As in the United States, the British working-class has been put down and demonized for the last three decades. In the United States, it started with Reagan; in Britain, with Thatcher.
In a recent two-part interview (here and here), Owen Jones, the author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, explains the crisis in working-class representation, how the British working-class has changed, and the effects of existing class discourses on left politics.
For me, if there’s no working-class, there’s no left. It is class politics that makes the left “the left”, rather than radical liberals. The left has to make the case that the working-class (those who cannot live a decent life without selling their labour, and who lack control over – or are alienated from – that labour) is the majority of society. The working-class isn’t at the centre of left politics out of simply abstract dogma: it’s the position of working-class people – as those directly exploited by capitalism, and whose interests are in direct conflict with those of wealthy businesspeople – that makes them the “gravediggers” of modern capitalism.
I’m not sure we could use “the people” – it’s an abstract term that doesn’t mean very much (it can be everyone, by definition); and “the population” has the same drawbacks, as well as sounding very clinical. Because of the demonisation of working-class identity and the challenge we face overcoming it, there is a case for talking about “working people”, even though some on the left won’t like that. “Working people” lacks the connotations that “working-class” has been given.
That’s not to say that socialism should not aim to win over those who define themselves as “middle-class” (another contested term). It is in the interests of most middle-class people to have job security, rights in the workplace, good public services and cohesive communities; and, as polls have showed, support among middle-class people for higher taxes on the rich (like the 50p tax rate) is almost as strong as it is among working-class people. A left movement would only ever win with the support of a majority of working-class people and a sizable minority of middle-class people.
But of course socialism aims to emancipate all of humanity – working-class, middle-class – and even the wealthy elite, although they won’t necessarily appreciate being saved from themselves in the medium-term.