BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Paul Mason
« Previous | Main | Next »

The working class election (but not here!)

Post categories:

Paul Mason | 13:08 UK time, Friday, 29 August 2008

Seven times Barack Obama invoked a word that you hardly hear in its ungarnished and emotion-laden form here: workers.

Now the word that sticks out from his speech, of course, is "promise" - used 31 times in the speech. The American promise is Obama's reworking of the "American dream" metaphor. But who are the promises being made to? And how is the promise being pitched? it's very clear from the rhetoric: Obama, whatever you think of him, is the first politician in any G7 country since the collapse of communism to make a direct, visceral appeal to something that is hardly admitted to exist in UK political-speak: the working class. Just listen...

1. "When I listen to another worker tell me that his factory has shut down, I remember all those men and women on the South Side of Chicago..."

2. "...businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers..."

[UPDATE: McCain picks Sarah Palin and announces to the world that she is someone who "understands working people"]

3. "Change means a tax code that doesn't reward the lobbyists who wrote it, but the American workers and small businesses who deserve it."

4. "I don't know anyone who benefits when ... an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers..."

5. "I've seen it in the workers who would rather cut their hours back a day than see their friends lose their jobs..."

6. "- a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot."

7. "A nation of whiners? Tell that to the proud auto workers at a Michigan plant who, after they found out it was closing, kept showing up every day..."

Let's just linger for a while over the semiology of this. Proud auto workers, workers on the picket lines, American workers versus illegal workers, sacked workers, workers versus the tax lawyers. The imagery is unmistakeable.

It tells us that:

a) Obama realises he has to shore up the grass roots working class, blue collar, white male. non-college educated part of the Democratic party's electoral coalition that trusted Clinton more than him; and he has to do it with a mixture of policy and rhetoric - and unmistakeably.

b) He also realises that the electoral secret weapon of modern Republicanism has nothing to do with attack ads or lobbying but its visceral appeal to the white working class of the non-seaboard states, and especially southern states. Launching Joe Biden in Springfield, Illinois - Lincoln's home town - he could hardly have ignored the fact that for 150 years this mass, plebeian conservative segment of the population has made or broken not just presidents but shaped epochs in American history.

What is gobsmacking, especially if you are immersed in the language of British politics, is this naked appeal to class - not primarily to class interest but class iconography and culture.

If, for example, you were to take Obama's speech and put it in the mouth of Gordon Brown (or David Cameron for that matter) it would sound very wierd. Labour's special advisers, even when speaking to you privately, cannot bring themselves to say that people who work for 12k a year in midlands towns that close down at 6pm except for the bouncer-guarded pubs, and who have switched to either the Conservatives or the BNP in local elections, are "working class". Labour's is the language of "low income families", and instead of dreams and promise, "fairness".

It's worth remembering how and why a politician who is not by any means further to the left than eg Gordon Brown or David Milliband is able to tap right into the wellspring of class identity of America. The US labor movement was historically shaped and led by people who made it their business to insert themselves, their values, their myths into the core of the American dream. It was, in other words, full of feisty rootless individuals, chancers, migrants like Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti or native born brawlers like Big Bill Haywood and Walter Reuther.

To put it crudely and a bit unfairly, we've got Fred Kite, Peter Sellers' caricatured shop steward in I'm Alright Jack, and they've got Tom Joad, transcendental hero of The Grapes of Wrath. The proud and feisty worker is closer to the heart of the American myth of individualism than the travelling con-man or frontier cowboy.

There's another cultural difference: even middle class people in the USA adopt, essentially, a plebeian, downhome, sometimes called "folksy" lifestyle. Even people with immaculate and huge 4x4s who work in investment banks and go to the opera put on the kind of check-shirt/baseball cap image at weekends. While the British newspapers spend many column inches chronicling the partygoing and japes of aristocratic youngsters at Polo matches, it is social and political death in America to be like Niles in Frasier. Plus there's another difference: America still has a manufacturing industry; Britain's is down to something like 17% of GDP.

So in Britain the last election in which any form of class rhetoric was used was 1983.

And for the government here, faced with roughly the same concatenation of economic pain being felt as in America: penury among the working poor, over-extension among the white collar salariat, the language choices are different.

As they prepare to sell the economic relaunch, which will not be a package but dribbled out starting next week with council backed mortgages (if they can decide on how they fit into the National Accounts), the language of class will be absent - meanwhile in the USA it will be centre stage: I'll do a similar workers' word count on McCain next week and I will make a bet it's higher.

These are the two realities and not about to change: not even the centre-left Cruddas wing of Labour is prepared to bring back class rhetoric, so for now in the UK it is the property to the BNP and the Campaign Group Left and beyond.

What is making me roar with laughter, though, and spill my special brew all over my shell suit, is the sight of British journalists who don't even believe class exists or is relevant to politics in the UK now having to put their serious faces on and write: "this election is all about the working class".


  • Comment number 1.


    Strip those out and what is left?

  • Comment number 2.

    Sarah Palin, Republican VP candidate has little experience. She's been a governor of Alaska for under two year.

    Rookie Senator Obama, Presidential Candidate, has no executive experience at any level. As someone once said: he's an empty suit.

  • Comment number 3.

    so to cut a long story short, Paul, he is trying to appeal to the Bruce Springsteen/Cyni Lauper class? Born in the USA/True Colours and all that?

    the equivalent in the uk would be ? The Full Monty class?

    many years ago working on a night shift in a factory each person could bring a tape in to play as we sweated out our nightly target of widgets. It ended up with a lot of rock from hawkwind to ACDC. They nearly got me to buy a Kawa 750 but i left before it got to that stage of indoctrination.

    not sure what they play on the night shift in factories these days.

  • Comment number 4.

    should be interesting a gun enthusiast, anti-abortion, pro war (or any war) just the kind of homespun liberal lady we need in the White House. There's no difference, they are all the, woman, why do American republicans always shoot from the hip?

  • Comment number 5.

    Well, presenters and reporters on Newsnight could start talking about working class people couldn't they.

    But with respect, not as something in the rubbish bin.

    Even (wow!) hearing what they have to say? Having their voices heard in the program?

    No, clearly there's an assumption that NNs audience is all middle class, who would turn off if such a thing happened?

    And that working class people obviously couldn't cope with such a highly intelligent, well informed (! not) program - and they are all rolling drunk from their binge drinking by 10.30 anyway.

    I can't imagine a more pretentious middle class-only program. On a par with Radio 4

  • Comment number 6.

    As an American, Independent registered female, I believe the nomination of Ms Sarah Palin to be VP of the Republican Party was a home run.
    I had left work to get a McDonald's hamburger and was in the drive-in section and, upon hearing the news, I wept for a long time. It was enormously important to me as a female and created a depth of feeling which surprised me. I don't agree with all her ideas, I am pro-choice, but I respect her journey in arriving at those decisions. I will vote for Ms Palin with joy and believe this elevation of her will provide hope for women throughout the world.
    Our Hillary was cheated of her term as President and this heals that travesty.
    Senator Obama , in my opinion, will be President at some point if he does not make any mistakes in personal or business behavior.
    I am overjoyed to have Ms Sarah Palin as the next VP of the USA. She brings to us all that made America great!


More from this blog...

Latest contributors

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.