To eat or to heat? A class agenda

Judy Seymour, a member of the North Tyneside Green Party, highlights why social injustice is systemic in the UK and why poverty is an issue of class inequality.

Electric coin meter
Judy Seymour

Despite theorists saying there’s no longer such a thing, 60 per cent of the population self-identify as working class. However, class isn’t a protected characteristic within the UK’s Equality Act, leading the Law Society to point out – but not endorse, of course – that ‘it’s quite legal to perpetuate negative stereotypes of working-class people with disparaging and offensive comments’. Ask Angela Rayner. 

Based on recent readings such as Karen Bell’s Working Class Environmentalism 2019, I have put together questions that decision-makers in local government might consider in terms of policymaking and class inequality:

  • Has your local authority got a poverty action plan?
  • Could your adult education strategy deliver training for residents on public sector housing estates to become community climate leaders? Community energy facilitators?
  • Do you have the means to engage and respond directly to working-class people’s environmental/ energy/other related concerns? One way or the other, how do you know?
  • How fair are your policies and how do you know?
  • …and for the next General Election campaign: bring social class into the Equality Act!
How this plays out

The Equality Act (2010) enacted by the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition provides the framework for most public sector monitoring. Excluding class means local authority policy evaluation isn’t necessarily class sensitive. 

What’s the result of this? For example – since 2011, environmental impact assessments have become less concerned with environmental equality, enabling councils to protect affluent areas from the burdens of environmental hazards and be less attentive to the fair distribution of green spaces to working-class communities. Here in the North East, 80 per cent of polluting factories are found in areas with the lowest incomes, and across England, 82 per cent of all airborne carcinogenic factory emissions were emitted in the most deprived 20 per cent of wards. This is social injustice on quite a scale.

Personally, I sympathise with the view that ‘the perceived disappearance of class is ideological… it suits politicians to ignore or hide the reality of enduring or increasing social divisions, inequalities and injustices’ (The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class, 2019). 

I’m going with Karen Bell who argues in Working Class Environmentalism that class origins continue to play a significant part in life chances and, while not all working-class people are poor, most poor people are working-class – so poverty is mostly also a class issue. 

How important is this to the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW)? Well, to put it bluntly, if 60 per cent of people in the UK identify as working-class, we aren’t going to win the battle for green energy without the participation and backing of the working class. Advocating for recycling facilities that end up as an incinerator emitting toxic fumes 300 yards from your young daughter’s bedroom window, as cited in Working Class Environmentalism, probably isn’t the way to go either.

I’ve been looking at how we in the GPEW view class. In March 2013, Karen Bell gave a speech entitled ‘Working Class Involvement in the Green Party’. In 2019, she contributed ‘Building a Working Class Environmental Movement’ to Green World. Since then, we have instigated the post of Trade Union Liaison Officer which is certainly a sign of progress. But given the declining membership of trade unions, I feel we need to do much more outreach.

As Bell’s research illustrates, most working-class environmentalists don’t consider themselves green. Greens are ‘not working-class, so it’s a different world. The way they speak is so academic and it’s not relevant, I don’t think, to a lot of people’.

Yet working-class people have long been involved in environmental action. In 1888, for example, the female employees of Bryant and May’s matchstick company went on strike as they were being forced to handle phosphorus, antimony sulphide and potassium chlorates or be fined, sacked or get a form of face-disfiguring bone cancer. This business model helped to ensure shareholders a 20 per cent dividend.

One of the things I find instructive about this example is the interplay between the working-class women and the middle-class activists – Annie Besant, Herbert Burrows and others from the Fabian Society. The Fabian Society was campaigning against the appalling abuse of female labour, and Bryant and May were a useful focus. The Fabians agreed to boycott the purchase of matches and Besant took it upon herself to approach the women at the factory gate, get their stories and publish a report based on what they told her – for which Bryant and May sacked one of the workers. 

In anger, 1400 women walked out and followed up by writing to Besant expressing their gratitude for her support and ‘kind love’. Despite Besant’s advice not to, the women went ahead with their strike with Besant helping by creating a supportive media campaign, mobilising MPs and facilitating members of the strike committee to meet directly with MPs in the House of Commons and then with the Trades Council – who, within three weeks, achieved a negotiated settlement with Bryant and May to the satisfaction of the match girls. 

The lesson I draw from this? The combined power of the match girl’s angry withdrawal of their labour together with the hope generated through the class-based power of Besant and others on their side, allowed them to access networks of influence in the media, political and business sectors. This made change happen. Without the active engagement of Besant in seeking out and publishing the women’s stories, and her willingness to follow their lead and give them a voice, they would likely have been crushed. Without the match girl’s withdrawal of labour, the boycott of Bryant and May would likely have had little impact. Solidarity made the difference.

Compare the match girls strike with this quote from Working Class Environmentalism: “When I try and get (middle class) environmentalists to go out and talk to people, they sit down and go, ‘why don’t people come to our meetings?’ No, you have to go to their meetings, and you have to ask them what their concerns are, and work from there.”

Helen Thompson’s book Disorder, lays out the geopolitics of who gets control of future green energies. It includes the observation: “Politics is becoming a ruthless contest over who can access energy at what price… the struggle… will soon put China, the US and Europe on a geopolitical collision course. But moving away from fossil fuels is a Herculean task, and a greener politics will not transcend tragedy.”

This is brought into sharp focus by the war in Ukraine and its impact on energy prices. End Fuel Poverty predicts the number of households in the UK in fuel poverty will rise from 6.32 million in April to 8.5 million by the end of 2022. Most of these people will be working class. 

When I think about this in relation to our borough, I come up against the reality that the people who will bear the brunt of energy-driven politics aren’t at our meetings. You may say, ‘No, but we’ve been talking to them on the doorsteps for the last eight weeks’ (or more). But, while some will talk of an energy crisis, others will talk of having to choose between food and heating, so although we may all experience this anxiety, we don’t experience it equally.

Energy consumption is rising, not falling – with renewables adding to, not replacing fossil fuels. To meet net-zero by 2030, the reality is that we have to reduce consumption. This begs the question, ‘Whose consumption gets reduced when to be poor is to be energy poor?’ 

Let’s say you get elected to your local council, or already are – what’s your take on how you shape a clean energy strategy that works for the people, largely working-class, who even now are having to choose between eating and heating?