Deborah Mattinson: Boots, gloves and tools - what it means to be working class

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It was a Thursday evening in the Basildon Pitsea Leisure Centre. Phil pushed back his chair, and, swinging his legs up, slapped a mud-encrusted pair of workman's boots on the table. "These are my working-class object," he said. "I couldn't work without them. They say work to me. And working class means work."

In March BritainThinks produced the report Speaking Middle English, which explored the attitudes of the 71 per cent of Britons who define themselves as "middle class". In focus groups, people brought along symbols of their place in society. A cafetiere, posh tea, a Cath Kidston bag, theatre tickets, or books: the trappings of the middle class were all about lifestyle.

Now we're exploring the mindset of the 24 per cent who self-define as "working class". Phil was typical. Being working class is, as he said, all about working. Membership of the club is defined by your attitude to work: a readiness to "earn your keep", to get on and throw your back into it, the more physically tiring, the better.

The items people brought along were often to do with manual work - heavy leather workers' gloves, a spanner, a screwdriver, a tape measure - although someone produced a copy of the Racing Post and several people brought The Sun.

In the 1990s a majority of the population described themselves as working class. Nowadays, the worker is an endangered species, threatened by short-term contracts imposed by tough employers who no longer listen to marginalised trade unions, while also facing competition from cheap and industrious immigrants, especially from Poland. Tony told us: "Immigration meant my wages went down from £250 a day to £110 a day and now £70 a day... I just can't live off being a carpenter any more."

Some, especially the under-25s, acknowledged that changes had been positive: more people owning their homes, going abroad on holiday, eating out; but feelings were mixed – and for those who couldn't afford home ownership the prospects for renting were bleak.

In 20 years of running political focus groups I have seen voters becoming more and more disconnected from politics as they observe politicians coming from an increasingly rarefied gene pool. Working-class voters are particularly disillusioned, convinced that politicians are upper class, with no understanding of their concerns.

The classless society for which many hoped does not seem to have materialsed – although the youngest in our sample remain optimistic that it may. However, the traditional perks of being working class – living in strong communities and taking pride in work – seem to have evaporated and the financial downsides have grown.

Worst of all is the stress of life on the edge, the nagging fear – felt especially strongly by the least well off – that at any time you could tip over and end up in the fourth class: not "working" any more but part of the "underclass", or "chavs".

Deborah Mattinson is founder of BritainThinks

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