might once have kidded themselves that “we are all middle class now”, something hard to sustain as the gap between rich and poor became ever more drastic. They did promise a reform of the class structure, so that there was at least “equality of opportunity” between classes, something that has been honoured more in the breach.
As the labour movement, with its own educational institutions, becomes more distant from the Labour party, it can only dangle the hope for individual self-advancement – the chance that you, too, could get on in the rat race. Murphy might remember the words of another Scottish politician, Jimmy Reid, who used to like to walk around Glasgow tower blocks and point out how in one there was a Formula One champion and in another the winner of a yacht race – who would never get the chance to sit at the wheel of a racing car or a yacht.
But Murphy, and Labour as a whole, have long forgotten his other point, made in his famous 1972 speech to Glasgow University – that “the rat race is for rats”. Reid continued: “Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts, and, before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat pack. The price is too high.” Around £9,000 a year, to be precise.
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