Owen Jones: Bring politics back to the real world

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The Independent Online

"It's not the existence of classes that threatens the unity of the nation, but the existence of class feeling." Those words appeared in the Conservative Party's statement of aims in 1976, just three years before Margaret Thatcher began to transform British society. The document's authors would undoubtedly find much satisfaction in the complex and disturbing portrait of attitudes to class uncovered by the research firm BritainThinks in modern Britain.

The most striking finding is that fewer than a quarter of those surveyed define themselves as "working class". The findings depend heavily on question wording. Ipsos MORI found that two-thirds described themselves as "working class and proud of it" in 2002; and the 2007 British Social Attitudes survey found that 57 per cent called themselves "working class" or "upper working class".

But the demonisation of working-class identity has had far-reaching consequences. In focus groups of people describing themselves as middle class, Deborah Mattinson, of BritainThinks, encountered a strong sense "that the noble tradition of a respectable and diligent working class was over". Instead, she saw "the working class tag used as a slur, equated with other class-based insults such as chav". When asked to use newspaper clippings to flesh out their image of what the working class was, elements of a "chav" lifestyle emerged: flashy excess, booze, drugs and overeating. Being middle class, however, was considered "classy".

BritainThinks divided its massive middle-class bloc into groups. A third were placed into the categories Bargain Hunters and Squeezed Strugglers – working people struggling more than some who opted for a "working-class" label. But with a political consensus that has airbrushed working-class Britain out of existence and encourages all to join the middle class, this is unsurprising.

It is a point echoed by the working-class focus groups: while being working class was once something to be proud of, today it tends to just mean "poor". Indeed, when I asked a childhood friend I regarded as indisputably working class, he felt he was "working class in income, but middle class in education": as though working class meant poor and middle class meant educated.

BritainThinks also reveals a familiar working-class disillusionment with the political establishment. As one participant put it: "The politicians are all millionaires – they don't live in the real world." Politicians' wealth may be exaggerated; yet two- thirds of MPs are from a professional background, and only one in 20 from an unskilled manual background. Little wonder, as the research found, that poorer working-class people are by far the least likely to vote.

Another common belief was that immigration is undercutting wages. The fact that wages were declining while wealth boomed at the top has much to do with weak trades unions and globalisation. Yet, with no mainstream politician willing to make that case, immigration has easily been scapegoated.

A new left project would need to appeal to the interests of working people, whether they consider themselves middle class or working class, during the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s. As working people are made to pay for a crisis of capitalism, the struggle for their needs is more relevant than ever.

Owen Jones is author of 'Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class', published by Verso