Published in the Winter 2014 edition of ‘Fabiana’, the Fabian Women’s Network magazine.
In January, Ed Miliband promised that, should he win the next election, he will ‘rebuild the middle class’. Writing in that most middle of middle-class missives The Daily Telegraph, the Labour leader said: “Our country cannot succeed and become collectively better off unless Britain has a strong and vibrant middle class’, citing the need to tackle the impending crisis in middle-class living standards as ‘the greatest challenge for our generation’.
I take his point. The cuts have by no means only been felt by the very poorest in society, and austerity has not discriminated in its impact (save for the 1% who have largely escaped unscathed). It’s about time someone said it. This is not ‘strivers vs shirkers’, as the Tories would have us believe in their classic divide and rule ideology. 99% of us are – to borrow a phrase – all in this together – and not in a good way.
But an even greater challenge, as I see it, is not tackling the impending crisis of the middle-class, but tackling the very notion of the middle-class itself; a middle-class which is undoubtedly growing, but it appears to me largely because there is simply no other convenient ‘social grouping’ box to put people in. Essentially, if you don’t fit in to box A or B, there’s this convenient – and increasingly full – box in the middle.
Where I come from, we like our class like we like our baths, our paths, our grass and our glass – without the help of additional ‘r’s. I can’t help but find something particularly sanctimonious when that laboured long vowel makes its way into commentary on ‘class’ – as if the sheer physiology of twisting the face to accommodate that extra consonant might uncontrollably worp the facial features of the speaker into a haughty, nasal, Kenneth Williams-esque sneer – ‘but how do we engage with the working clarrrrrrrrses’ – and which I also fear, even on the radio, might cause the speaker to albeit involuntarily look down his or her nose.
And whilst I think it’s pretty clear where the Tory demographic is, Labour apparently continues to wrangle with its target market. The party of the working classes that allegedly ‘sold out’ to the middle under New Labour – has since felt like it has been trying in some way to prove its class credentials. A posh kid in street trainers. ‘Last year’, the Telegraph goes on to observe, ‘Mr. Miliband called for a return to socialism’.
Who is setting this agenda?
It’s time for a new paradigm.
In 2011, the BBC (in yet another demonstration of its so called ‘left-wing bias’), teamed up with researchers from the LSE, the Universities of York and Manchester to bring us ‘The Great British Class Survey’ – offering an online class calculator. ‘Traditional British social divisions of upper, middle and working class’, it told us, ‘seem out of date in the 21st Century, no longer reflecting modern occupations or lifestyles’, before determining which of the seven ‘new’ social classes the user might belong to through a series of searching questions including:
‘What is your total household income after taxes?’
‘Which of these people do you know socially: Chief Executive/ University Lecturer/Cleaner
Which of these cultural pursuits do you engage in? Go to the Opera/ Do Arts & Crafts/ Listen to hip-hop
Bad news for hip-hop fans, then. Unless you happen to be Jay-Z.
These are the limited – and increasingly irrelevant – parameters in which social class distinctions continue to operate. And this I think is the real challenge for politics – becoming relevant again. So I would say let’s actually forget the middle classes. And the working classes, ‘lower’ classes, ‘upper classes’ – and for Labour, to instead get back to being a party of people; a party which recognises and values both individuals, and the power of those individuals coming together as communities.
Because the very things that Ed Miliband says are creating the ‘middle class’ crisis – ‘ falling real wages and rising costs for items including food, childcare, energy and transport’, ‘access to further education and training, good quality jobs with reliable incomes, affordable housing, stable savings, secure pensions’ seem to me to be human basics, and what we all want.