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The changing class make-up of Britain

The recasting of categories of social class trumpeted by the BBC today, based upon research by Mike Savage from the London School of Economics and Fiona Devine from the University of Manchester is not an earth-shattering revelation, based upon what we already know about the changing nature of society; but their emphasis on access to social and cultural capital, in addition to economic capital as a determinant of class is worth highlighting.

It is also worth recalling that a key progressive objective of Blairism was to improve social capital, with an understanding that this could improve levels of happiness, and there was some consideration of how contentment could be quantified and encouraged by government policy.

Including home ownership as a determinant of economic capital emphasises the degree to which high house prices cause inter-generational wealth inequality, lack of social mobility, and a housing crisis for younger people of lower income. This also suggests how different political philosophies address such a problem, where the right might see no problem that needs addressing, and the centre right might see complicated changes to planning law and inheritance as a solution: the left can offer the very simple idea of expanding social housing.

Their new categories are:

  • Elite: This is the most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.
  • Established Middle Class: Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.
  • Technical Middle Class: This is a new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.
  • New Affluent Workers: This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.
  • Emergent Service Workers: This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ’emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.
  • Traditional Working Class: This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.
  • Precariat: This is the most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.

You can assess your own class position based upon their approach here (warning, this is only a bit of fun).

The left has long debated the impact of changing patterns of class and occupation upon progressive politics, most famously in Eric Hobsbawm’s 1978 article in Marxism Today, the Forward March of Labour Halted; which emphasised how changes to the structure of the workforce, and erosion of a common working class culture had led to a diminution of class consciousness, reflected in a decline of both trade union membership and Labour’s share of the vote.  However, Jon Trickett has commented that comparing Labour’s votes in 1997 and 2010 showed that Labour “lost 4.1 million votes among manual workers but actually gained 120,000 professional classes“. This suggests that while Labour has shown some success at consolidating support among professionals and those in the managerial classes who take a more progressive outlook, it has failed to underpin its support among manual workers, where Labour’s failure to address the housing crisis was particularly keenly felt.

Jon Trickett has also drawn attention to how social and class changes have eroded the base of the Conservative Party:

the Conservative vote under Major and Thatcher never really fell below 13 million but since then has never fully recovered. Even in 2010, Cameron’s Tories only gained 10.7 million votes, over 2 million behind their historic vote. Indeed, astonishingly, their share of AB votes actually declined from 41% in 1997 to 39% in 2010.

The left needs to locate its project upon the actually existing social make up of our society, and this means recognising the reduced weight of the traditional working class; however, in advancing a coalitional approach we also need to resist the idea that class no longer matters. The majority of the population, whatever their access to social and cultural capital, still have an interest in a fairer, more stable and sustainable society based upon solidarity and compassion. That is where we need to set out our stall.

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