The petty bourgeoisie is Britain’s most important class

In December, the Labor Party announced a new number that will appeal to: “Middle aged mortgage borrowers.” This was met with understandable derision from some on the left. Old ladies with mortgages don’t need help, do they? No, compared to the young people who were the most vocal part of the left a few years ago: the graduates who rent their houses, struggle with debt and difficult jobs, and live in big cities.

However, the middle-aged mortgagor is just the latest in a long line of special ads that try to capture the plight of many ‘ordinary’ people in Britain. There have been many over the years. Thatcher got it Eccentric PeopleBlair was there Mondeo people. Since then we have also street peopleDuncan Weldon at his best Barratt UKand Dean.

All of these terms are vague substitutes for describing a specific, specialized class that is important to understanding British politics today: the petty bourgeoisie. Historically small artisans, traders and small farmers, today they form an extended class of traders, small businessmen, traders etc.

Old school friends who, when I returned to my small village in Wales after being laid off from another full-time teaching contract, seemed to be more fortunate than me. Many of them were self-employed, police, military, or salespeople at one of the many call centers that have replaced heavy industry in my area. They married nurses, beauticians and hairdressers. They have nice cars and almost always have their own house.

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Minority players occupy a unique position in the class structure. Like the worker, they must work or starve. But they also own their own means of production – a store, tools, a workshop – or a small amount of capital, such as a house, which gives them a stake in the system. They are both workers and entrepreneurs and this breakdown affects everything small business owners do or think.

Despite the warmth and love in my community, whenever “politics” comes up I notice that it is often difficult for people to think: I work at my job – really – and I am successful, if someone is poor, it is because they are lazy. They often seem to dislike anyone they see as lazy, anyone who thinks there is something useless: students, travelers, people on the money.

The petty bourgeoisie are often appealed to by the politicians – usually the ‘honest’ people who think they live in the ‘red wall’ – but they are almost never mentioned. Because of where they live and who they really are sound working class (in the London commentariat, at least) they used to targeting ‘labour conservatives’.

That is partly to do with the way classes are understood in the UK. Most of us think of class as a purely cultural thing – not what job you do or how much money you have, but what you ‘ eat or buy, or yours assignment or pronunciation. (This is almost everyone think they are workersdespite all evidence to the contrary.)

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