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After Rover: Who needs middle-class pity?

Longbridge car workers once sparked fear and loathing in the elite – now they are sentimentalised.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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‘The famous Union flags at the front gate of Longbridge, headquarters of MG Rover, were flying at half mast on Friday morning. The few staff remaining at the factory were obviously well-informed; a group of workers trailed past the gates, dragging on a trolley tools that would no longer be needed.’ (1)

The response of the media and politicians to the announcement of the closure of MG Rover car manufacturers in Longbridge, Birmingham, has been notably sombre. In fact, it has been difficult to know where the mourning for Pope John Paul II ends and the mourning for Longbridge’s car workers begins. At a meeting in the Transport & General Worker’s Union’s Birmingham office, trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt apparently fought back the tears. ‘I am sorry’, she said. ‘It has been a very bad week. I hardly slept last night thinking about the workers.’ (2)

The loss of some 6,200 jobs in Birmingham is undoubtedly a bitter blow for Longbridge workers. After decades of mismanagement and underinvestment, anger at such a gloomy outcome is fully deserved. It is all the more galling when, with crushing predictability, incompetent managers swan off with millions of pounds and workers are left with a couple of grand each.

Nevertheless, there is something highly dubious about all this pity for the sacked Rover workers. Like the sentimental response when thousands of coal miners lost their jobs in 1992, nothing symbolises the defeat of working-class politics more than being recipients of middle-class sympathy. This is very different to the media’s reaction to car workers 30 years ago. These days it’s rarely mentioned that Longbridge was once a notorious bastion of working-class militancy. Old Communist Party trade unionist Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, and the union members he represented, were once the scourge of the middle classes everywhere.

Back then, the sort of people who lost sleep ‘over the workers’ were MI5 agents busy disorientating strike action (though Robinson’s collaborative politics did that anyway). In the 1970s, no light entertainment TV show was complete without a dig at striking car workers at ‘British Leyland’, as it was then. Unlike striking bin men or workers in the power industry, hardly anyone was disrupted by regular strike action at Longbridge, yet for the middle-classes, such activity was still immensely irritating. It appeared that these Brummie oiks weren’t satisfied with their lot – they wanted more.

The idea that car workers are only fit to be car workers has also informed the recent coverage of Rover. At times it’s noticeable that there is a reality gap between journalistic accounts and the comments from sacked workers themselves. ‘What will these people do now?’ has been the hand-wringing response from broadsheet writers. There’s no doubt that workers with mortgages and kids to look after are feeling anxious. But other workers have been matter-of-fact, stating that ‘they’ve had enough’ and are ‘just glad to get out of it’ (3). One worker was asked, rather melodramatically, whether the closure spelt the end for them. ‘I’m going to the pub for the rest of the day and then I’m going to look for a new job’, said 36-year-old Andy Swaye (4).

Perhaps the most striking – and maudlin – reality gap was at the Mars confectionary factories in Slough a month earlier. The announcement of 500 job losses was reported on local news in a manner normally reserved for terrorist atrocities. The statement issued from the sacked workers, though, rather undermined the graveyard tones: ‘We’re delighted to be made redundant’ was the belligerent reply (5). It seems that production line work isn’t as fulfilling as some middle-class reporters like to think.

However, such comments reveal how the expectations of work have shrunk. Twenty or 30 years ago, work – no matter how routine – was a lifeline to the outside world and, through collective action, could have a far-reaching impact. This is why fighting for jobs and wages was often about more than just covering mortgage payments. It could potentially transform society too.

In recent years, though, the only arena left for the working classes is the private sphere. For postmodernists, who deride any strategic position in the workplace as being ‘exclusive’, this is only a good thing. As such, the ‘white working-class male’ has become pejorative because it denotes the many ‘others’ who are denied privilege as agents of change. Once those white working-class males at Longbridge appeared ‘socially excluded’, they have become much more likeable for the press and political elite.

‘In essence there will be a package of about £150 million that will help the Longbrige workforce’, said prime minister Tony Blair (6). This sounds impressive, but the pay-off is not quite what it seems. Over £40million (with an extra £19million) is already pledged for suppliers, while £23million is statutory redundancy payments the government is obliged to pay anyway (7). There is an extra £19million earmarked for redundancy payments, but the biggest slice – £50million – is for what Blair enthusiastically says is ‘support that they need for searching for other jobs, getting the training they require’ (8).

All of which sounds suspiciously like a grim local community project. Former Longbridge workers can probably look forward to counselling sessions, diversity training days and an introduction to Basic Skills (no smoking permitted).

The loss of over 6,000 jobs at Longbridge is undoubtedly an awful situation. But recent doom-filled coverage says more about middle-class preoccupations than it does redundant car workers. When strikers at Longbridge demanded more for themselves and from society, they were despised by middle England. No longer a force to potentially change society, and perceived as the ultimate objects of pity, maybe those funeral tones are appropriate after all.

Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.

(1) ‘End of Rover shatters lives and dreams’, The Times, April 17 2005

(2) ‘Business Focus: The getaway’, The Times, April 10 2005

(3) BBC News, 8 April 2005

(4) ‘Despair of a Longbridge goodbye’, The Times, 9 April 2005

(5) BBC London News, 16 March 2005

(6) ‘Seventeen thousand workers need answers’, Guardian, 20 April 2005

(7) ‘Seventeen thousand workers need answers’, Guardian, 20 April 2005

(8) ‘Seventeen thousand workers need answers’, Guardian, 20 April 2005

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Topics Politics

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