We prosecute racists and sexists. So what about ‘classists’?

Once we recognise classism as a prolific form of discrimination, we should accept that it deserves equal billing with the better-known forms

Alex Benn
Monday 30 January 2023 09:42 GMT
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Classism is legal in the United Kingdom.

By that, I mean that the law does not make discrimination against someone based on their class a specific criminal or civil wrong. The Equality Act 2010, the centrepiece of discrimination law in the UK, makes no mention of it. Elsewhere, in the recent report on hate crime laws, the Law Commission of England and Wales makes one short reference to an article that I wrote about classist hate crime – and that’s it.

Is it time for the law to ban classism, then? Some (myself included) answer that question with a firm, “yes”.

Professor Geraldine Van Bueren KC (Hons), who has long researched the field of socio-economic rights, has just started a petition to the UK government. The aim is to legislate to ban classism.

It is, in reality, overdue. Classism is no more recent than other forms of discrimination. In fact, it is older than some, with examples dating as far back as the medieval sumptuary laws dictating who could eat and wear what in the feudal class hierarchy. But academics and politicians consistently ignore classism when addressing discrimination.

Recently, there has been some progress. In a 2019 report, the Trades Union Congress proposed that the law should prohibit classism in the workplace. A few opinion pieces have appeared in the national press, as well as Akala’s book, Natives (2019), which directly confronts racism and classism.

In academic writing, I first proposed to ban classism through discrimination law in 2020. At my suggestion, the Youth Justice Legal Centre included for the first time a session on class in its annual conference, alongside race, age and gender. There are some less academic examples of a shift, too. Last year, Angela Rayner was the highest-profile politician to label criticisms against her as both “classist” and “sexist”. It seems that the language of “classism” is becoming more familiar.

However, there is a long way to go. Notice how often the topic of class goes missing when we discuss discrimination. It shouldn’t be because class is somehow harder to define than other forms of discrimination. Refusing to employ someone because they grew up on a council estate, or speak with a regional accent, is treatment based on features associated with being lower-class.

Yet when we hear about police misconduct, we tend to hear about racism and misogyny, not classism. In many professions, equality and diversity initiatives are patchy. Often, the training programmes overlook class. Part of the problem might be that we are not proactive enough in providing the data we need.

Take an example from the Bar. In a recent survey, about 40 per cent of barristers declined to say whether they had attended a state or private school. We need people to begin to engage with the topic of class by answering these kinds of questions. Otherwise, we will never have the data to tackle classism.

Recognition is essential; as is careful debate. That is what the petition, in part, aims to start. Although I have thought a lot about whether we should use criminal and discrimination law to prohibit classism, I am still cautious. Much depends on how legislation is worded. A clunky, blanket ban on any decisions involving someone’s class could damage anti-classism efforts.

For example, when applicants apply to university via UCAS, the service gathers a limited amount of contextual information that institutions can then use in admissions processes.

Some of that information – postcode data, school type, receipt of free school meals – can be relevant to someone’s class. Stopping universities from taking that information into account might hamper the positive work to tackle classism at degree level and beyond.

The debate does not stop there. When it comes to fostering classism, the law itself has much to answer for. Whether the provisions still in force banning beggars under the Vagrancy Act 1824, or the charitable status afforded to private schools, much of the law’s framework arguably guards upper-class interests.

Handing judges new tools to address classism could go wrong without proper guidance, since some may never have considered discrimination based on class. Similarly, given the focus on other issues with policing at the moment, would it be feasible to introduce this unfamiliar topic?

Even in these short paragraphs, you can see the need for attention. We must analyse many issues with great care. Still, if the trend continues, class might find itself at the centre of a political debate.

The major point is that, once we recognise classism as a prolific form of discrimination, we should accept that it deserves equal billing with the better-known forms. A constant question is how to start this debate, how to persuade people that it is time – at long last – to ban classism. Signing this new petition might be a good place to start.

Alex Benn is a lecturer at University College, Oxford, specialising in criminal and discrimination law, and a barrister at Red Lion Chambers

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