Threatened, isolated, under siege: the UK's working class today

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Only a quarter of the population identify themselves with a once-proud group that now feels marginalised, according to an exclusive survey

The working class is fast disappearing in Britain, according to new research into public attitudes revealed today. Only a quarter of the population now identifying themselves as working class, and pride in their social position is turning to bitterness as manual workers feel themselves squeezed between benefit claimants, immigrants and the expanding middle class.

In the second phase of the most comprehensive study of class in Britain, published exclusively today by The Independent on Sunday, the research company BritainThinks investigated the social attitudes of the declining working class. The survey paints an alarming picture of a group that feels disenfranchised, isolated and threatened on all sides.

When asked to identify their social class, only 24 per cent of people chose to say working class, compared with 67 per cent in the late 1980s. Many people who are struggling financially now choose not to call themselves working class. And those who do are torn between celebrating the dignity of labour and feeling that the term now simply means "poor".

The first part of the study, which we reported in March, looked at the attitudes of the 71 per cent of people who describe themselves as middle class. Today's report used focus groups in Rotherham and Basildon to probe the attitudes of the modern working class.

It concludes that most working-class people feel under siege, "brought down by the workshy underclass and undercut by immigrants". They feel a residual pride in being working class, but this is often seen as something in the past. "Working class used to be a choice – work with your hands, do an honest day's work, be unpretentious, play football. Now working class tends to just mean poor," the report's authors say.

Old assumptions about working-class solidarity no longer apply. The survey finds that the middle classes are more likely to feel part of a community, and that working-class respondents are more likely to feel lonely, unhappy and pessimistic.

In the focus groups, people felt that being called working class was close to an insult, associating them with the "chav" class who choose to live on benefits. The use of the term "chav" has been described as part of the "demonisation of the working class" by Owen Jones, but the study shows that the working classes use it themselves to disown the workshy.

The term working class "used to be a badge of pride, but not any more for most people who still call themselves working class", said Deborah Mattinson, founder of BritainThinks.

The survey suggests that the working classes have lost out from politicians' emphasis on "aspiration" in recent decades, with the assumption that everyone should want a middle-class life. John Major's aim of a "classless society" in 1990 and Tony Blair's declaration that "the class war is over" in 1999 seem to have cut the traditional working class out of politics.

Working-class participants in the focus groups described politicians as "middle-class rich kids". Labour are "champagne socialists", the Conservatives are "just the same but in a different colour suit", and the Liberal Democrats would "say anything to get into power".

Instead, the study's participants look up to Lord Sugar ("he's worked for what he's got") and Sir Alex Ferguson as champions of the working person. The only politician who commands their respect – and then mainly in the South – is Margaret Thatcher. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, is "completely and utterly the wrong choice ... he stabbed his brother in the back... Clueless... Another middle-class boy playing working-class hero".

One of the striking findings of the study is that working-class people identify a group below them, the "wrong'un class", "rotten class" or "chav class". They cannot be described as "working" because, the focus groups argued, "they do not work" and, more importantly, do not want to work. This is typified by the "scrounger" who "knows more about the benefits system than the rest of us put together".

Ms Mattinson describes the fury felt towards this group as "explosive". She said: "The negative views towards the people it described were highly contagious, with participants swapping ever more outrageous tales of 'scroungers' taking society for a ride and 'dining out' on the taxes of hard-working people."

Anti-"chav" feelings were voiced most loudly by those whose own situation might lead others to categorise them as part of this lower grouping, BritainThinks found. "I may be out of work, but I want to work. I'm looking hard for work, and trying to get some training – and that's the difference," said one young single mother.

Changes in the labour market are seen as having undermined working-class solidarity. Although some said it was a good thing the mines had closed, many regretted the passing of powerful trade unions to defend their interests. "There aren't any unions now," said a focus group member. "They don't do anything now anyway." Another said: "No one stands up for each other; now if you get the sack you get the sack."

Immigration, especially from central Europe, is blamed for depressing wages. "There are no unions any more because there are too many foreigners in the country now. They work for pennies. It's killing the British workforce." Looking at a photograph of a miner, Steve said: "If he's Polish, he's definitely 90 per cent of the people I work with."

Most of the groups were pessimistic about their chances of enjoying the same standard of living as the middle class. "If you're working class you have goals, but you probably won't get them. It's a lot easier for middle-class people," said one. "We always work for it, but the middle class can afford it." The BritainThinks survey shows that working-class identifiers are 12 per cent less likely than the middle class to believe that their children will be able to live "somewhere where they feel part of the community". They thought that politicians did not understand their concerns. "They have all gone through the same system. They have gone from private school to uni (most likely Cambridge or Oxford). They have left there and most likely worked for another politician as a researcher. There should be a law that you've got to work in industry for three years before you're allowed to be an MP."

Case studies...

Mark Vincent, Former scaffolder

Mark, 45, lives in Basildon, Essex with his two daughters

"I've been out of work now for three years. I've got arthritis in my spine, my back, my shoulders, all from the job. Even if I could work, I'm not sure there'd be a lot of work for me to do. There are a lot of firms now being run by Czechs and Polish guys and they're undercutting all the British firms. I'm not racist, don't get me wrong, but it's a bit much when we're giving away all of our benefits and health care to people who might just leave.

"Since I had to stop working, I've had to make cutbacks. You can't spend £120 on shopping a week any more – it's more like £50. As for going down the pub, forget about it. You feel like you're being penalised for something that's not your fault and you don't even know what it is.

"I've got six kids in all, but I don't know what kind of future they're looking at. You've got people coming out of university with all these qualifications but they can't get jobs.

"The Government keep on introducing these measures that tax the poor, single mothers. They're not targeting pop stars or footballers, the people earning £160,000 a week.

"I don't even know if the phrase working class even means anything any more. Where's the work? It's all gone to other people, and there's nothing we can do about it."

Paige Coldwell, Unemployed

Paige Coldwell, 19, lives in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. She left school at 16, following her parents' divorce, and has never had a job

"I'm on a course at the Jobcentre that's supposed to be helping me find a job. It's hard – sometimes it feels like they're really on top of helping you, and other times you're completely on your own. For someone who hasn't had a job, it's hard to know if you're doing the right thing.

"It's getting to the point where I can't afford to be unemployed. I've got a one-bedroom flat that costs £80 a week in rent, and I'm only getting £100 from the Jobcentre. Out of that I need to cover the rent, the TV licence and gas and food. I don't have any luxuries. I never buy a new top or go out or anything like that. I'd rather have food. I do almost all my shopping at Tesco, and watching EastEnders is probably my biggest vice. Hopefully I'll be able to get a decent job and not have to rely on hand-me-downs. I'd just like a bit of breathing space and not to have to spend all my money on just surviving.

"For me, I don't think there's any such thing as the working class. If you look at people here in Rotherham, or in Doncaster and Sheffield, they're all the same. Even if they've got a bit more money or whatever, if they had a bit of bad luck or their parents split up, they could find themselves struggling. That's the truth."

Ashley Liversidge, Gardener

Ashley, 20, finished school in 2007 and did an apprenticeship before finding work on a building site. He was laid off in 2009 and recently secured a job as a gardener for a local council. He lives alone in a bedsit

"This recession shows no sign of ending. After three years as a builder I was laid off and spent a few months on jobseeker's allowance. Eventually I found a job pruning shrubs and picking up litter. But I don't know how long that's going to continue for, especially with all the local government cuts.

"To me working class is about having to work hard for everything you want in life, and not getting it handed on a plate. I have never had that. My father works in a factory and my mother now works in a care home.

"I think the Government has to do something about immigration. In the construction industry you can see its effect on society. A lot of money is being sent back home by foreigners. That means that money is not staying in our country. That said, I have nothing against foreigners as people - I had lots of Asian friends at school. Now most of my friends are people from around here who are in a similar position in life."

Claire Zammit, Dinner lady

Claire, 36, works part-time and lives in Basildon, Essex, with her two daughters and her partner, a currently unemployed labourer

"Times are tough at the moment but I'm not complaining. I've been working since I left school at 16, so I'm used to grafting. I do worry about the future, I've got two kids, aged five and eight, and it doesn't get any cheaper to look after them as they get older.

"That's the one thing I'd love to be able to change. I'd like to be able to give my kids more. We're shopping at Asda for food, Tesco for school uniforms and Primark and the market for their day-to-day clothes and things. If it's a special occasion we'll try to stretch things a little more.

"A big dream of mine would be to own my own house. I think it was wonderful what Margaret Thatcher did for people back in the 1980s, letting them buy their own home. All right, they're all sold up now, but that doesn't mean they couldn't build some more, does it? I don't know how I'm going to pay for my kids to go to university. That's something I'd like for them to do. I think they want to learn and get ahead but I just don't know how I could do it, financially.

"As far as being working class goes, I feel like there's a real lack of communication between different levels of people these days, between the man on the street and the Government. No one tells me what's going on. I get the feeling that people look down on me, think I'm not a working mum just because I haven't got a nine-to-five job and because my partner signs on. That's not what being working class is about."

Brian Goodhand, Retired steel-worker

Brian, 77, lives in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. He worked in the steelworks with a secondment during which he joined the Army. He lives alone in a detached house and regularly visits his five grandchildren

"There was a time when the Sheffield steel industry used to be respected all over the world. You look back nostalgically, but then remember it was actually really hard work. Much of it was dirty, messy and dangerous.

"Despite living in Sheffield, I blame Labour for the mess we're in. Despite their values, the reality is that whenever Labour is in power, they seem to breed poverty or make decisions that are at odds with the country, like the war on Iraq. It seems like the Conservatives are the only party that lift us out of poverty. Labour talk about it but haven't delivered.

"There are a lot of people that don't like immigrants here. Many of them appear to have abused the system, while some are milking the housing and health service.

"I have always considered myself working class. But when you look at yourself in comparison to other people you really start to wonder. Young people don't act with any sense of responsibility, and there is a basic lack of respect between parents and their children.

"Schools are also lacking in discipline. I'm not saying it should be brought back, but the cane never really did any harm. It only ever instilled a sense of discipline."

Interviews by Matt Thomas and Kunal Dutta

Class quotes

"And supposing I had to take sides, whom should I side with, the upper class which is trying to squeeze me out of existence, or the working class whose manners are not my manners?"

George Orwell

"Football is working-class ballet."

Alf Garnett

"The worst fault of the working classes is telling their children they're not going to succeed, saying: there is life, but it's not for you."

John Mortimer

"I found out about middle-class meanness and snobbery, and kindness; and I found out about the curious combination of kindness, cunning, ignorance, feigned servility and subordination, actual contempt, which this particular part of the unskilled working class had for their masters."

Ralph Miliband

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