Deborah Mattinson: From cloth caps to cafetières: you are what you buy

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I have been asking the same class question in focus groups since the late 1980s. Back then people would shrink from placing themselves in the middle. Some would be critical of friends or neighbours who were "above themselves". I could see them watching me nervously, almost as if they were afraid that, if they claimed to be middle class, I might turn around and say, "You're not, you know". It was what they aimed to become, but not what they were.

But while the "working class" tag might have been a badge of pride in previous decades it was already an association that they were moving away from: C1/C2 swing voters already talked of their aspiration to "better themselves" compared with their working-class parents.

Through the two decades that followed, many did just that. They became the first generation in their families to own their homes, to send their children to university, to holiday abroad on holiday and to have two cars. They had acquired many of the trappings of the middle class, and that is how they began to see themselves.

Just 21 per cent now believe that class is contingent on occupation. Other factors might include education, our parents' class, our home, our accent and vocabulary, and the clothes we wear. But focus groups reveal a more subtle qualification. I asked people who called themselves middle class to bring something with them to their groups that symbolised the middle class. The most popular item? A cafetière. Now our social class is part-determined by the everyday choices that we make.

Our survey found the middle classes are better off than those who describe themselves as working class, but being middle class is about much more than money. It's a different outlook. People who see themselves as middle class are more confident and optimistic about the future. They used words like "hopeful", "proud", "happy", or "excited" to describe their mood, while working class people were more likely to say they were "worried", "nervous", "fearful", "dissatisfied" or "depressed". Working-class people are also more likely to believe the Government doesn't do enough for people like them and more likely to feel they have no time for leisure and hobbies.

There was a strong feeling in the focus groups that the noble tradition of a respectable and diligent working class was over. For the first time, I saw the "working class" tag used as a slur, equated with other class-based insults such as "chav". I asked focus group members to make collages using newspaper and magazine clippings to show what the working class was. Many chose deeply unattractive images: flashy excess, cosmetic surgery gone wrong, tacky designer clothes, booze, drugs and overeating. By contrast, being middle class is about being, well, a bit classy.

The survey shows that the 71 per cent "middle class" are not homogenous, but fall into the six distinct segments. They are by no means all as "squeezed" as some politicians fear and others hope.

Two of the groups, representing about a third of the total – Bargain Hunters and Squeezed Strugglers – are facing very tough times financially. Other groups, though, are managing to make ends meet. Comfortable Greens are relatively wealthy. Urban Networkers are young, often single, and, as you'd expect, urban. They are more likely to have middle-class parents and believe that fulfilling your career potential is really important.

Deserving Downtimers are the most affluent group. Older, they have substantial savings, take more foreign holidays and expect their children to be middle class, like them. The final group, Daily Mail Disciplinarians, is also older, and also more male. Disciplinarians are most likely to believe that Britain is a "soft touch for immigrants" and least likely to agree that "'gay people should have the same rights as heterosexuals".

In my first political focus groups in the 1980s the pen portraits participants drafted of politicians reflected their attitudes to class. Then, Labour Party supporters were expected to conform to a working-class stereotype: "wearing a cloth cap", "smoking a pipe", "drinking pale ale", "holidaying in Blackpool" and "travelling by bus". By contrast, Conservatives were upper class (no one describes themselves as "upper class" in the BritainThinks survey). Conservatives then "wore pin-striped suits, drank champagne, lived in a mansion and went to Eton".

Mrs Thatcher's triumph was to move away from this narrow deferential model. New Labour also moved to the middle. Voters did too, but it is a foolish politician who assumes that that means we're all the same.

The autor is co-founder of BritainThinks. For more about BritainThinks, britainthinks.com/

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