How social mobility got stuck

Britain's poor were absolutely and relatively better off until Thatcher was elected in 1979. Since then, the bottom half of society is worse off than it was in 1983.

The best place to look for rubbish written on social class is in the Daily Mail. When the BBC released its Great British Class Survey in April the Mail cited a pundit, the “author and social commentator” Jill Kirby, willing to claim that “there is plenty of social mobility – even the Precariat can escape more easily than the working class of 50 years ago”. In fact, the survey revealed nothing of the kind. The socalled Precariat, the lowest social class in the BBC’s research, is stuck at the bottom.

Class matters and it matters most at the top. The greatest number of social divisions occurs in the top 1 per cent of the population, so, to understand class, you have to spend a great deal of time looking at divisions among the elite. Take the “grocer’s daughter” from Grantham who the Tory party took as coming from the lower orders, because all her father owned was two shops. To have a chance of standing as a Tory MP she had to marry at least a class above herself, and she started high. Margaret Roberts was born in 1925 into the best-off 10 per cent of families in Britain. By the time she went to university her father, Alfred, had risen to be a member (if a lowly one) of the 1 per cent. Margaret joined an even smaller proportion when she went “up” to Oxford, and she married into the 0.1 per cent with Denis and his money. But the grandees of her party were members of the 0.01 per cent, well above the Thatchers.

For Thatcher to become leader of the Conservatives, the party had to be in disarray. This was true even though the importance of class declined fairly steadily from the day she was born to the day in 1979 when she became prime minister. However, since then, right through to her death, the importance of class has soared. Those who won the highest rewards from her victory were among the richest. It is worth looking first at who gained most, before turning to the losers.

In 1945, when Thatcher turned 20, the richest 0.01 per cent people in Britain received 123 times the mean national average income. By the time she turned 40 in 1965 that had halved to 62 times, and the year before she came to power, in 1978, it was at its minimum: just 28 times the average income.

Twin peaks: disparities in welath from the start of Old Labour (1945) to the end of New Labour (2009)

Britain in the 1970s was a very different world from the Britain of the 1940s. Thatcher’s class hated it. The class above her, the one that she joined, loathed the changes even more, and the class above that put its money where its anger was, funding think tanks, newspapers and young politicians to fight back.

If they were very clever they funded the short-lived Social Democratic Party, because it was largely not by the gains of the right, but by the divisions between the left and centre, that the rise in inequality after 1978 became possible. In most other European countries there was greater solidarity on the left.

By the time Thatcher left office in 1990 the annual incomes of the richest 0.01 per cent of society had climbed to 70 times the national mean, and the accelerating effect of her government’s actions multiplied that increase to 99 times the national mean by 1997. It is also well known that Thatcher said her greatest achievement was New Labour. By 2007, the incomes of the best-off 0.01 per cent were at 144 times the national mean average. That top share fell slightly in the 2008 crash, but it is thought to have bounced back since.

Class at the top of British society is fractured. Under Thatcherism and New Labour, the best-off 0.1 per cent benefited from a greater proportionate increase in their wealth than the tiny slice at the very top. The annual incomes of the 0.01 per cent soared to more than 45 times the mean by 2007, but just beneath them the top 1 per cent – the tier most commented on today – did even better. Alfred Roberts, owner of two shops in Grantham, received through his work and assets about seven times the mean adult income in the year 1945. This fell to roughly six by the end of the 1945-50 Labour government but it was restored temporarily on the re-election of the Tories in 1951, only to decline again under their tenure and Labour’s. It wasn’t until his daughter’s government, formed in 1979, that the 1 per cent were not just restored but elevated to nine times the mean.

It can help to personalise class. To picture the richest 0.01 per cent of our society, think of newspaper proprietors such as the Barclay brothers, those extremely wealthy individuals who invited Thatcher to live at the Ritz, their hotel in London, in the months before she died. For the 0.1 per cent, think of people such as Denis and Margaret Thatcher, and for the 1 per cent think of Alfred Roberts. Social class does not depend on income alone; it is about relationships between people. The owner of two shops (the 1 per cent) doffs his cap to the duke (the 0.01 per cent) and between them the businessman (the 0.1 per cent) lobbies for a knighthood. Below all three the clerks (9 per cent) carry out humdrum duties and below all of them the 90 per cent are repeatedly categorised and recategorised by social scientists whose surveys, even if representative, usually do not give enough detail to differentiate well between the few at the top.

Two statistics will broadly suffice to work out what class you are in: your household income and your family wealth. Often your postcode can reveal a great deal about these. Rather like those charts that plot your height against your weight and tell you if you are overweight, average, underweight or obese, a chart could be produced to determine your class (even though it is unlikely that social researchers could agree on a single chart as yet).

As people’s incomes rise when they get a job, are promoted, meet a better-paid partner and so on, they tend to move out from poorer groups to those less poor – towards average, modest, affluent and occasionally even to wealthy parts of society. This was the story of Alfred Roberts. As their income rises, prudent folk save and usually their wealth as reflected in their standard of living also rises. When incomes first fall, say, through illness or redundancy, accrued wealth maintains its social class for a time, but eventually it falls back down the income/wealth chart towards poverty if nothing intervenes to stop it.

In postwar Britain the intervention that curtailed poverty was the redistribution of income and wealth. When fewer people were allowed to hoard so much of the wealth and claim so much of the nation’s annual income, fewer could be poor. Roberts appeared to become worse off, not because of anything that he did, but because he was not permitted to make ever more sizeable profits out of the people of Grantham. If he did increase his income by charging them an extra penny for bread, then a little more of that penny was taken back off him in taxation towards the common good. Roberts almost certainly hated this.

Between 1945 and 1978, as income (and then wealth) inequalities in Britain continued to fall, social mobility rose. In 1944 the state introduced free secondary education for all and then untiered secondary education was brought in, but only slowly. It was not until 1973 that the proportion of children of secondary age in Britain attending a comprehensive school hit 50 per cent, though that rose rapidly to 80 per cent by 1977. Any increased social mobility brought about by that would not be evident until most of these children reached middle age, after the millennium.

As class divisions in Britain diminished and the income and wealth gaps between people narrowed, the only group that lost out was the richest 1 per cent. The share of national income for the 9 per cent of people just below them remained static between 1945 and 1978, but for the 90 per cent of people below them the share rose. The poor became both absolutely and relatively better off until Margaret Thatcher was elected.

Shortly after she gained power, a survey was conducted on behalf of ITN News and a TV programme called Breadline Britain, which released the results in 1983. Its startling finding was that the spike in unemployment figures that Thatcher had tolerated and the shift in income from poor to rich had resulted in a rapid increase in poverty, so that one in seven people was living in poverty by the early 1980s. This was a sharp rise above levels experienced after the end of the 1960s.

The deepening inequality since 1978 is far more familiar to us than what occurred before it, yet it is still shocking. In its 2013 Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) report, published in March to mark the 30th anniversary of that 1983 survey, analysts funded by the Economic and Social Research Council noted: “Today 33 per cent of the UK population suffers from multiple deprivation by the standards set by the public. It was 14 per cent in 1983.”          

The PSE report showed that as the rich became richer in Britain, there was an increase in the numbers of poorer people who had rational fears about money, who were shoddily housed by the standard of their times, who lived in shame and who, at the extreme end of the scale, could not afford to be properly fed. That last rise has been very recent, but it is part of the longer-term trend. This is why 1930s-type soup kitchens have returned to Britain’s towns and cities. The statistics that follow are just a sample of the results of the largest ever systematic study of poverty and social exclusion in Britain, highlighted in a new special edition of Breadline Britain that was broadcast by ITN on 28 March.

The PSE report presents a very different picture of class in Britain today from the one offered by the BBC’s class survey. It has the top 1 per cent and the 9 per cent below it doing all right. Below this tier, the remaining top half of society is getting by on “modest” incomes. But those beneath this are now, in many ways, worse off than they were in 1983.

Of the bottom 50 per cent of people in Britain, all are financially insecure; most (30 per cent) are poorly housed by today’s standards; a large minority (20 per cent) cannot take part in normal social activities; below this minority most cannot now afford to heat their homes properly; and below them, one in every 15 (7 per cent) is poorly fed. The seven classes this produces could be labelled the rich (1 per cent), the affluent (9 per cent), the modest (40 per cent), the insecure (20 per cent), the shamed (10 per cent), the cold (13 per cent) and the hungry (7 per cent).

The PSE survey finds that most people in Britain agree that financial insecurity includes not being able to afford to save at least £20 a month for a rainy day (having to pay, for instance, to fix a boiler – a bill of, say, £500). It includes not being able to afford to make pension payments or have household insurance.

Inadequate housing includes cold housing. The PSE survey found that one in three people cannot afford to heat their home adequately in winter. A third of adults consider themselves to be truly poor “all the time” or “sometimes”. The report explained that “a quarter of adults said their incomes were below the level needed to avoid poverty and 22 per cent had felt embarrassed by their low income”.

In 1983, 5 per cent of households were unable to heat their home to keep it adequately warm; today that proportion is 9 per cent. Some 6 per cent of households in Britain in 1983 could not afford to live in damp-free housing; today that proportion is 10 per cent. When the rich take more, the poor become poorer – and now they are becoming absolutely poorer.

Social divisions of poverty and welath among people in Britain by status (2013)

Social activities that most of the people surveyed now see as necessities are having a cheap hobby, taking part in celebrations on special occasions, attending a wedding or funeral or similar functions, being able to make hospital or other such visits, and being able to take part in sport and exercise. In 1999 one-fifth of adults could not afford to take part in these activities. When the same set of questions was asked in 2012 the researchers found it was one-third of all adults.

The broadly agreed definitions of well fed are that children need three meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables every day and meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent at least once a day. Every adult should be able to consume two meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables every day and meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every other day. Using these definitions, the PSE survey found that well over half a million children (4 per cent) live in families that cannot afford to feed them properly and over three and a half million adults (8 per cent) cannot afford to eat properly in Britain today – that is, one in every 17 people in the country.

A fraction of the income of the top 1 per cent would provide enough money to allow all who are going hungry to be fed adequately. But today the man who owns two grocer’s shops is richer than ever, because he charges more for his goods and pays less tax. And many more people will not be able to afford many of the basic items he sells.

Danny Dorling is a professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield. He is the author most recently of “The 32 Stops” (Particular Books, £4.99) and “Unequal Health” (Policy Press, £24.99) For more details of the Poverty and Social Exclusion project visit: poverty.ac.uk

Tough at the top: the greatest number of social divisions occurs in the wealthiest 1 per cent of the British population. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.