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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The strange death of class in England

By Ben Lucas

Equality has been the hot political issue of the month. This started with John Denham’s interesting speech about equality and fairness, in which he reflected on Joseph Rowntree Foundation research which showed a lack of public sympathy towards poverty. He argued that progressives needed to move away from a symbolic commitment to equality, which he believes that Labour in practice has never really set out to deliver, and instead to focus on fairness, which runs more with the grain of popular sentiment and is as much about resentment towards the undeserving rich as it is about redistribution. This week Alan Milburn published the report of his review into social mobility and the professions and James Purnell launched a new initiative called “Open Left” at Demos, which is a sort of “Future of Socialism” for the 2010s.

The Milburn review provides powerful evidence about why and how social mobility has stalled in Britain. It’s the old story that the vested professional interests have pulled up the drawbridge, so that the professions have become family firms. Practices such as internships simply accentuate this. So does grade inflation in admissions policy at the top universities. Milburn makes the point that his generation were part of the first great wave of social mobility in the professions, when the rapid expansion of the professions created the potential for people like him to break through the glass ceiling. He proposes a second social mobility revolution as Britain rebuilds itself after the recession and responds to globalisation and new opportunities in the digital, creative media, and financial services professions.

Meanwhile, James Purnell says that he wants to start fleshing out a new approach to equality based on Amartya Sen’s concept of freedom as capability building. The idea being to focus not just on income but on equipping people with the capabilities that would allow them to be in control of their own lives, creating their own life outcomes.

All of this fresh policy thinking is to be welcomed. It follows an earlier foray into equality policy from the Conservatives, in which David Cameron accepted that relative inequality was as significant as absolute poverty. Britain is a strikingly unequal society and this is not only an affront to social justice it is also bad for the social health of society. As the authors of the Spirit Level argue, inequality is bad for society as a whole because of the strong correlation between unhappiness and inequality.

But there’s one word which seems to be missing altogether from the renewed interest in equality – ‘class”. It used to be that the idea of class was at the very heart of discourse about equality in Britain. It was only in the 1980s that the old left grudgingly came to accept that tackling gender and race inequality were also important priorities. For the left, building class consciousness was a critical element of egalitarianism. There were powerful working class institutions such as the Workers Education Association (WEA), trade unions, the co-operative movement, working mens club and mutual societies. These institutions gave working class people collective agency, some measure of control over their lives, strong social networks and routes for collective and individual advancement through education and training.

Despite research showing that a majority of British people still consider themselves working class, many if not most working class institutions are now in steep decline and class itself is rarely discussed by politicians. Much of this profound change is attributable to the decline in manufacturing and the fact that the social institutions which were created around mass production have now lost their raison d’etre.

This huge cultural change is both cause and consequence of 21st century inequality. The era from the second world war until the 1980s was one of social and cultural mobility. It is impossible to disconnect “Billy Liar”, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads” from the social mobility they both represented and helped to propel. The dominant mood of the time was in favour of change, John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” was what everybody wanted to be and it was only antiquated class barriers which stood in the way of change. The objects of ridicule were middle class mores and outdated customs. But in recent years all that has changed. In much popular culture today the joke is on the working class – with the exception of Jimmy McGovern’s “The Street”, working class characters are more likely to be depicted as ‘chavs’ than ‘heroes”.

None of this is to argue for turning the clock back to an era which was in most important respects far less progressive than our one. But it is to say that class is still an important factor in thinking through new policy on equality. It is particularly odd that class should be so little discussed at a time when both sociology and behavioural economics are enjoying such a renaissance. You cannot get close to creating new social norms and building new social capacity without an appreciation of the impact class has on behaviour.

The challenge for those who want a more equal society is to find the right ways of enabling people to live the lives they choose. Income transfers have a vital role to play and renewing the commitment to eradicate child poverty is clearly critical. But what is also required is bottom up social change, which helps build individual and social agency and creates new social institutions rooted in modern times. This should involve fusing the idea of multiculturalism with individual and collective empowerment – looking to find new ways in which local communities can take ownership of assets ranging from housing to schools. Not only can this help liberate potential and build social capacity it can also enable public services to tap into social resource at a time when public funding will be under very tight pressure. Developing this new frontier should be the priority for all those who are engaged in thinking through how to create a fairer society, from “Open Left” to “Progressive Conservatism” and to “Red-Toryism”.


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