Opinion: Can the middle classes get some political clout?

I have been trying to weave a new political narrative out of the plight of the middle classes. I’ve no idea whether I’ll be successful or not, but I have learned that you gargle with the word ‘class’ at your peril.

One fact alone should tell the story. If house prices rise in the next three decades like they did in the last, the average home will be worth £1.2 million. Does anyone really believe average wages will rise enough for our children or grandchildren to afford to buy or rent a home, certainly in London and the south east?

Despite all the political rhetoric, and all the stuff about ‘hard-working families’, the middle classes – on present trends anyway – are on the way out.

I’ve tried to explain why in my new book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes?

The clues seem to point away from one cataclysmic event, one malevolent decision which removed the opportunity for another generation to enjoy some space in their lives.

But they do point towards a series of mistakes, often made in the name of the middle classes – a series of unexpected by-products of decisions which go beyond any passing economic difficulties. Most of all, perhaps, the abolition of the Corset which restricted inflationary finance pouring too fast into house prices. This 1980 decision was a direct result of Geoffrey Howe’s decision to end exchange controls, yet nothing was done to replace it.

I’ve tried to be as politically ambiguous as I can in the book, though the first reviewer (Toby Young) sussed that I was a Lib Dem. Otherwise, trying to reshape the class narrative is fraught with dangers. Within a few hours of my Comment is Free contribution to the Guardian going up, there were over 700 ferocious messages – some of them supportive, many of them cross.

I’ve had some bizarre emails too. This one urged me to do what I thought I had – to put aside class differences to build a new kind of economics:

Instead you defer to your sad obsession with class, and in fact your boo-hoo story about the nouveau-pauvre middle class will leave many of your compatriots happy to see you suffer in your plight. And, in my opinion, not unjustly so.

Even more scary was one of the responses to my first contribution to Conservative Home:

The real answer is a cull: turns the four million least desirable, most-useless scum-denizens of this island into pork pies and black puddings. That’d solve the housing problems – and a lot of others – in double-quick time.

Part of the problem is that a worrying chunk of the population see the words ‘middle classes’ on the cover of a book and have no need to read what’s inside before reaching a powerful opinion on it.

But I’ve also been overwhelmed by support that this isn’t about the class war, where we have to line up on the side of one class or the other. Because, despite Thatcher and Blair, policy has actually shifted away from the middle classes and has no other levers than those which try to recreate the conditions for the last bubble – and make sure that cascade of cash does not filter so far into the middle or working classes that it becomes inflationary.

We have been brought up to believe that the Right represents the middle classes and the Left represents the working classes. Actually, neither now represent the interests of either.

But experience shows that when the articulate middle classes demand things, sooner or later they get them. That is their best hope. The middle class, mused George Bernard Shaw, ‘so clever in industry, so stupid in politics’.

I believe a political force will emerge that genuinely represents the needs of the middle classes, their small entrepreneurs, their homes, pensions and lifestyles. It won’t look like Thatcherism and it certainly won’t look like New Labour, and it certainly won’t look like UKIP, which is a symptom of the malaise not a solution to it.

When it arrives, I believe it will sweep all before it. But it isn’t here yet.

David Boyle is the author of Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes? (Fourth Estate).

* David Boyle is policy director of Radix, co-director of New Weather, a fellow of the New Economics Foundation, and the author of The Xanthe Schneider Enigma Files and other books.

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11 Comments

  • This is a refreshing piece. But who indeed are the middle classes.? Back in the 1940’s the manager of a steel making plant, a coal mine or an engineering workshop, might consider themselves middle class. And those they managed, the working class. But as a consequence (over several decades), of political change, global economic changes and the bounty of North Sea Oil, we all became richer. We demolished our dirty industries or off shored them to the east, and lived high off the hog, (increasing our indebtedness into the bargain).
    By dint of Thatcherism, thousands were forced (or volunteered), to migrate from blue to white collar work. It was only a small psychological leap for these former blue collar ‘workers’, to notice that they had no grit under their nails, and thus, sitting at their new desk with modern phone begin to re-classify themselves as ‘middle class’. But surely, ~ they never were, middle class. It was simply that given the binary choice, of blue collar and white collar, and given that they were definitely not blue collar, then, white collar (middle class), was the only category available to them.? And now herein lies the British economic dilemma we face.
    Now (or in the last decade), we have realised that we off shored too much of our industry (worker ~blue collar), and relied far too much on admin, insurance services, and financial products generally (middle class ~white collar). This late realisation, has been compounded by the dramatic fall in our oil revenue from the North Sea. An oil revenue which we foolishly used, to delude ourselves that we didn’t need dirty blue collar industries. The wealth from North Sea oil, together with the imaginary ‘ponzi’ wealth of our inflating house prices, meant that ‘We’re all middle class now !”
    The struggle for folk like Vince Cable now, is how to re-route the British ‘white collar’, middle class mentality, away from their desks, phones and water coolers, and back into science, technology and industry.
    As a backdrop to this, notice how the German economy (in the same timeframe), did not do the British social shift, from blue to white collar. Indeed for them engineering is highly regarded. In conclusion, maybe the new ‘faux, middle class’ was a temporary mirage, whilst using our house prices as ATM machines into the bargain. Perhaps we need to re-direct our youngsters away from media studies, city trading and political think tanks, and get oil and grit under their nails again.? Maybe we need to be a bit more German.?
    Apologies for the lengthy comment.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th May '13 - 2:21pm

    The Conservative Party represents the aristocracy. Always has done. Just because the new aristocracy is people living unimaginable lives of luxury from owning and controlling the money-pipes rather than the land (although there’s a big overlap) doesn’t change things much. The main difference is that the old aristocracy had the sense of noblesse oblige and by and large were committed to this country. The new aristocracy are more like colonialists, they see this country just as a useful base, to screw as much out of as possible, and if the natives get uppity, replace them by coolie labour. Thatcherism was all about fooling the middle classes into thinking they too were aristocrats. Or maybe those promoting it were the ones fooled, in my analogy like the tribal chiefs who sold out their country for a few glass beads. That too was justified as “modernisation”.

    We should make no apology for using the term “class”. Class division has been growing in this country since 1979, and that’s division between the lower class, the middle class, and the upper class.

  • Wasn’t Kaynes’ ultimate reason for supporting the Liberal Party his belief in the creative power and energy of the middles classes as a means of ultimately achieving society’s need for happiness and fulfillment beyond meeting its immediate economic needs (or am I just mashing up my half remembered readings of Why I am a Liberal and Economics Porspects for our grand children). If so then you may just be starting to build the sort of Kaynsian argument I can get on with.

  • Foregone Conclusion 9th May '13 - 8:39pm

    That’s a truly Swiftian comment from Conservative Home. Perhaps you were being trolled?

  • Building on John Dunn’s comments I would also ask who are the new working class?

    Reading Ellie Mae O’Hagan’s piece I get the feeling that the unions are living in the past and want to perpetuate some myth about the “working class” and their culture, either carefully forgetting that many of their members (particularly Unite’s) are from traditionally white collar/middle class professions, or selling reassurance to people, that whilst they may be doing a white collar job and earning good salaries they are still “working class”.

    Whilst the above comment is a little dismissive of the unions, I do believe that the real difference between the modern working and middle class’es are more to do with their aspirations and world views, than whether your father was a miner/steelworker/shipbuilder etc.

  • Roland – not just Unite, I’ve heard a NUT rep on a Trades Council refer to his members as working class without a trace of irony in his voice…

  • The visceral reaction I had to the title comes mainly from the stretching of the term “middle class” by the media to include people who are impossibly rich to me. I don’t know if you are using the daily mail’s definition of middle class or not, and none of your articles makes it clear, but my instinctive reaction is something along the lines of “cry me a river and try living in the bottom 5% like I am you spoilt buggers”. I recognise that’s not the most helpful reaction, but I suspect listening to You and Yours every so often had something to do with it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th May '13 - 2:43pm

    Jennie, that’s a complete misreading of what David Boyle is saying. The Daily Mail loves to play the trick where sometimes “middle class” means the real middle, but sometimes it means the richest 5%. By confusing the two they can fool people who are somewhere in the middle into identifying with and supporting policies that are harmful to them and beneficial only to the top 5% or so. If you read a headline in the Mail on “attack on the middle class” you will always find what it actually means is an attack on the wealthiest 5% – and I’m using 5% as a rough figure, could be top 10%, but sometimes it’s just top 1%. So far as I understand, what David is doing is identifying and attacking this trickery. Successfully doing this would destroy the Tory vote. The point is that what used to be called “the middle class” actually is being pushed into a situation where they would do better to make common cause with those at the bottom against the super-rich, rather than be fooled into thinking if they aren’t yet super-rich, they will make it there, so had better oppose taxes on the super-rich etc.

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