Starmer does boom on about coming from a working class family, so it was nice to see him properly skewered when Nick Ferrari on LBS asked him to define ‘working class here (1). The best questions are often the most obvious ones. Starmer’s floundering shows yet again what a poor politician he in fact is – both in having failed to foresee the question, and being utterly at a loss when caught out. (In fact, his answer, such as it was, seems to boil down to working class being a class you long to escape from). I also much dislike the related cant term, used by both parties, ‘working families’, or even ‘hard working families’, absurd, if you stop to think about it, and one would think politically counter-productive, see here and here .
Of course, class definitions are a minefield. Pollsters and many others rely mainly on the economic classifications developed by ONS, based on occupation. . But there’s an argument that the really decisive discriminating factors are still, at bottom, cultural.
In recent decades, it’s rather been assumed that class identities are slowly dissolving as we become a more equal society, especially as more go to university, the traditional escape route from working to middle class, or as traditional manual trades disappear or else become more ‘middle class’. Or alternatively, that class identities are increasingly just a reflection of wealth, or its lack. Or as ‘middle class mores are more widely mediated - balsamic vinegar in Scunthorpe. But recent polls suggest that class is still very much part of our personal and social identity, and that those identities are after all pretty stable over time, see here. It’s also true that social mobility – depending on how you measure it, a science in its own right- has in fact reduced in recent decades, here and here. If there are such things as classes, we’re seemingly more stuck in them than ever.
It has been suggested, by Owen Jones no less, that the distinction characteristic of the working class is that they exercise little control at work. But it’s not hard to poke holes in that, as in any other definition.
What does seem not to be in common use any more are the fine distinctions, ‘lower middle class’, ‘upper working class and so on, the inter- and intra- class frontiers, so painfully illustrated in the novels of HG Wells. I’d also suggest that ‘upper class has almost lost meaning, due to its lingering and now pretty redundant links to the titled aristocracy. Very few of the very rich have titles, or if they do, they bought them very recently.
But how much does class really matter, electorally? In the last decade, a seismic change has happened n British politics: how you vote is no longer largely determined by class, rather by age and education. In fact by the 2019 election the Tories had a lead among the ‘working class (as defied occupationally). And of course it’s the loss of working class voters in the North to the Tories that so rankled with Labour after the 2019 election. But arguably what is happening is not the class is no longer important electorally, rather that the new populist movement is bring together the working class and ‘owners’, leaving the liberal middle class as natural Labour voters, see here.
Finally, some answers to the question from (of course) Guardian readers:
Upper class: your name on the building. Middle class: tour name on your desk. Working class: your name on your uniform.
What word would you put before ‘estate’? ‘Council’= working class. ‘Volvo’ = middle class. ‘Country’ = upper class.
1. Sad to think that nowadays no BBC interviewer would be so bold.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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