“The class war is over,” declared Tony Blair in 1999, two years after he became prime minister – the same year he envisioned a new “middle class that will include millions of people who traditionally may see themselves as working class”. His deputy, John Prescott, said in 1997: “We are all middle class now.”
But, according to a major new study, we are not. Far from it. More Brits say they are working class today than they did back then. New Labour’s vision of a meritocratic Britain, where class divides were depoliticised and blurred, has unravelled.
The British public today has a greater class awareness, and is more likely to identify as working class than it was when these questions were first included on surveys in the early Eighties. Despite the spread of white-collar work, decline in manual jobs and higher education becoming more mainstream over recent decades, 46 per cent of Brits unprompted call themselves working class – up from 32 per cent in 1983. Twenty-nine per cent say middle class, up just nine percentage points since 1983.
The great majority, 77 per cent, say that class significantly affects opportunities in Britain, compared with 70 per cent who said the same in 1983 and 66 per cent in 1985. Those who identify as working class are much more likely, at 40 per cent, than those who identify as middle class (27 per cent) to say movement between classes is “very difficult”.
These trends are revealed in results shared exclusively with the New Statesman from the latest British Social Attitudes survey: the gold standard study of how Britons feel about everything from gay rights to tax, now in its 40th year.
A stand-out statistic is that the proportion of people saying they’re working class has risen 23 percentage points since 2015, implying a recent surge in working-class identity. The proportion of people labelling themselves middle class in the same period rose by 9 points to 29 per cent. (However, a change in survey method – from face-to-face to online – since the pandemic in 2020 may slightly skew these results.)
“The more cautious interpretation is that there’s no evidence that these identities have declined,” said Oliver Heath, professor of politics at Royal Holloway University of London, who co-authored this chapter of the British Social Attitudes survey. “And certainly more people identify as working class than they do as middle class, despite the spread of more middle-class jobs. The persistence of class identity, and how prevalent it still is, goes against so much of the narrative that we constantly hear about class boundaries becoming more fluid and everyone thinking they’re middle class now.”
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So what do respondents mean by working and middle class? The key factors identified by the survey that people associate with class are education, occupation and income. In fact, whether you have a degree is a greater determinant than whether you’re in a white- or blue-collar job. Just 28 per cent of those who have been to university think of themselves as working class, while 38 per cent of people in what are deemed middle class jobs by the Office for National Statistics identify as working class.
There are other cultural factors, too. For example, regardless of job, income or educational background, people in Scotland and the north of England are much more likely than people in London, the south-east and south-west to identify as working class.
These findings highlight the relative focus over recent years on other characteristics – like race and gender – on outcomes, perhaps at the expense of class identity. Yet they also undermine the crude caricature of the “working-class voter” in our national discourse since the Brexit vote. Politicians and the media have tended to portray working-class communities as predominantly white, male and older. In reality, people from ethnic minority groups are more likely than those from white backgrounds to identify as working class, as are the young compared with the old, while women are just as likely as men to identify as working class.
In fact, far from class feeling like an old-fashioned preoccupation, younger people in particular are aware of it as an impediment to their life chances. Forty-two per cent of people aged 18-34 say it’s very difficult to move classes, compared with just 22 per cent of people aged 55 and over.
“In the wake of the financial crisis, after Covid,” said Heath, “I think people have become much more aware of inequalities in society – it’s much more visible how people’s class position or social position either exposed them to the difficulties of these crises, or shielded them. Young people in particular are much more concerned about barriers to mobility.”
New Labour came to power when the economy was strong, and promised a spread of education and affluence that would mitigate the impact of class status on individual outcomes. Trends in British politics since then, including the outcome of the EU referendum and 2019 Red Wall general election, have switched some focus back to class identity.
Yet to capitalise on this, politicians need to understand the worldview of those increasing numbers calling themselves working class today. While the survey suggests people identifying as working class are less liberal on the liberal-authoritarian scale, and more sceptical of immigration, it also finds left-wing economics are more salient among this demographic.
Class awareness actually appears to dampen anti-immigrant sentiment among the self-identifying working classes. They are less likely to hold negative views about immigration when they think it’s very difficult for people to move between classes. Counter to perceptions of a competition for resources, this suggests concern about inequality does not correlate with a hostility towards newcomers to Britain.
As Heath writes with his co-author Monica Bennett, a researcher at the National Centre for Social Research: “Even if people who identify as working class are relatively anti-immigrant, they do not blame immigration for worsening class conditions, while people who think class inequality is a problem are more likely to favour left-wing economic solutions than anti-immigrant ones.”
Despite these shifts, none of the major parties seem particularly comfortable with a class analysis – although Labour has some education policies aimed at shattering the “class ceiling”. What should politicians be doing to speak to class-concerned voters?
“There’s genuine concern among large parts of the population about class-based inequality, so politicians shouldn’t be afraid of addressing them head-on,” said Heath. “There does seem to be some more tentative recognition of it that maybe hasn’t been there from previous Labour frontbenches, but it’s something they could focus on more. There’s public appetite there; it’s certainly ripe to be exploited as more of an issue.”
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