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

Rex Features
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage