We need to talk about class

We hear a lot about racism in politics. But we don’t hear so much about another form of prejudice that is arguably just as important, and indeed adds an important dimension to the understanding of racism: social class.

What do I mean by social class? It is quite difficult to pin down exactly: it reflects combinations of social circumstances, such as education and where you live. Social class confers advantage to some and disadvantage to others, and to gaps in mutual comprehension. For example there is total exasperation in the Labour Party between middle-class metropolitan liberals and conservative working class union members. There is a lot of evidence that working-class people suffer disadvantage, for example in the job market. Middle-class people are often clueless about how to deal with this, except by creating abstract talking points such as “social mobility”, and trying to make everybody middle class like them. Middle-class privilege goes largely unrecognised.

Funnily enough, I have often heard the assertion that British society is riven by class distinctions which have barely changed over generations, in a uniquely British way, in contrast to both European neighbours and former colonies. But this goes hand in hand with outdated stereotypes of what class looks like. This divides society into upper, middle and working classes. Upper class people are thought of as landed aristocrats, middle class people as suburban professionals and working class people as blue-collar workers. All are predominantly white, and the common mental picture cleaves to old-fashioned gender stereotypes too. In fact social class has changed radically over the last few generations, and the divisions in British society are not particularly unique to Britain.

Changes to working classes have received some recognition through the work of Claire Ainsley, author of The new working class: how to win hearts, minds and votes, who is now working for Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party. Much of the modern working class is from ethnic minorities or are recent immigrants, many are in insecure job contracts, and the women are as likely to be working as the men. This analysis has to be taken seriously, but it may distract from more important dynamics that affect working classes as a whole.

The new upper class is perhaps better understood. This is the elite of the super-rich. The new aristocracy is no longer so closely tied to the ownership of land, but instead to big business. It has deep political influence in nearly all political systems, from the United States to China, and is doubtless behind the erosion of capitalist competition. But we should not exaggerate its influence either: western democracies (and the Chinese Communist Party, come to that) retain powers to hold it in check.

It is the new middle classes that seem to be the least understood. They are as heterogeneous as the new working classes, but I know of no work comparable to Ms Ainsley’s trying to get to grips with its complexity. The artist Grayson Perry observed two very different middle classes in a television series exploring class. On the one hand he talked to the anxious inhabitants of a suburban housing development, keeping up with appearances and ever-changing fashions. On the other there were self-confident liberals who didn’t care what others thought of them. And what about those young metropolitan Momentum activists creating Labour’s collision with the party’s working class roots? They clearly feel that society is stacked against them, for example for property ownership, and yet they are university educated and have access to professional careers.

Two forces in particular are shaping the new class landscape. The first is economic. Working class livelihoods have always been vulnerable to advances in technology. Advances in manufacturing and office technology has shrunk the number of traditional working class blue- and white-collar jobs, replacing them something more rootless. This has militated against traditional working class solidarity and union organisation, and reduced both pay and job security. The second is the massive expansion of education. Educational standards have risen across the board, and the availability of university education has increased dramatically. This has opened up access to middle class work, both expanding its extent, and making it more precarious. Meanwhile immigration has served to backfill working class roles from families that have transitioned to middle class. The interaction of these forces is complex and their effects are not well understood. In my opinion (I am getting a bit ahead of the evidence here) it has created a big problem of what might be called middle-class privilege (though my mother would have objected to that use of the word “privilege”, which to her was loaded with a sense of responsibility). If you are born into a working-class family it is much harder to make your way into a good middle-class life than it should be, based on ability. And in particular if you make a poor start in your educational career it is much harder to make progress than it used to be. Meanwhile the living conditions of working class people don’t get enough attention from the political class, making life harder than it should be.

Let me illustrate the new class dynamics a few examples. The first is about language. Grammar and, to a lesser extent, spelling serve a linguistic function to reduce ambiguity. But the opprobrium attracted by bad usage is totally disproportionate to this usefulness – it is surely used as a means of maintaining a class filter. If your grammar and spelling is a bit weak, you are liable to be dismissed as not being up to standard, even if you communicate quite clearly. I speak as somebody that enjoys linguistic pedantry – but I have to be careful it doesn’t get in the way.

A further example is the use of educational qualifications to pre-select job applicants for interview. This doubtless makes sense in some cases, but it is applied much more widely than it needs to be. When recruiting myself I tried to disregard qualifications, especially if the individual had a significant work track record. That track record, and understanding how the individual goes about their work, was to me much more important. Indeed overcoming a poor educational start is a sign of ability. And yet sifting by educational qualifications is deeply embedded into our job market without regard to how appropriate it might be.

A revealing linguistic tic is the habit of middle-class people calling working-class jobs as “low-skilled”. This has rightly been called-out during the Coronavirus crisis in the case of care workers, but it remains pervasive. It demeans working-class people, who work often requires a lot of skill, but not of the sort you get through a university degree.

Class cuts through racial politics. The most egregious racism comes from white working class people – who think that non-white people (or immigrants) are being given an unfair advantage. This may be well-known, but few seem interested in finding out what drives these feelings – it is easier to put it down to working class ignorance. A different class dimension affects the Conservative government’s narrative on racism. Led by middle-class people from ethnic minorities (like the Home Secretary Priti Patel, or the Downing Street adviser Munira Mirza), the message is that a lot of the fuss about racism comes from a victim mentality in many non-white people, which can be overcome if they engage more constructively with society at large. This has led to a spectacular parliamentary spat between Ms Patel and Labour minority MPs with a more working-class background, who complained about being “gaslighted”. The truth is that the experience of racism for ethnic minority working-class people is very different from those from middle classes. The current fuss is driven mainly by a cry of pain from working-class non-whites.

And then we have the case of university tuition fees. These are an attempt to move the cost of university tuition to those that benefit most from it – a push back against middle-class privilege. But those middle classes are often enraged by them – hence Labour’s promise to abolish them at the last election. Their argument is that state-funded university tuition improves access to it and hence social mobility. But this is a bit like the Conservatives’ attempts to address the high cost of housing by subsidising first-time buyers. The substantive way to improve lives of working class people is through making their work better-paid and more secure, and to reduce the cost of life’s essentials, such as housing. There is at last some sign that both Conservative and Labour politicians are starting to recognise it (I wish I could say the same for my own Liberal Democrats, who have become something of a middle-class ghetto – though not irretrievably).

That is welcome. But politicians need to address two further aspects of the class system. The first is fairness – ensuring that people from working class backgrounds are not disadvantaged by prejudice. The second is empowerment – to give all communities, working-class or middle-class, more say over their lives. One big cause of working class dissatisfaction is that they feel sick that things are done to them without their consent. This was ably picked up by the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. But politicians are better at exploiting anger than dealing with its causes.