The working class can kiss my ass: I’ve got the foreman’s job at last

Sorry for the somewhat rude title but that modification of the Red Flag (Billy Bragg sings it too fast here in my view) came to mind over this story.

Over 70% of the UK population now describe themselves as middle class, they have an average household income of £37,000: in contrast only 24% regarded themselves as working class and they had an average household income of £24,000. The survey by Britain Thinks (available here) identified six “middle class segments” and gave them a variety of terms from “Comfortable Greens” and “Urban Networkers” at the upper end of the income bracket down to “Squeezed Strugglers” at the bottom. As an aside the focus groups were asked to bring a defining object of being middle class: the most popular was a cafetière: I am unclear where this leaves me as I only drink Tetley tea.

Whilst the segments seem pretty arbitrary and simplistic (as all such surveys have to be) it is interesting that very large numbers of people now self describe as middle class. Many of those so describing would be in the C1 (Supervisory, clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional) or C2 (Skilled manual workers) socio-economic classes.

The decline in those who self describe as working class has many causes: in part it is probably due to the reduction in mass employment manufacturing industries and the attendant reduction in unionisation of the UK workforce. However, much of it seems to be attitudinal: a generation ago many in the C1 and C2 social classes would have been proud to self describe as working class; they would have been keen to progress and “better” themselves and their family but in no way would they have seen that as a contradiction to being working class. In contrast now the desire to improve one’s financial and social status seems to lead many to describe themselves as middle class.

Politically this shift has been most problematic for left of centre political parties. Although many of the working class had always voted Conservative; Thatcher’s selling off of council housing helped her garner an increased portion of the working class electorate which helped her (along with the split in Labour) win three elections and Major (an archetypal working class man “made good”) a fourth.

These forms of attitudinal shift have been an even greater problem form many on the harder left. Appeals to the working class to unite against the bosses and throw off the chains of capitalism sound much less appealing when many of those to whom the hard left are speaking may own their own homes and be self employed. The facts that those people may be of significantly below average income, have almost nothing in common with “the bosses” and might according to the hard left benefit from the workers revolution are irrelevant if the appeal seems to threaten the successes they have achieved.

Tony Blair of course was the left of centre (just about) politician who managed to harness the voting dynamic of the working aspirant to middle class perfectly. Blair created the political concept of Mondeo man: the kind of 30-something middle income homeowner whom Labour needed to win over from the Tories in 1997. He achieved this even more stunningly than Thatcher had previously and easily won three successive elections.

One of the major problems for the left has been the fact that although many of the self defined middle class are far from wealthy and although they would benefit from income redistribution they rarely vote for it. Even increasing taxation on incomes over £75-100,000 a year is seen as a vote looser despite the fact that few of these people earn (or realistically will earn) those sums. Part of the problem is that although the poorer middle classes will not earn that sort of money, they aspire to do so, and increased taxation on the wealthy is seen as damaging what they aspire to.

The political right, also has some problems from the rise of the middle classes. The previous Tory governments of recent years were all solidly middle class: Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major were all state school educated and in no way from the upper middle let alone the upper classes. In contrast the current Conservative Liberal coalition is the most posh in years: in social class terms it is pretty indistinguishable from governments of the Edwardian era. This may represent a political problem: the same survey found that of 29 famous people the only one seen as upper class was David Cameron (Kate Middleton was only perceived to be upper middle class).

The coalition will have a political problem if they are seen to be calling for cuts to most people’s standard of living whilst being of and representing a social class which is not suffering from those same cuts. In that context the coalition’s claim that “We are all in this together” may start to look highly unconvincing. People may then ask (again to quote Billy Bragg) Which side are you on? in the quest to build Jerusalem.

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