Thursday, 28 June 2018

Are the working-class alive and well and being shafted in Britain?

The government study commissioned by former education secretary Justine Greening that found that half of British’ workers, believed that they faced a ‘class-ceiling’ in this country, is entirely consistent with the findings of British social attitude surveys going back decades.

A 2015 British Social Attitudes Survey carried out by NatCen Social Research, found that respondents considered: Britain to be increasingly divided along class lines, with a plummeting belief in the possibility of social mobility.”

The authors of the study, Geoffrey Evans and Jonathan Mellon of the University of Oxford, also said that a majority of Britons (60%) considered they were working-class and adhered to working-class values in spite of having moved up the income scale and holding “stereotypically middle-class jobs.”

Although British political leaders of all parties, have in recent years declared an aim of ridding Britain of its old class identities – just recall John Major’s ‘classless society’, Tony Blair’s ‘Big Tent’, “we’re all middle-class now”, and David Cameron’s, ‘Big Society’, “what counts is not where you come from, it is where you’re going” – the figure of 60% hasn’t changed since 1983. The study also found that nearly half of people in managerial amd professional occupations also identified as working-class.

While social-class can be a subjective thing, based on who we think we are, statisticians use an objective measurement based largely around occupation. Ipsos Mori, use a broader definition of working-class known as C2DE and say that 45.8% of household heads fall into the manual worker or lower-paid category of C2DE. Despite the 60% figure, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), say that just 25% of people now work in routine manual occupations.

The report authors point out that though family background is an important indicator of working-class identity - having parents who worked in manual occupations - some objectively middle-class people identify as working-class because they see themselves as disadvantaged in a society dominated by a small wealthy elite.

Yet the survey shows that a majority of Britons have held to working-class values despite changes in the labour market and rising incomes, a phenomenon described as a “working-class of the mind.” According to the report, those who identify as working-class are likely to be anti-immigration and conservative on a range of social issues including the death penalty, homosexuality and morality.

Though half of those British’ workers, who responded to the government survey, did feel intuitively that they faced a ‘class ceiling’ in Britain and that a regional accent and a working-class background, were barriers to success in their workplace, to what extent is this borne out by the evidence and to what extent is British society, rigged in favour of the middle and upper-classes?

The Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee clearly believes that British society is rigged in favour of the middle-classes. She has said on numerous occasions that British children’s achievement is more closely linked to parental status than in most developed countries. Her own entrée into the world of journalism was made easier she says, by being called Toynbee. Her father Theodore Philip Toynbee was a famous writer and communist and her grandfather, Arnold J. Toynbee, was an even more famous historian and social reformer. In August 2011, she wrote in her column that social mobility was a zero-sum game that worked both ways:

If poor children rise up, some from the higher classes must fall. Room at the top is limited… As graduates know, good jobs don’t multiply to greet more qualified applicants. The vast majority of those in the professions and good jobs were born to them. Follow the money and income matches’ class pretty accurately.”

In 2016, ‘The Prince’s Trust’ published a report saying that social mobility in the UK didn’t exist and that inequality was an accident of birth. They concluded – The evidence is irrefutable, your family background is in fact most people’s destiny. Martina Milburn, the Chief Executive of the Prince’s Trust, explained:

There is a social bank of mum and dad which opens as many doors as the financial bank of mum and dad. Sadly not all young people have the access to it, and all too often young people are locked out of jobs and other opportunities simply because of where they started in life.”

It is well acknowledged that only 7% of the UK population are educated at private schools. Yet those children go on to make up 71% of senior judges, 50% of members of the House of Lords and 43% of newspaper columnists. They also account for 20% of all university entrants in the UK and 50% of all entrants to Oxbridge. Today, only 6 or 7 percent of MPs in the Labour Party have undertaken working-class jobs. Yet in 1979, 40% of the Parliamentary Labour Party had done working-class jobs.

In the novels of D.H. Lawrence, the quest for upward social mobility is very much on the mind of many of his fictional characters. But Lawrence was certainly aware that the options for many working-class people of his time were severely constrained by their circumstances. As he says:The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few, in most personal experience…” (Lady Chatterley’s Lover). And so it is today. As education and good jobs have become more expensive, opportunities to join the grabbers club have diminished for many people.

We do know that since the 1970s there has been a significant increase in income inequality and a resurgence of inequality after 1980, following the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan who pursued pro-rich policies. At the end at of the last war, there was greater upward social mobility for many people due to greater demand for labour during a booming economy, as well as a massive increase in state provision in government, education and health. All these services needed administrative workers and as the middle-classes were not producing enough children to fill these jobs, it opened up opportunities for the working-classes.

When we look at inequalities in income and wealth, we should always be wary of explanations that stress economic determinism. Economics is a political argument and not a science. The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political and cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms. The problem for all governments is who gets what, when, and how?” But as Michael Young says in his book ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’, We have to recognise that nearly all parents are going to try to gain an unfair advantage for their offspring. And this is precisely what he did, when his own not particularly bright son, Toby Young, failed to get into Brasenose College, Oxford. He picked up the phone and pulled some strings.

Although half the people in the government survey said they faced a ‘class ceiling’ in Britain, the issue of social class has been relegated in importance over the years. Of the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, that include exotica such as ‘gender reassignment’, ‘sexual orientation’, ‘religion or belief’, nowhere does class discrimination get a look-in. No doubt, this is because social class is linked to fundamental economic inequality. What many people should ask is why a country that professes to be about the many and not the few, props up rigid social divisions and inequalities every generation, in spite of delivering universal health and free education and having a liberal political democratic system, where most adult people have a vote. As someone once said: “Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class, and each decade the coffin stays empty.” 

No comments: