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Symposium Report by Sue Lemos

What is Labour History? Rethinking the Category of ‘Working Class’ in Brexit Britain

Britain has a preoccupation with class, which shapes public imaginations of national history and contemporary political rhetoric. A flattened conception of the ‘British class system’ often dominates public debates on social relations and tends to omit the influence of multiple intersecting inequalities and power differentials in British society. The renewed interest in the ‘British working class’ and its dominant representation as white, male and socially conservative motivated Laura Schwartz to organise the Symposium ‘“Ordinary” Working-Class People? Writing Labour History in Brexit Britain’. Historians convened to discuss how labour historians might challenge the eclipsing image of the ‘white industrial working man’ and illuminate the heterogeneity of working-class histories. Laura Schwartz provocatively questioned whether historians should ‘reclaim’ class as a category at all? The Symposium, nevertheless, demonstrated that class is still a ‘useful category of historical analysis’ and continues to be productively troubled by historians through modalities of race, gender and sexuality.

One of the main points asserted in the papers and discussions is that the ‘white working class’ does not exist in isolation, rather it is referential to non-whiteness and an elite class. Ryan Hanley’s instructive use of ‘populism’ illustrated that the construction of white working-class identities, amid debates on the abolishment of the slave trade, was predicated on equating between white working-class subjugation and the enslavement of African people. On the other hand, the idea that it was the British that ended the slave trade has endured within patriotic narratives of national identity. Similarly, Aditya Sarkar’s paper in the concluding roundtable considered the referential construction of the ‘white working class’ in more recent histories of racial dynamics in Britain. The invocation of the ‘forgotten’ or ‘left-behind white working class’ was critiqued by Sarkar as, in part, a reaction to the perceived ‘gains’ and social progress of people of colour since the mid to late twentieth century.

There was a lively discussion about method and whether the ‘ordinary’ or the ‘everyday’ could be a fruitful lens through which historians can examine histories of multi-racial working-class cultures and complicate racialised divisions. Caroline Bressey’s paper conceptualised the pub as a social hub in Victorian working-class culture, where multi-racial connections were formed. Bressey illuminated the positive conceptions of barmaids and the ways that women of colour barmaids were also appreciated for their beauty and included in constructions of the ‘local’. This sparked debate over the role of labour history and how to write about multi-racial working-class relations without romanticisation. Schwartz contended that the power of history is not just its ability to critique and deconstruct but also to inspire. This line of argument has wider relevance to the historical discipline and its purpose. Who are we writing for as historians? And why are we doing this? My own doctoral work has prompted me to think about the significance of ‘positive images’ for queer Black people who continue to be marginalised and lack empowering images of themselves in British society. In contrast to romanticisation, which raises doubts about ‘historical accuracy’, a ‘romantic’ historical narrative of queer Black resistance includes intimate life, the ‘everyday’ and the ‘personal’ as political sites. More broadly, perhaps the ‘romantic’ can prompt historians to not only provide an ‘alternative history’ that can inspire and empower individuals in the present but consider the ways that studying the past could inform our understanding of a broader vision of social progress.

At the symposium, papers on gender and sexuality exposed entrenched ideas of labour and political participation that have foreclosed a more expansive conception of labour history and the working class. The powerful image of the ‘white industrial working man’ not only renders the ‘working class’ white and male, it also contains the notion that labour is a manual activity defined by a wage economy. Women’s roles in the miners’ strike of 1984-1985 was a topic of both Diarmaid Kelliher's paper and the collaborative paper delivered by Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Natalie Thomlinson. Kelliher problematised the masculine connotations of the picket line as a violent space and emphasised the reproductive labour of women who created a social infrastructure that provided food, housing, childcare and significantly contributed to the longevity of the strikes. On the other hand, Thomlinson and Sutcliffe-Braithwaite questioned the adequacy of the terms ‘political’ and ‘working-class’ as descriptors for their oral history participants. Thomlinson noted that several women rejected the term ‘political’ to describe their activities despite some women being heavily involved and visible in support groups. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite highlighted that many of the women entered the service industry, assuming roles in retail and what were considered 'white collar’ jobs following deindustrialisation. Moreover despite some becoming property owners, participants nevertheless strongly identified as ‘working-class’. On both points, responses to the collaborative paper led to an insightful discussion about authenticity and the looming manual/non-manual dyad that continues to separate the categories of ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’. The definition of labour history was further problematised by Julia Laite’s research on sex work, which critiqued a myopic view of labour that has tended to ignore intimate labour and, consequently, separated the ‘history of sexuality and sex’ from that of work. How might historians redefine the ‘working class’ outside of the sociological binarism of manual and non-manual labour? And how does a more expansive conception of labour invite alternative avenues for research within the ‘new British labour history’?

A final roundtable prompted suggestions of next steps on how historians can intervene in twenty-first century debates about class in Britain. Schwartz’s provocations about the theoretical utility of ‘class’, the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘everyday’ spurred questioning over the focus of labour history in the future. Recent strikes conducted by junior doctors and ‘white collar’ professionals were emphasised by Sutcliffe-Braithwaite as a case in point of the inadequate synonymity of labour history and the working class. In other words, perhaps historians will need to rethink the notion that labour history is always a history of the working class to reflect the shifting terrain of class and labour relations. Discussion also focused on how historians could contribute to contemporary political debates on class. Subsequent projects to the Symposium include a podcast and developing teaching materials for primary and secondary school students; as well as a Special Issue of an academic journal. All of these would be ways to provide alternative and ultimately more heterogeneous narratives of the working class in the British past and present.

Sue Lemos is an 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, and won the Olivette Otele Prize for her paper Queering Black Politics (2021). 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.