Whenever a politician wants to attack a group for being out of touch – or to suggest they’re in some way elite or effete – they inexplicably resort to a tired coffee-related cliché: latte-sipping liberals, for example.
Such comments easily reveal who is actually out of touch: whoever is making them. A coffee shop latte costs less than £3, less than many pints of lager would cost in any pub across the country.
Anyone dropping in to a coffee shop in a Northern town – and yes, small Northern towns generally have multiple chain and independent coffee shops – will find it full of shopworkers, nursery teachers, factory workers, and plenty of other people who would never fairly be described as out of touch elites.
The latte vs pints false dilemma is just one manifestation of a strange obsession over how working class people spend their money. Another recent manifestation of this phenomenon is a new Twitter row over dinner parties vs pubs, imagining one as being working-class (with an uncomfortable connection to domestic violence, which the original poster described as resulting from his own experiences of pubs) and the other as “posh”.
Neither need be the case: different people like different things, and money is often not the only constraint at play. I prefer to drink in a pub than go to a bar or a dinner party. This is no signal of class or income – if you’re good at happy hours, bars can easily be cheaper than pubs – but rather signals that I’m fussy with food (and hence a bad dinner party guest) and have terrible hearing (so no bar chat), so pubs work for me socially. The preference needn’t mean any more than that.
Some of this is simply an outdated and simplistic idea of class – stereotypes and clichés imagining that being working class is all pies, chippies and flat caps. The persistence of these patronising and irritating generalisations is perhaps explained by collapsing social mobility: people move up and down income brackets less often than they used to, and people have become less likely to marry outside of their own class. People are always much more complicated than generalisations would suggest: we just see less of each other to remind ourselves of this.
But the bigger problem is that the UK is a country with an unhealthy obsession with how people on low incomes spend their money: we fixate on the size of TV screens, whether people are buying cheap drink in the supermarket, on what sort of food is being bought.
For one, why shouldn’t a family living on benefits think about buying a Sky TV package? A basic level package costs about £20 a month, and includes 300 channels plus catch-up – giving access to hundreds of TV shows and movies – when a single trip to the cinema costs very nearly as much, without the cost of a babysitter, of transport, or snacks. If you’re on a low income, TV represents a good value for money means of accessing entertainment – and if you’re going to watch more of it, why not get a decent size screen?
The same is true of supermarket beer: we rarely condemn anyone on a middle income going out with a few friends on a Friday night and having 4-5 beers. This would be a similar amount of alcohol to someone buying a 24-pack of supermarket lagers and splitting it at home with their friends – except the latter would be much cheaper. And yet we know which one most often becomes the fuel for newspaper moral panics.
Lots of people who live on low incomes have been living on them for a while: they know what spending decisions work for them, even if they don’t match what other people think they should be (or the imaginary and puritanical budgeting set out by people doing poverty “challenges”).
But above all of this is a simple point: how anyone spends their money – provided it’s legitimately earned and taxed – is no one else’s business. We seem to intuitively know that for middle-class people – but when it comes the working class, especially those on benefits, suddenly half the media feels entitled to stick their oar in. Whatever their income, whatever their class, people are entitled to spend what they have on what they would like to. The rest of us should butt out.