Where Are The Class Divisions In Britain Today?

26/09/2016 16:31

I'm writing this blog post from this year's Labour Party conference. It's in Liverpool - a fantastic city with social history to match. In its heyday as a major port there was sufficient affluence to build the largest cathedral in the UK by public subscription alone, yet by the 1980s the Thatcher government turned a blind eye to the need for regenerate, preferring a policy of managed decline. In recent years it has begun a renaissance but retains its gritty soul.

Its as good a vantage point as any to consider the nature of class divisions in Britain today. It sometimes feels embarrassing to use the word "class" but without it, it's hard to explain some of the tensions that exist in society. And insofar as it causes tensions, then I would argue that divisions of class - or call it status if you prefer - are a problem.

At the moment, those who oppose(d) the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn are walking around Labour party conference sporting badges with the Hugh Gaitskell quote "fight, fight and fight again" urging moderates to stay within the wider party to work for its future success.

Writing in Gaitskell's heyday, Tony Crosland stated in his 1956 book The Future of Socialism that to remove tension in society, equality of opportunity was not enough and needed to be combined with proactive measures "to equalise the distribution of rewards and and privileges so as to diminish the degree of class stratification". At the time he pinpointed education as the key area for intervention eulogising that success would be when school choice "is a matter of personal preference and local accident...all will provide routes to the Universities and every kind of occupation..."

The question in my mind is what would Crosland and the Gaitskellites have picked out as the defining class interest if they were around today? Although there are still some big issues around in education, as progressive organisations like Teach First remind us, there have also been significant improvements in the last 60 years.

In the most comprehensive recent look at social class, Mike Savage at the London School of Economics argues in his 2015 book Social Class in the 21st Century that there are "considerable limitations" to calls for more education as a means of encouraging social mobilty and addressing class inequalities.

Instead he emphasises the "mundane and ordinary accumulation" of the "ordinary" wealth elite, particularly through the ownership of houses that rise in value, and "highbrow" cultural capital that is located in London or in other elite places and institutions. Both these class characteristics immediately connect status with physical location. Looking at these results alongside the Brexit voting patterns and the debate on elites that emerged after the referendum, and it seems to me that were the Labour party revisionists around today then they would have pinpointed issues to do with geography and cosmopolitan/London-ness as the defining class variables. A similar story emerges of the importance of housing as a determining factor in the national wealth distribution from work we undertook recently on the distribution of wealth for the Smith Institute.

This is difficult in policy terms. The easy bit (!) is to try and ensure that no part of the country feels left behind: the story of Liverpool is a case in point. Far harder is to increase the accessibility of places that currently have cultural capital, simply because the main barrier is house prices, which in turn are a function of supply and demand.

There are probably some solutions in the form of encouraging the wealthy to invest outside of bricks and mortar, and thinking more imaginatively in terms of the role of state institutions to intervene in the housing market, through creating social landlords working in the private sector and being more interventionist in the market for equity release; some of these ideas are discussed in a longer article I've written for this week's edition of Progress magazine

The main point is simply that class still exists, that it manifests itself in things that matter, and that the solutions lie as much in regional and housing policy as they do in education and other forms of opportunity. And that this might be a good area for those on the left to explore, and Liverpool is as good a backdrop as any to start that exploration.