What do we mean when we talk about labour history in Britain? And who do we mean when we talk about the British working class?

Two years ago a group of British scholars, most but not all of them historians, set out to explore precisely those questions. What prompted them, most immediately, was the fallout from the 2016 Brexit vote. In the political debates that followed, a set of truisms quickly emerged about “ordinary working-class Britons”, associating them with long traditions of social conservatism, hostility to immigrants, and support for a right-wing government. Over a series of meetings and workshops, these historians set out to contest those assumptions. In time, their conversations led to this podcast.

Now, in the week marking International Workers Day, and one year on from the start of the wave of industrial action that would touch workers throughout the UK, we’re launching the first in a series of three podcast episodes rethinking the history of the British working class. The series grows out of the research network that inaugurated these discussions two years ago, a network titled Writing Labour History in Brexit Britain.

We begin with an exploration of labour and race. Propelling the vision of the “ordinary working class” as inherently suspicious of immigration and globalization is an assumption that it is homogenous, white and British-born.

Today’s episode tells three stories that contest and complicate that assumption. Ryan Hanley, Caroline Bressey and Somak Biswas each explore a forgotten moment in British history that spotlights the intertwined histories of labour and race. Together they tell a set of stories that make for a more complex labour history narrative, perhaps even a narrative conducive to hope.

Mural to honour the Grunwick strikers. Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The archival extracts are read by Burt Caesar.

This podcast was supported by the Raphael Samuel History Centre. It is part of Migration: a public history festival, a series of lectures, exhibitions, workshops and walks around London which is supported by the Raphael Samuel History Centre.

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