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They Look Down On Us

Over the past year, CLASS have been working on the Race-Class Narrative project, which aims to capture the values and experiences of diverse working class people up and down the country. In May, we released the first part of this research, which developed a new narrative that builds solidarity across race and class to inoculate against the powerful few seeking to divide us, and win progressive change.

They Look Down On Us is the second part of the research. Using novel qualitative and quantitative research methods including interviews, focus groups and dial testing, along with the fundamental principles of intersectionality and authenticity, the report disproves misconceptions about the working class, including the fact that it is predominantly “white”. Instead, we reveal that one of the defining characteristics of the working class is, in fact, its diversity. 

CLASS’s one-year project is funded by our supporting unions, including NEU, ASLEF, BFAWU, CWU, GFTU, GMB, NUM, NUT, PCS, TSSA, UCU and Unite the Union. We were also supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation, Unbound, Barrow Cadbury Fund. And to those who are supporting the next phase of the research: Barrow Cadbury Fund, Guerilla Foundation, People’s Action, and Marlene Englehorn.

The aim of the research was to produce a study of the working class on its own terms, giving space and voice to the lived experience and perceptions of working-class people in order to produce an intersectional understanding of class. Together we explored the following themes: community, division, values, everyday life, policy issues, personal identity, race, class, gender, power and change. We found: 

The working class is partly defined by its diversity compared to middle and upper-class groups. The working class cannot be characterised by a particular skin colour or ethnicity nor through stereotypes and cliches. Working-class people in Britain are of many ethnicities and nationalities, languages, cultures and faiths. Working-class people of all ages live across the UK and Northern Ireland. Their material conditions vary from those struggling to make ends meet to those living somewhat comfortably and the working class covers a variety of occupations, income level, education, housing tenure and political beliefs.

We found that only 1 in 3 people say they know precisely what ‘working class’ means. Class is not widely nor intuitively understood as a political concept, nor is it readily talked about in relation to inequality or social justice.

‘Working class’ can be a potentially divisive term. A consequence of working-class identity being firmly and at times exclusively associated with work is that many participants distinguished between the ‘working class’ and the ‘lower class’ – those in receipt of benefits or thought to choose not to work.

7 in 10 working-class people believe that the system is rigged against them and that wealthy people are wealthy because they are given more opportunities and not because they work harder or are more talented.

Some participants felt confined to their ‘place’ in the class system, partly defined by one’s gender, race and nationality. Yet, most participants also strongly believed in meritocracy, that society is structured like a ladder that one can climb to a better social and economic position – seemingly defined by higher earnings, material possessions, and crucially, security.

Working-class life today is defined by precarity, prejudice, and a lack of place and power.

  • Precarity is at the core of working-class life: The lack of a solid sense of security and safety, both economically and physically. 
  • Prejudice: navigating social stigma. Although many forms of prejudice are experienced by people of all classes, racism, xenophobia and sexism are most keenly felt by working-class people, who have less social power and fewer means to avoid or respond to it.
  • Lack of Place: neglected and fractured communities. Being working class is related to a loss of place; it is seeing a breakdown of communities from gentrification to the closing down of youth and community centres.
  • Lack of Power and voice: Most crucially and often forgotten; to be working class is about where one stands in relation to power. 

Working-class identity is not strong right now. Yet, although a clear working-class political identity might not be apparent, our research has uncovered its possible foundations. A shared working-class identity emerges from the shared values, challenges and experiences identified in this report. Above all, the diverse working class share desires including safety and security, decent livelihoods, jobs, housing, education and health and social care. 

Our report represents the starting point with which we can strengthen communities to have power over their own lives. By encouraging unity, mutual respect and compassion we can rebalance the economic system away from the wealthy and powerful few, to include every single person no matter their race, origin and gender.