Economics of Downton Abbey: A Party for the Working Class

Season Five, Episode One

“When did we last have a Prime Minister who understood the working class? Never. That’s when,” says  Jimmy as the servants sit down to eat.

The formation of the Labour Government in 1924 marked an unprecedented time in Great Britain. To the upper class, it indicated that their marriage of social and political power might be crumbling. No wonder Lord Grantham was unsettled by the village offering Carson chairmanship of the committee for the new war memorial: at the local level he was being cast aside for someone who more closely understood the townspeople, and on the national front he could no longer trust the government had his interests in mind. “What worries me is that our government is committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for,” he says.

Resolutely Working-class

Poster Issued by the Labour Party in 1910
Poster issued by the Labour Party in 1910, depicting the Labour Party ramming the doors of the House of Lords

Prior to the creation of the Labour Party in 1900, political (and social, and economic) power largely rested with the privileged. Indeed, membership in Parliament remained unsalaried until 1911, perpetuating the idea of membership as a gentleman’s occupation.

The working class remained a distinct social stratum in the early 20th century, separate and apart from the middle and upper classes, where perhaps lines blurred a bit more easily. For the leaders of the Labour Party, it was important to identify with workers and speak to their needs.

Leon D. Epstein (1962) argues that the working class background served as a source of pride and potentially even as an advantage for Labour MPs. This is in contrast to stories often told of people climbing the social or occupational ladder who shed their pasts to fit in. Typically those rising in the ranks make use of social and cultural capital, concepts heavily featured in academic work on social mobility. Sociologist James Coleman (1988) defines social capital as the quality and types of relationships that allow for otherwise difficult achievements. Cultural capital relates to the social assets and status of an individual (see for instance, DiMaggio 1982). It’s about who you know and how you act. Social and cultural cues are critical for integration into a group you wish to be a part of, and getting them right is hard to do. Remember when Sir Richard wore the wrong hunting tweeds in Season Three? As someone with ‘new money’ he could afford to dress to the nines, but the Crawley family – always appropriately attired thanks to their ‘old money’ upbringings – noticed when the clothes didn’t quite fit the occasion.

Rather than hiding their working-class connections, however, the early Labour Party MPs chose to project an image firmly separate from the traditional political elite. The Labour Party leadership pursued class solidarity by actively and openly acknowledging their connections to the working class (Epstein 1962). They frequently reminded the public of their own working-class backgrounds, and this information was prominently featured in their biographies in various publications. Regional organizers in the Labour Party took the same approach. For instance, women organizers emphasized their own working class backgrounds in their biographies in the publication, Labour Women, and when speaking at events as a way to attract working-class women to the party (Hannam, 2010).

Working-class Leadership in 1924

Epstein remarks that instead of leaving their working class backgrounds behind to pursue politics and personal success, early Labour Party leaders “joined their own career success with that of their class” (p. 150). This sends a powerful message to their working-class supporters. Moreover, the idea of “representation of workingmen by workingmen” (James and Markey 2006, p. 31) wasn’t an empty promise.  Between 1906 and 1918, 89% of Labour MPs had working-class backgrounds, and working-class MPs continued to compose the majority of the party’s leadership through the 1920s. In the 1924 Labour Government, 11 of the 20 cabinet members were of working-class origin, including Prime Minister MacDonald. Downton Abbey’s Anna says approvingly, “Mr. MacDonald has real experience of a hard life. He knows what people go through.”  A son of a farm laborer and a maid, MacDonald was fortunate to work as a pupil teacher until age 18. Other cabinet members of working-class origin, however, left school as early as 8 years old to do manual labor, and were self-taught beyond that age.

No wonder Jimmy, Anna, and even the usually neutral Mrs. Hughes were excited about the political changes: they could see a clear resemblance between the well-publicized, early-life experiences of Labour Party leadership and their own. The first Labour Government did not last long – only 11 months – but the ground you stand on is certainly shaking, Mr. Carson.

Further Reading

Coleman, J. S. 1988. Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. American Journal of Sociology 94 pp. S95-S120.

DiMaggio, P. 1982. Cultural Capital and School Success: The Impact of Status Culture Participation on the Grades
of U.S. High School Students. American Sociological Review 47(2), pp. 189-201.

Epstein, L. D. 1962. British Class Consciousness and the Labour Party. Journal of British Studies 1(2), pp. 136-150.

Hannam, J. 2010. Women as Paid Organizers and Propagandists for the British Labour Party Between the Wars. International Labor and Working-Class History 77, pp. 69–88.

James, L. and R. Markey. 2006. Class and Labour: The British Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party Compared. Labour History 90, pp. 23-41.

Morgan, A. 1987. J. Ramsay MacDonald. Manchester University Press: Manchester UK.

Image: “Labour Clears the Way.” Poster image retrieved from People’s History Museum on January 9, 2015. Published by the Labour Party, 1910. Creators: Howitt and Son, Nottingham (Printer).


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