My two grandfathers were working class. They both lived in rented accommodation, and earned their living from a skilled trade. They both spent teenage years in the trenches in France fighting for their country. One, a farrier, had to become a labourer for the electricity company when horse shoeing went out of fashion. The other did move in later life from carpentry and shop fitting to a clerical job in an office.
In the 50s and 60s when I was a child working class attitudes were straightforward. The families did not want to accept charity. It was the father’s task to find and keep a job to pay the rent and the food bills. There was a pride in self help, and in the dignity of labour. A man defined himself by what he did, by his position in life. As the welfare state developed, people were happy to take universal benefits like free health care and the old age pension. They saw these as entitlements, paid for by their National Insurance stamp. They saw means tested benefits as a kind of state charity they would rather avoid. One grandfather supported the Unions and Labour, the other I think voted Liberal. Neither wanted to talk religion or politics. Both were Church of England, and had imbibed a moral sense from the Christian message. Both liked the NHS, protecting them from the unaffordable doctor’s bills.
Labour’s history was bound up with seeking to understand and represent such families. Conservatives made a fight of it, often securing the support of working people who thought Conservatives would manage the money and the economy better, which was in everyone’s interest. The two main parties accounted for the lion’s share of the vote. People on low incomes were called poor. There was an implied distinction in many people’s language between the deserving poor – the disabled or otherwise unfortunate – and the idle poor who simply did not have a sufficient work ethic to do what everyone else did.
We now look at things very differently. The erosion of the old class language and arguments is good news. We have moved from discussing poverty to discussing deprivation or disadvantage. We have moved from the poor to the benefit class. We have changed from a country where most think means tested benefits are to be avoided if at all possible, to where many think means tested benefits are a right, and a necessary means of correcting some of the social injustice manifest in income inequalities.
I have no wish to put the clock back. Much is better today.Not least, we are a much richer society, and can afford to be more generous to neighbours who do not have well paid jobs. Many families who were working class in the 50s became middle class in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Many more attained clerical and executive jobs and the pay and lifestyles that go with them. Men and women with skills were able to form their own small businesses, and many prospered as they bought their own home, joined the golf club and sent their children to university. However, if welfare reform is to work one old idea does need to be strengthened. It is simply that all who can work should work, to pay their own bills.
The recent employment figures show that the private sector has been generating a good number of new jobs over the last year – more than 300,000. They also show that two thirds of these were taken by recent migrants into our country, leaving many people who were born here out of work. We need to ask why this is so. We need to switch more people from benefit class to employment. The welfare reforms need to ensure that the severely disabled and otherwise unfortunate are generously treated – something we can now afford – whilst there should be strong incentives for the rest to take the jobs that the economy is now creating.