I have, from time to time, disagreed violently with Jonathan Freedland, notably about his habit of showing up at Labour Party candidate selection meetings and trying to impose conditions on the strength of his position as Mr Big Stuff, Acting, Unpaid, and then smearing the candidate as an anti-semite the week before the election in a national newspaper column.
They endowed the working man with a kind of nobility, making his plight all the more tragic. The same sentiment operated 50 years later, as the films Billy Elliot, Brassed Off or The Full Monty depicted the devastation wrought by the Thatcher clearances of Britain’s mining or manufacturing industry.
But the post-2008 recession has not lent itself to that heroic treatment. For decades popular culture has depicted much white-collar work as a bit of a joke, the province of Reggie Perrin or David Brent. On some level, all that paper-shuffling is not really regarded as work at all. Even Ethan Lipton’s show is in on the joke: his fictitious job is that of an “information-refiner”.
It means we don’t have a ready reflex, embedded in the culture, to respond to the victims of today’s economic woes. Decades ago, we knew what we felt about men used to working with their hands, cruelly rendered jobless. But insecure office workers, part-timers and the under-employed? Even our artists are not quite sure what to make of them. Such people are in the middle and feeling the squeeze – even, it seems, when it comes to our sympathy.
I think part of the problem here is the “man” bit – at some level the problem is that these jobs are considered to be women’s work. Unconscious sexism is doing some of the hard work of ideology here.
This has important consequences for policy – for a lot of people, if we have an industrial policy that means a manufacturing policy. But when industrial policy works it often tends to reinforce existing trends. I wouldn’t be surprised if the aerospace and automotive clusters benefited strongly, but that’s mostly going to help the parts they’re based in (Bristol; Derby; West Lancashire; from the West Midlands down to Southampton). This doesn’t reach the deindustrialised big cities, for example.