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Finding uncommon ground: working-class identity politics after Labourism

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Identity politics has always been entangled in class politics: the construction of a specific sense of class identity has been central to Labour and left politics. But the decline of industry and changes in working-class neighbourhoods mean that the old bases for constructing class identity have largely disappeared, and the apprenticeships through which people became incorporated into their class identities have been similarly transformed. Cohen identifies two, broadly-defined, contemporary narratives of class identity. One is based on citizenship/consumerism/individualism and seeks to overcome adversity to make good (the 'triumph over adversity' story). Insofar as it holds on to principles of solidarity and mutual aid, these are expressed through the figure of the Multitude. Its meme is 'For the Many not the Few'. The second narrative is more group-focused and is often based on a sense of heritage, of enacting a social destiny: the working class is seen as the sovereign representative of People and/or Nation. It is embodied in the figure of the Tribe and its meme is 'One for All and All for One'. Cohen also discusses other aspects of working-class identity: the heroic labourer; the cheeky chappy; the outsider class. These identities connect in multiple ways and are often linked to a strong sense of local community. To extrapolate from this unstable set of identities and identity formation to find a solid social entity such as 'the white working class' or 'the precariat' and imbue it with a singular voice, a common culture and concerted agency, requires a strenuous effort of sociological imagination, if not wishful thinking. To put Humpty Dumpty back together requires more than this. We need to find new ideas for articulating working-class concerns to a progressive project, through building coalitions of shared concern around issues that link place-based local politics to a national popular project; and to avoid the traps of both an introverted communitarianism and an extraverted but vacuous populism.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 15, 2017

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