The entire middle class is being stretched, squeezed and polarised as never before. Photo: Flickr/Tom Page
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Politicians must address the fact that Britain's middle class is rapidly sinking

The idea of middle class decline is too often met with derision, especially among progressives, but all our politicians should be talking about it.

An interesting statistic crept out of the Department for Work and Pensions last week, while the pubs of Britain no doubt buzzed with discussion about Jean-Claude Junker or how someone in Ed Miliband's office may or may not have recognised someone at a FT summer drinks reception.

According to the DWP, the average household income in 2012-13 was £440, unchanged on the year before. It represents the third consecutive year of stagnation or decline (depending on how you cut the figures). As the IFS have noted, in real terms this leaves median household income in roughly the same place as it was in 2002, and comes off the back of painfully slow wage growth from the start of the 2000s.

In the same week the increase in the price of homes reached an all-time high. Add in that a majority of people on typical incomes now have less than one month's income as savings, plus the slow hollowing-out of middle income jobs, and a pretty clear picture emerges. The foundations of middle class life – a decent income, assets, savings, pensions – are getting harder and harder to attain, especially for those just starting out. In many cases, debt has filled the gap.

This goes beyond just failures of the private sector. The welfare safety net has also become residualised. People on reasonable incomes can work their whole life and receive only paltry amounts when they lose their job. When it comes to both work and the state, people in the middle have been putting more in than they've been getting out for a long time.

It should go without saying that working class communities have had it hardest over the last thirty years. But the idea of middle class decline too is too often met with derision, especially among progressives.

Part of this is down to a distorted view of what "middle class" is, a popular association with what is in effect the upper middle classes; the world of piano recitals and Waitrose where "struggle" means difficulty meeting school fees. Of course, the middle class contains many like this too and they are doing more than fine. In fact, the most interesting development that experts have pointed to in recent years is the fracturing and polarisation of the middle class, between the upper echelons and those at the lower end. And previous generations who started out at the lower end of the middle class, bought a house at the right time, settled into a profession and now face retiring near the top may well be the last to make that journey en masse. In short, the bottom is falling out of the British middle class.

There's been a lot of talk about "narratives" recently. There's also been a lot of talk about how Ed Miliband doesn't have "a narrative". But in his defence, he's one of the few at the top of British politics to grasp this phenemenon, whatever his other difficulties. He's not totally alone – some figures on the right, for instance, including the brilliant Peter Franklin at ConHome, have twigged too. But wider interest is otherwise conspicuous by its absence, in Westminster at least.

Instead we get slightly echoey outdated debates about Europe, whether X or Y is "pro-business" or "anti-business", whether a particular view of public services is sufficiently "reforming" and so on and so forth. But surely the shape of that discussion changes in the face of such huge societal shifts? No doubt this failure to catch up is partly because the senior ranks of the commentariat are largely made up of those at the comfortable end of things (themselves probably among the last who can expect to make a good living out of a profession like journalism) - but it's depressing all the same.

To be fair, the answers are neither easy nor obvious. The likes of Resolution Foundation have been fantastic at laying out the problem of stagnating wages and ways to ameloriate it, but no one has come up with a wholesale plan for reversing the trend. Some of this is because it rubs up against global head winds and the modern divorce between power and politics. It probably requires trans-national solutions, or at least a revisiting of the way Britain approaches globalisation – a debate that hasn't even been opened here.

But those who over-play the inability of national government to fix things are also wrong, and usually have a vested ideological interest in doing so (in this sense the argument between those favouring a "bigger" or "shrunken" Labour offer in opposition is mostly phony, and a proxy for a bigger one about what can be achieved in government). Ideas that would be both effective and achievable include wholesale reform of corporate governance to include a significant role for workers; profit-sharing and other ways of spreading wealth; lower-cost routes into home ownership; breaking up and remaking British banking; decentralisation to cities; the prioritisation of vocational "middle skills"; prioritising British industry in procurement; reform of takeovers etc. When it comes to welfare, there is IPPR's National Salary Insurance scheme or SMF's "flexicurity" proposals.

All of this can only start, though, with a recognition that our current journey back to basically the same political economy as we had before the crash is not what success looks like. It wasn't good enough then and it isn't now.

Marx famously wrote:

The lower strata of the middle class... all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.

Things may not be as apocalyptic or revolutionary now, but they are bad, and contradictions within modern British capitalism mean the lower end of the middle class is sinking. The entire middle is being stretched, squeezed and polarised as never before. The result is entire neighbourhoods – which on the face of things look serene – in fact struggling to keep their head above water, facing futures significantly less secure, less stable and less well-off than their parents. This shapes millions of people's everyday lives and influences their political attitudes, and it should influence our political discussion too. At the moment, though, it doesn't seem to be. Future generations will surely look back and wonder what on earth we were talking about instead.

Steven Akehurst blogs at My Correct Views on Everything

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.