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Can we win middle-class people to socialism?

How about I start by answering my own question. Yes, of course we can. Why not? And I’m not talking about “socialism” as New Labour (and even Tony Blair in the early days of his leadership) would have it, which basically boiled down to ‘being nice to people’. I mean the full-blooded, Real Thing.

I should probably define who I mean by ‘middle-class people’. We’re all used to ‘Middle England’ being thrown around by politicians and journalists, and in an entirely misleading way. For example, in 2006 New Labour ultra Stephen Byers floated the idea of abolishing inheritance tax in order to win back ‘Middle England’, despite the fact that only the wealthiest families in Britain were liable to pay it. If you are slap in the middle of the country’s income distribution, you are earning just £20,000 a year.

As a former senior adviser to Tony Blair put it to me a few months ago: “You’re probably right that we did misportray Middle England, but that, I’m afraid, is not just a kind of Labour characteristic. It’s characteristic of the middle-classes as a whole.”

By middle-class people, I’m talking about people taking home about £26,000-£36,000 a year, in professional jobs (either in the public sector or private sector). They’ve got a mortgage, they probably shop in Sainsbury’s or Waitrose, and they read papers like The GuardianThe IndependentThe Times or even – perhaps more controversially for my argument – The Daily Mail.

As one New Labour politician put it to me last year, it is the “politics of despair” to stand on the most conservative of programmes, merely “because you’ll never convince those people in Surbiton.” That was Hazel Blears, and I happen to agree with her on that.

Let’s start with measures to take on the rich. There is no reason to presume that middle-class people – who are a fair few rungs down the ladder from the wealthy – should oppose making the rich elite cough up more. Take a poll for The Independent on Sunday last October. Overall, 54% of those asked supported hiking the top tax rate on those earning £150,000 a year or more from 50% to 60%. As you might expect, the DEs (defined as “semi and unskilled manual workers” by pollsters) were most in support. But when it came to the middle-class ABs, 57% were in support.

Or take tax evasion by the wealthy – an issue that UK Uncut has helped force to the top of the political agenda. You may well find that a middle-class person is most passionate about this injustice. After all, they feel that they pay their way, despite earning far less. So why shouldn’t the rich? That’s why even the Daily Mailhas been sympathetic about protests against tax evaders. The newspaper is tapping into a deep-seated resentment felt by its middle-class readership.

And then there’s investment in public services. Newspaper owners and leading journalists often attack public services that they don’t even use: they largely use private health care and education, and resent their taxes being spent on them. But middle-class people haven’t opted out of society like this. Far from it, they overwhelmingly rely on the same public services that everyone uses. Bear in mind that only the top 7% of children attend private schools. The case for taxing the wealthy to pay for good public services should be a real vote-winner among middle-class people.

What about the central pillar of socialism as it has traditionally been understood: public ownership of the economy. That’s the sort of socialist policy you’d think would scare off the average middle-class Brit. But I’ve proposed a form of democratic social ownership that I think would go down very well with middle-class and working-class people alike. Each industry would be run by a management board: a third of which would be elected by workers, a third by consumers, and a third would be appointed by the Government.

This would be a big boost for consumer power, and I think middle-class people would be most likely to vote for consumer representatives. You can see how this would appeal to them in key services. Middle-class people are surely among the most frequent train users, for example, and suffer the frustrations of spiraling ticket prices and poor service. I bet they’d love to have a say in running the rail industry. I’m sure the same would be true with, say, energy companies (another target of the Daily Mail).

Public ownership of finance could also prove hugely unpopular – after all, middle-class people are as likely as anyone else to be disgusted by the Government bailing out the banks without demanding anything in return. Small businesses have gone to the wall because of the banks’ failure to lend, and middle-class people have shared the nation’s collective horror at booming bonuses.

Free university education should be a no-brainer. Practically all middle-class parents expect their children to go to university these days, and they fear them being saddled with debt for the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, the case for affordable housing might seem a tough sell to the homeowning middle-classes. But  the dream of home ownership promoted by Thatcherism is falling from the grasp of middle-class children. We may have to invent a new word for council housing – the legacy of right-to-buy, the failure to build new stock and its effective ghettoisation has left it demonised. But in the 1970s, council housing was generally of a far better standard than private housing and – perhaps surprisingly – the backgrounds of council tenants reflected fairly accurately the social make-up of the country as a whole.

If we built a new generation of high-quality, affordable, environmentally friendly socially owned homes, that would prove a lifeline to millions of middle-class people who will otherwise find themselves spending a fair chunk of their lives as the tenants of private landlords.

And, lastly, there’s the issue of foreign policy. The Iraq war was often unfairly caricatured as a middle-class issue: I remember going to the famous 15th February 2003 anti-war demo with a coachload of car workers. But, to put it crudely, it is difficult to prioritise something happening thousands of miles away if you are struggling to put food on the table. There has been huge opposition to the neo-con foreign policy of recent times, and the country’s submission to Washington’s demands. The cause of peace should surely go down well in middle-class households across the country.

Socialism must always have working-class people at its heart. It is unlikely to ever win the passionate support of most middle-class people. But I don’t see why a renewed socialism, adapted to the challenges of the 21st century, cannot win over a substantial chunk of middle-class Britain. And, as The Spirit Level recently showed, a more equal society is better for everyone – whether you are working-class or middle-class.

Daily Mail Readers for Socialism, anyone?

10 Comments

  1. Bonnie says:

    I support a great deal of the sentiment in this article and think it’s largely an accurate assessment.

    However, I do disagree with the conclusion.

    “Middle class” is a term which may well disappear within a generation. Many of those who fit the description are only able to do so thanks to state education, free university places and support from health services etc. Without these available we are more likely to return to a two tier society – the haves and the have nots if you like.

    Those who have taken the time to study socio economics to any degree will accept that with the erosion of public services many businesses which have contracts with these will fold. Furthermore even the most wealthy need a free health service and ambulances (eg in the event of a crash) and require the police force to keep criminals from stealing at them.

    I would argue that for any society, whatever the income or expectations, in the long term socialism is the only way it can function.

    Even the super wealthy need the fallback of the NHS where private health cover cannot support, or schools and colleges etc to educate their staff, and the police to keep the masses at bay.

    If this is true for the wealthy, it is undeniably true for the middle class.

    I would argue that the portion of society least supportive of socialism is the group of people who may have a better life and set of circumstances than their parents as a result of their own gambles (by which I specifically mean the working class entrepreneur) who has a mortgage and huge personal debt and may be able to scrape together basic health insurance premiums or small scale private school fees and who somehow feels more affinity for the wealthy than the people they grew up with. Those who aspire to be like the wealthy elite, who if they accepted them into their circles would only do so for their own amusement or in sympathy whilst sneering at them.

    In conclusion, the average middle class person, who is educated and possesses some modicum of intelligence will wholeheartedly passionately support socialism. Many of the leading lights in the socialist movement come from middle class backgrounds and use their situation to further the wider spread understanding of the need for a fair society. At the core of any teacher is the vocation to help all children achieve. At the core of doctors is the desire to heal all.

    And without the support of the middle classes, who actually have some influence, the struggle for a fair world will have much less of a voice and much less of a chance to succeed. The threat of strike action from doctors for example will place the government in a very difficult position – which is great!

    Embrace all who come in support – we are all brothers.

  2. Tacitus says:

    It is a shame you have fallen into the Thatcherite notion of class. In doing so, you risk lumping a huge group of people into the middle classes, when they are truly working class.

    Go back to the writimngs of Marx and Engels – if you want a clear account of class structure, you won’t find better

  3. Robert says:

    The real question is of course can you win back the working class, so many activist and solid working class long term members walked away from labour I did after what was it 45 years.

    I worked most of my life in the building trade one accident left me with a damaged spinal cord, now I’m public enemy number one for being disabled, and it all came from new labour, and the Unions did sod all about it they jumped onto the band wagon telling people it’s fine no problem to many frauds, labour attacked welfare the sick and the disabled and you lot stood back, said nothing. In comes the Tories and boy what do we get Miliband telling us labour did not do enough on welfare, we did not go far enough.

    Soldiers who are hero’s when they are killing or being killed are put through new medical tests when they come home seems if your disabled your hero status is nolonger.

    I’ll never again vote Labour and sadly right now I cannot see the difference between Progressive labour or what ever you lot brand it, but I sure do not want to be part of it.

    I’ve been waiting for somebody to come out to tell us you have to get the middle class back

  4. Lisa Ansell says:

    I think it very much depends on who ‘we’ are, what precisely is meant by socialism= and definition of the class in a way that doesn’t recognise the way our economy has developed, and why ‘we’ would want to.

    Re:class- as far as I can see class is an aspirational term people use to self identify- usually meaning something they want to be, rather than are.

    I agree with one of the commenters and a comment in the article- wages have stagnated in the last few decades, and while the expansion of education has led to people redefining themselves- economic status has not necessarily changed. What has definitely changed is the levels of debt people hold while at that income level. And the levels of debt people are expected to have.

    What has also changed has been that the rich are no longer measured in any kind of earnings scale. The seperation of wealth away from wages- to shares and dividends has been fairly absolute.

    The cost of living is such that people on relatively high salaries now need state benefits, tax credits, housing benefit= to maintain a disposable income akin to claim unemployment benefit and to keep their families. THis goes right up the income scale, into the public sector professions especially.

    The erosion of the so called ‘middle classes’ is becoming a common feature worlwide.

    I think just about anyone still on PAYE, and in debt- could be considered ‘working class’ by that definition- but class definitions are not solely what we use to identify ourselves, neither are political definitions. Class definitions and ideological labels are contentious and cause people to self exclude. Economic reality is hard to deny.

    And then there is the so called working classes- who socialism is supposed to be concerned with. I grew up in what was left of industrial towns- and quite honestly- the people I know who self identify as working class would be horrified to be associated with us. Chavs. Deserving and undeserving poor caricatures were at the core of Labour policy on the welfare state, criminal justice, and across public sector for 13 years. For those people claiming ESA, on disability benefits, housing benefits- there has been very little difference in Labour rhetoric or Conservative.

    THose who spend hours espousing socialism and various minute sub divisions of class that apparently exist in textbooks- generally seem to be wholly disinterested in the reality of what our society is now.

    THere are many major problems with the ideology and ideas that have become synonymous with socialism- and there are damn good reasons people are reluctant to identify themselves that way. THe question is why would ‘we’ be expecting them to?

    As a society we are beginning to become fluent in our understanding of how the economy works- specific issues like tax avoidance- debt, credit- have resonance with the wider public and go beyond traditional views of class and political ideology.

    It may be that traditional ideas of class, and traditional political ideologies are not what is needed at all. Or that this process causes ideologies to organically emerge as people’s understanding of things deepens.

    THere are very definite economic changes happening at the moment- and they are causing people to examine our economy and the way we operate= is it wise to be wanting to co-opt that learning process into an understanding of a political ideology which has fundamental flaws, as part of a drive to for political capital for a preferred party?

    The question for me is really- why do we need to win people over to socialism? At a time of great cultural and economic change, is it not entirely possible that the reason socialism has failed to win popular support- could be that aspects of it are flawed or that people do not agree. And that rather than trying to win people over to ideas they may have already rejected- socialism and the parties who claim to represent it, look objectively at their own record, the economic reality this country is in- and ask whether their political ideology needs to change accordingly.

    Surely the question should be- how can those wanting to ‘win’ over people to socialism(and presumably to Labour) be part of (and support) what is happening at the moment? How can we ensure that as the nation undergoes massive changes- the principles you hold dear support people, whether they accept those principles or not- you may find that in doing so those who come to agree with you are won over.

    The question of ‘how we win over the middle classes’ to socialism is possibly a question which reveals much- but is unlikely to find satisfactory answers.

  5. Robert says:

    Regulations for the new, harsher work capability assessment (WCA) for employment and support allowance (ESA) were laid before parliament on 10 February and will come into force on 28 March 2011. They will lead to many tens of thousands more sick and disabled claimants being found fit for work and have deliberately been introduced in time to reduce the number of successful transfers from incapacity benefit to ESA.

    The revised WCA will make it easier with some people with mental health conditions and cancer to get into the support group.

    But it will also mean blind claimants who can get around safely with a guide dog will be forced onto jobseekers allowance, as will deaf claimants who can read and write.

    Claimants who can’t walk but who can use a manual wheelchair will no longer score points.

    In addition, references to hands have been removed from the picking up activity specifically in order to make it harder for amputees to score points.

    Some activities have simply been cut from the test altogether. For example, the activity of ‘Bending and kneeling’, for which 30 points are currently available, is to be completely done away with for ‘health and safety reasons’ as people should not ‘bend forward when lifting’.

    Half of all the scoring descriptors for mental health and learning difficulties have also been axed, making it much harder to get onto ESA for people with conditions such as depression or anxiety.

    You can read more about the effects of the harsher WCA in an article we first published in April 20101:

    And thats New labour

  6. Why? says:

    middle class people are not as stupid as you seem to imply. I’m young and was middle class, and I don’t understand your criticism of success and working hard to work your way up a company.

    My parents were dirt poor back in the 50s, and have worked their way up through hard work and personal sacrifice to become successful accountants.

    Why should I be penalised because my parents are success stories and be denied the opportunities that less priveleged kids get from the state. surely their hardship was to give me a head start?

    You, (socialists) talk of equality and fairness and its not fair that we are discriminated against by those who are bitter or lazy. One of my friends at school’s dad was a lowly Indian immigrant 30 years ago, and he worked his way up to earning 6 figures and was the richest family at school. why not level the playing field and then let the natural process of competition work, and not discriminate against background or make jealous assumptions about ability.

  7. KARL says:

    your suffering from the self serving non sequitor that afflicts the majority of the salaried classes – namely, my success is built on hard work therefore the less successful must be lazy. My father mined coal and layed tarmac for the best part of forty years and got nothing out of it but industrial deafness and chronic back pain – he wasn’t succesful in economic terms but by god he worked hard.

  8. Democratically Socialist says:

    Well unfortunately given electoral mathematics and all that, the middle ground is what is needed to gain power in this country. But to leave at this would be facile, as we need to take into account all sorts of other factors that determines peoples political orientation. I do feel that after 30 years we are coming to an end of the Neoliberal era. Solidarity is returning and I believe the general outlook of the UK will swing to the left. Whether they will have a true social democratic party to vote for, thats another issue. There is so much non-sense flying around – blue labour etc.

  9. Mark says:

    What bothers me is that thanks to the borrow-borrow-borrow culture we still have from a couple of decades ago it’s perfectly possible to buy your way in to a kind of pseudo-middle class.
    Materially at least.

    Want the perfect lifestyle ? Get the goods.
    2nd hand Mercedes 4×4 £10,000
    All the right clothes £a few hundred
    Holiday in the Caribbean to bleat on about £3,000
    etc etc

    All on tick.
    With a 25k salary you can get a hefty loan, credit card, store card etc to purchase your perfect lifestyle.
    Hey, for added effect park up in the disabled bay at Waitrose and go buy some nonsense that you’ve never heard of let alone can pronounce.

    And for those with their “on tick” middle class perfect lifestyle it becomes almost de rigueur to become a Conservative. Of course.

    Hey, we’ve got all the clothes and material bits so surely we can turn our backs on our dreary working class start. To hell with them lot. Scrounging Chavs ! Get a job ! Bloody immigrants. Blah blah. Suddenley the Daily Mail is my voice.
    Because only by being a Tory can you truly call yourself British.

    A significant proportion of the middle classes are imposters !
    When Capitalism fails they will return, quite unceremoniously, to their rather humble origins.
    And hate the Tories. And probably New Labour.

    Blatchford should be central to the school curriculum.

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