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'Ordinary' Working-Class People? Brexit Britain and the New Labour History

Symposium organised by Laura Schwartz, funded by the Institutional Research Support Fund, 6 July University of Warwick.

This symposium is the first step towards developing a network of scholars working on the ‘new British labour history’, with the aim of both historicising and intervening in contemporary political debates about class. Its central problematic is the post-Brexit construction of the socially conservative ‘white working class’ as a political and historical ‘truth’. It brings together scholars whose work uncovers the history of a much more heterogeneous working class in Britain – focusing on feminised workforces, black and/or migrant workers, and queer and cosmopolitan working-class cultures. The symposium will discuss how to disseminate this new academic research to a wider audience, cohering more nuanced accounts of the British working class that both highlight its diversity and interrogate racial and gendered divisions. At the same time, a key goal is to explore why the traditional figure of the white male factory worker continues to have so much political purchase.

Symposium participant Sue Lemos has written a report of the event.

9:45 AM Welcome and housekeeping from Laura Schwartz

10 AM-12 noon ‘Race, racism, migration and Britishness in working-class culture and politics’, chaired by Somak Biswas, Past and Present Fellow, Institute of Historical Research

Caroline Bressey, Reader in Geography, University College London

‘The Black Barmaid: rethinking ‘ordinary’ cultures of the Victorian working-class’

Ryan Hanley, Lecturer in History, University of Exeter

‘Racial Populism, Working-Class Identity and the British Slavery Debates.’

 David Featherstone, Reader in Human Geography, University of Glasgow

'Maritime Labour, 'Ordinary' Working Class Multiculture and the Spatial Politics of Decolonization'

12 noon-1 PM LUNCH

1 PM-3 PM ‘Gender and patriarchy in working-class culture and politics’ chaired by George Stevenson, module leader in Social and Cultural Studies on an International Graduate Diploma Programme at INTO Newcastle University

Diarmaid Kelliher, British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Glasgow

‘Any red blooded man’: Gender and class on the picket line

Julia Laite, Reader in Modern History, Birkbeck, University of London

‘Sex Work is Work but are Sex Workers ‘Ordinary’ Working-Class People? Thoughts from the perspective of prostitution history’

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Lecturer in 20th Century British History, University College London and Natalie Thomlinson, Senior Lecturer in Modern History, University of Reading

‘Class and politics in oral history interviews with working-class women from Britain’s coalfields’

3 PM-3:30 PM BREAK

3:30 PM-5 PM Roundtable: Labour historians and 21st-century debates on class – where next? Chaired by Diarmaid Kelliher,British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Glasgow

Jack Saunders, Lecturer in Modern British History, University College London

Aditya Sarkar, Associate Professor of South Asian History, University of Warwick

Laura Schwartz, Reader in Modern British History, University of Warwick



Somak Biswas is a Past and Present Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, London. He works on the intersections of transnational immigration, race and gender in British and South Asian history.

 Caroline Bressey is a Reader in Historical and Cultural Geography, in the Department of Geography at UCL. Her research focuses upon the black presence in Victorian Britain, especially London, alongside Victorian anti-racism communities and the links between contemporary identities and the diverse histories of London as represented in heritage sites in Britain. She has co-curated exhibitions with the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of London Docklands and Tate Britain where she and her colleague Dr Gemma Romain co-curated ‘Spaces of Black Modernism’ an exploration of Black artist models in Interwar London. Her first monograph, Empire, Race and the politics of Anti-Caste (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) examined the anti-racist reading community established by the Somerset Quaker Catherine Impey in 1888. Her current research project is exploring the multi-ethnic working-class communities of Victorian England.

David Featherstone is Reader in Human Geography at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of Resistance, Space and Political Identiites: the Making of Counter-Global Networks (Wiley, 2008) and Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism (Zed Books, 2012). He is currently working on a book with the draft title Politicising Race and Labour: Seafarers' Struggles for Equality and the Anti-Colonial Left, 1919-1953- and, together with Ben Gowland and Lazaros Karaliotas, a Leverhulme funded project on 'Trade Unions and Spaces of Democratization in Britain, the Caribbean and Greece'.

Erin Geraghty is a second-year PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Warwick, funded by the Wolfson Foundation. Her PhD thesis combines historiographies of internationalism, feminism, and imperialism to investigate the participation of left-wing British women in the Irish feminist and labour movements of the early twentieth century. Her MRes thesis, undertaken at the University of the West of England (UWE), examined the collaboration between the suffrage and labour movement in Dublin from 1900-1918, arguing that the two were much more closely entwined than the historiography has previously suggested. Outside of the PhD, she taught on the second year ‘History of Russia from 1881’ module at Warwick, and in her first year, co-convened and contributed to the Warwick History PG Podcast - the pandemic replacement for the post-graduate conference.

Ryan Hanley is a Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Exeter. He is interested in black British history, popular politics, radicalism, and working-class cultures of Empire in Britain from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. His first monograph, Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British Writing, 1770-1830, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2019 and was awarded the Royal Historical Society Whitfield Prize. His current research focuses on the sometimes turbulent relationship between working-class politics and the antislavery movement in the period 1787-1838, examining how the emergence of both raced and classed identities in this period were intimately linked.

Diarmaid Kelliher is a British Academy postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Glasgow, in the school of Geographical and Earth Sciences. His current research focuses on the picket line in late twentieth century Britain. He has recently published a book for Routledge: 'Making Cultures of Solidarity: London and the 1984-5 Miners' Strike'.

Julia Laite is a Reader in Modern History at the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London. She researches and teaches on the history of women, crime, sexuality and migration in the nineteenth and twentieth century British world. She is the Birkbeck Director of the Raphael Samuel History Centre and an editor at History Workshop Journal, and maintains a strong interest in public history and historiography. Julia is the principle investigator on the AHRC-funded Trafficking Past project and is the author of Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London (2012) and (with Samantha Caslin) Wolfenden’s Women: A Critical Sourcebook(2020). Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey: A True Story of Sex, Crime and the Meaning of Justice, was published with Profile Books in April, 2021.

Sue Lemos is a first year ESRC-funded PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Warwick. Using oral history methodology and archival documents, she seeks to write a critical history of queer Black community networks and politics in late twentieth century Britain. She was awarded the departmental ‘MA Dissertation Prize’ for her study on the London Black Lesbian and Gay Centre, from 1985-1995. Outside of her studies, she has volunteered for community-led history initiatives: the Young Historians Project and the Haringey Vanguard, a local heritage project on BAME LGBTQ+ history from the 1970s to the 1990s. Currently she is co-convenor of the Warwick Black Studies Reading Group, a space to engage with Black intellectual production in all its forms.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is Associate Professor of Twentieth Century British History at UCL and author of Class, Politics and the Decline of Deference in England, 1968-2000 (2018). She is currently working with Natalie Thomlinson on a monograph about women's experiences during the 1984 - 5 miners' strike.

Natalie Thomlinson is Associate Professor of Modern British Cultural History at the University of Reading, and is author of Race and ethnicity in the women's movement in England, 1968 - 1993 (2016). She is currently working with Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite on a monograph about women's experiences during the 1984 - 5 miners' strike.

Aditya Sarkar is Associate Professor of South Asian History, University of Warwick. He is a historian of labour and political movements in late-colonial and postcolonial India. He was initially trained as a historian at the University of Delhi and the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and completed his doctorate from SOAS in 2009. He has been teaching history at Warwick University since 2013, prior to which he was a research fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the University of Goettingen in Germany. His first book, Trouble At the Mill, deals with the connections between factory law and industrial conflict in late-nineteenth century Bombay. He has also published articles on the effects of the global bubonic plague pandemic on labour relations in Bombay around the turn of the twentieth century. He is currently working on two very different projects. The first is a long history of the struggles and conflicts which attended the elaboration of structures of wage-payment in organized Indian industry between the 1890s and 1970s, with a specific focus on the genealogy of the payment-form known as the 'annual bonus'. The second is a collection of essays combining political theory and history, which seeks to analyse the nature and dynamics of contemporary right-wing authoritarianism in India.

Jack Saunders is a Lecturer in Modern British History at University College London. His first monograph, Assembling Cultures, a history of workplace activism in the notoriously fractious British motor industry, was published by Manchester University Press last year. He has published widely on the history of work and workers in post-war Britain, most recently on race, gender and class formation in the National Health Service.

Laura Schwartz is a Reader in Modern British History at the University of Warwick. She works on the history of feminism, class and radical movements. Her most recent monograph is Feminism and the Servant Problem: Class and Domestic Labour in the British Women’s Suffrage Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

George Stevenson is the module leader in Social and Cultural Studies on an International Graduate Diploma Programme at INTO Newcastle University. Prior to this, he completed a PhD in modern British history at Durham University in which he examined the relationship between British second-wave feminism and class politics. An adapted version of this research, The Women's Liberation Movement and the Politics of Class, was published by Bloomsbury in 2019. He has also published in the Labour History Review and Women’s History Review, as well as on History Workshop Online. He is currently researching "popular" constructions of social class at the end of Thatcherism based on the Mass Observation Project archive.

Sivamohan Valluvan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and is the author of the 2019 Clamour of Nationalism (Manchester University Press). He has written widely on debates of race and racism, nationalism and multiculture, as well as postcolonial and social theory more broadly. He is also the co-author (with James Rhodes and Stephen Ashe) of a British Academic research report titled: ‘Reframing the Left Behind: Race and Class in Post-Brexit Oldham’ and has contributed to Salvage, Red Pepper, Guardian, Fabian Review, Renewal and Juncture.