The white working-class - what everyone needs to know by Justin Gest

Reviewed by Ben Soton

This book by Justin Gest is an academic study into the plight of the white working-class in Britain and the United States. There is renewed interest in this group, which is interesting as twenty years or so ago we were told that the working class would soon cease to exist. This was a narrative espoused by the Blairite Extreme Centre; a grouping more extreme than centrist. Recent studies have focused on derogatory characterisations such as Chavs, Pikies and White Trash, although this study avoids such negative terminology.

Chapter One concentrates on definitions of both ‘white’ and ‘working class’.  Being white is simply a reference to people of European origin and the author goes into the history of how this terminology developed from the eighteenth century onwards. Gest views class in terms of social and educational factors. This misses the point, as many call centre operatives with limited job security have degrees, but earn less and have worse terms and conditions than say a docker in the 1960s or 1970s. To Marxists, class is about relationship to the means of production; the working class are those who sell their labour, namely wage earners.  This definition may become blurred in the case of say heart surgeons or film directors, but there is little to distinguish call-centre workers from the factory workers. Class is not some cultural lifestyle choice but about pure hard economics.

Gest covers issues of mass immigration and the decline of manufacturing industry in both countries. The book is full of the results of surveys on the attitudes of white working-class people toward immigration and welfare.  Some of these surveys, although they show the subject group sometimes taking a tougher stance, they are not at huge variance with the rest of the population. 

Working-class people sometimes take a harsher view of benefit claimants, namely those who do not work, and terms like Chav and Pikey are just as likely to be used as terms of abuse between working class people, as directed towards them. Such attitudes, as well as being fuelled by tabloids, may well have their origins in 19th Century values such as thrift, punctuality, hard-work and respectability.    

The book discusses the impact of mass immigration on poorer communities.  He correctly points out that historically many migrants in low skilled employment are often over qualified for the jobs they are initially forced to take.  This means that they are sometimes in a position to both undercut the native poor as well as having better chances of upward mobility. This demonstrates the need for class consciousness and trade union organisation amongst all workers. He also makes the valid point about working class people being made to feel guilt for the past actions of our rulers; such as the slave trade and imperialism.

Gest discusses how the far-right on both sides of the Atlantic have managed to tap into some elements of working class angst. Donald Trump proved successful in parts of the so-called “rust belt” of the United States, while in Britain the former EDL leader and “journalist”, Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), poses as some kind of working-class hero. It should be pointed out that Mr Yaxley-Lennon is in fact a small business man who owns a tanning salon, a business that will only attract custom from white people. Research perhaps needs to be done into what attracts some working-class people to the far-right. Many of these people are essentially small “c” conservatives, who believe in an ideology that never existed for their benefit. Unfortunately, when it ceases to work for them, rather than rejecting the ideology they demand more of it; as a result, moving farther to the right. This is not helped if the alternative is a Labour Party dominated by the Extreme Centre.

In a section Why do working class people vote against their interests? he raises the question of why some working-class people vote for reactionary parties. Although it may be against their interest to vote for Donald Trump, UKIP or the Tory party, there is a crucial subject where many on the left missed a trick. Yes…Brexit; by campaigning for a Remain vote, some of the Left pushed many working-class voters into the reactionary camp. However, in 2017 Labour by agreeing to honour the referendum result, combined with policies that actually benefit working class people, effectively finished off UKIP. Remainers on both the right and left of the Labour Party are handing the far-right an opportunity on a plate by calling for a second referendum.      

Gest poses the question Was the White Working class ever on Top?  The Second World War saw the victory of the Red Army over fascism, stronger communist parties and a powerful trade union movement. The ruling class in the developed world lived with a degree of fear; hence the need to give concessions. In Britain we saw the NHS, The Welfare State, social housing and various opportunities for self-improvement. 

Since the 1980s these gains have been undermined; the process continued during the Blair-Brown era, where neo-liberalism further eroded the welfare state, education and social housing.  Meanwhile the far-right have managed to tap into some of this frustration. The ruling class is not afraid of the far-right. One of the first publications to support the so-called Football Lads Alliance was the rather well-heeled Spectator. The left now has an opportunity to turn the tide and win over or at least neutralise those who may have been tempted by reactionary politics. Let’s just hope that Corbyn can see off the fifth column of Zionists and Remainers.

Unfortunately, Gest advocates a rather worn out Blairite narrative which includes calls for so-called meritocracy combined which suggestions for improved education.  At no point does he suggest that capitalism might be the problem. He rejects definitions of Left and Right but, instead, suggests politics should be viewed in terms of Open and Closed. Sounds a bit like the Third Way to me.