In the modern era of strikes in Britain, there is a lot of old-fashioned rhetoric. As if resurrecting old Central Office scripts from strike days past, Rishi Sunak accused rail workers of being “foot soldiers in Mick Lynch’s class war” before train strikes disrupted Christmas travel plans in 2022. Months before that Lynch himself had declared: “The working class is back.”
A columnist for the Spectator argued in December that Lynch led a “middle-class union” because the median salaries in some rail jobs are higher than the national average of £33,000. Lynch himself had his six-figure earnings detailed in a Times article last March, along with his house: “His predecessor Bob Crow lived in a council house but Lynch, a father of three, has settled in a west London home worth more than £730,000.”
In early January there was a minor Twitter storm over one GB News viewer criticising a rail worker on the picket line for his “£390” North Face coat.
Standing there in a £390 coat isn’t helping a cause about striking for pay rises 😳 pic.twitter.com/9nu3q7lMJw— Barry (@Kent_Grandad) January 3, 2023
Does it really matter what class anyone is in today’s time of strikes? This is Britain, so one might assume so. It is, after all, the common fate of well-known socialists to be called hypocrites for having any level of wealth, comfort or expensive taste.
Yet in reality the “class war” is less clear-cut in the minds of the public than you might expect for a society supposedly obsessed. British voters mostly see workers going on strike as working-class, but are divided on the perceived class of trade union general secretaries like Lynch.
While 63 per cent of British voters believe that unions represent the working class, only 37 per cent believe unions are typically led by working-class people, according to exclusive New Statesman polling by Redfield & Wilton Strategies.
Nineteen per cent say trade unions represent middle-class people, 4 per cent upper-class, and a significant 14 per cent don’t know. Thirty-six per cent say trade union leaders are typically middle-class (1 percentage point fewer than those who say they are typically working-class), 12 per cent say upper-class and 15 per cent don’t know.
Class means different things to different generations, as the New Statesman has previously reported. In this case, for example, 28 per cent of 18-24-year-olds see union leaders as upper-class, compared with 6 per cent of people aged 65-plus. This chimes with previous research we’ve done suggesting younger Britons associate class with status and income more than with cultural factors or background, which may be why over a quarter of Gen Z surveyed see people like Lynch as upper-class. (Lynch was raised in west London “slums” – his words – by his father, who was a labourer then a postman, and mother, who was a cleaner; he left school at 16 to work as an electrician, a job seen as working-class by most British voters.)
A variety of professions are striking at the moment – from teachers (seen by most British public as middle-class) to lawyers (who the British public say are upper-class). In this new age of industrial action the idea of a “class war” seems like a confusing one.
Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled a weighted sample of 1,500 eligible voters in Great Britain on 11 January 2023 for the New Statesman. This article was originally published on 26 January 2023.