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The Guardian view on celebrating working-class memory: a way of looking to the future

<span>The Christmas party at the Parker Pen factory in Newhaven in 1957. </span><span>Photograph: Newhaven Historical Society</span>
The Christmas party at the Parker Pen factory in Newhaven in 1957. Photograph: Newhaven Historical Society

For admirers of a venerable progressive tradition in academia, it is proving an uplifting start to the year. The idea of “history from below”, foregrounding the experience of groups grievously neglected by traditional studies, was most famously pioneered by the Marxist historian EP Thompson. In his The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson rescued industrial textile workers from what he described as the “enormous condescension of posterity”. In this, the month of his centenary, other neglected voices have come to the fore.

In a fascinating new book entitled Remembering Peasants, the historian Patrick Joyce has performed a recuperative service on behalf of an often disdained culture – one that now has all but vanished in Europe. Prof Joyce has set out to rectify the record for the lost peasant generations who, historically, “do not generally speak, they are spoken to”. And in a very different way, a list of 56 new working-class heritage projects released on Wednesday by Historic England will facilitate the telling of some remarkable and little-known stories.

Schemes backed for funding include a plan to collate the memories of workers in the vast bacon factory which, until it was demolished in the 1980s, dominated the town of Calne in Wiltshire. Elsewhere, a touring exhibition will recount the lives of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities on ancient heathland in Bedfordshire. The role of Newhaven in the manufacture of the Parker Pen, once one of the most popular fountain pens in the world, is to be portrayed in an intergenerational film bringing together ex-Parker employees and local schoolchildren.

There is an intrinsic value to such commemorations and reflections, which link the past to the present. As Historic England’s Everyday Heritage programme recognises, the less connected people are to networks of power and influence, the less likely it is that their experiences will be preserved in a lasting way. In an era of tech-driven disruption and seemingly constant political crises, finding ways to tell such stories can help deepen a sense of place and belonging.

Just as importantly, though, it can help empower people to claim more say over their futures in uncertain times. Another of the projects being backed by Historic England will showcase the groundbreaking north London nursery workers’ strikes of the 1980s, when a group of underpaid women – many from minority ethnic backgrounds – fought for better conditions and minimum staff-to-child ratios. Against the odds, grassroots activism helped improve standards of care, but those standards now risk going into reverse.

Thompson intended his celebrated study as a repudiation of both a “great man” view of history, and an arid Marxist determinism that paid too little attention to real working-class lives and agency. In our own time, marked by a collapse of trust in politics and a related suspicion of decisions imposed by remote authorities, such an approach is just as relevant. Next week, the playwright James Graham will be the guest speaker at the launch of Ordinary Hope, a new collection of essays designed to foreground the role of everyday concerns in renewing communities. Sixty years after The Making of the English Working Class was published, there appears to be a growing recognition that underrepresented voices can contribute to a better, more inclusive future.