In one of his early Covid-era videos, the comedian Russell Kane introduced a theme that has since become familiar in content about lockdown: the different attitudes to and experiences of the crisis for people of varying class positions.
In this particular video, posted just before lockdown measures were introduced, Kane joked about how, in contrast to his working class friends, his middle class contacts anticipated lock down being somewhat enjoyable.
Posh people, he suggested, were basically looking forward to it. He parodied the attitude:
“Look at it as a time to recharge, to reconnect with the self, maybe go for woodland walks, be at one with nature. I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish, this is an opportunity! [Then, turning to a book shelf behind him]... look at all these books!...some of them I’ve always wanted to read. [He grabs a particularly large one]...these are the essays of French essayist Michel de Montaigne; always wanted to read that, never have, now’s the opportunity.... We’re going to start making our own dips... me and my wife Hilary are also going to get that old table out of the loft and restore it...”
And so on...
Kane’s lock down sketches are well worth watching, not just because they’re incredibly funny but because they’re so accurate as to barely be a parody at all. As lock down has progressed I’ve definitely seen – from my own middle class friends and acquaintances –countless social media posts or shared videos and photos of people’s elaborate culinary creations, DIY projects and scenic walks. I’m no exception myself. I’ve been practicing my French, making a squat rack from scrap wood and this weekend, finally, after seven weeks of lockdown (and despite having zero interest in cooking two months ago) I found myself buying a blender to make a dip I’d seen on Instagram.
Meanwhile, as the middle classes congregate verbs and upcycle old furniture, a large section of the working classes are either being forced to put their lives on the line by continuing to go out to work or are facing struggles to pay bills and feed families as insecure contracts are terminated and self-made businesses collapse. While the government frame the continued labour of ‘key workers’ as an act of bravery and benevolence (an imaginary encouraged by the weekly clap), most of the low paid workers who have been working through lockdown - and those returning to work this week – have no choice but to do so. The government have left it to employers to decide who should be at work and have put no legally binding measures in place to ensure that employers provide adequate protection against Covid in workplaces. As Owen Jones has spelled out, the working classes are being sent out, potentially to their deaths, while the middle classes – most of whom can work at home - have their safety protected.
As lock down eases, it’s also middle class activities that are being prioritised for resumption; golf, tennis and country walks are back on the agenda while meeting family and friends is still limited to socially distanced one on one visits outdoors: so basically banned if you don’t have good mobility, private transport or easy access to outdoor space. This is even though it’s clearly much safer to visit friends or family at home or in small groups than to use public transport to go back to work.
In a takedown of Boris Johnsons’ much criticized, baffling announcement about the easing of lockdown measures on Sunday, Russell Kane berated Johnson for suggesting that people can easily walk to work, or maybe take a bike if they have a lot to carry ‘like, lacrosse sticks’. Kane highlighted the gulf between public life as the Tories present it and the realities of what people are being forced to do; get on a crowded central line tube and try to dodge ‘Covid juice’ using the ‘alertness’ that Boris has recommended.
What’s clear from Kane’s sketches is that – after proclamations of the ‘death of class’ in the 1990s, class is now at the forefront of public consciousness again. If class consciousness was already on the rise with the exacerbation of inequalities post 2008 crash, and the polarising debate around Brexit, then Lockdown has further distilled awareness of class positions and inequalities.
As well as being more aware of who is spending their time crafting and cooking and who is catching Covid while undertaking frontline work (such as the woman who tragically died after being spat at while working on the London Underground) – lockdown has given us other insights into structural inequalities in the UK. Most centrally, we have become much more aware of discrepancies in housing sizes and standards. Weather forecasters are now coming out with statements such as ‘if you’re lucky enough to have a garden...’ and zoom meetings are making those who can work from home more aware of the difference between the homes of well-paid bosses and their staff. Some people zoom in from private studies or tables set up in their gardens while others sit on their beds in their small rooms within flat shares. One of my siblings – whose partner is using the only surface space they have in their small 1 bed flat for the large computer monitor his job requires – has restored to trying to work in the cupboard.
As class politics takes centre stage again it feels like we’re at a crucial fork in the road. Lockdown could crystalize awareness of inequalities and force change. Or, the ‘new normal’ could become a more intensely polarized state of affairs, where the working classes are made even more precarious to protect middle class quality of life.