From Matthew Parris’ call on the Conservative party to ‘let go of Clacton’ to John McTernan’s plea to for Labour to avoid doomed saloon politics, recent debates about class in Britain paint a picture of a society starkly divided. On the one side are the financially secure and university-educated who have everything to gain from social change. On the other side, are the ‘left behind’, struggling on stagnant incomes and threatened by the pace of change.
IPPR’s new ‘Alien nation?’ survey challenges this caricature of modern Britain. It confirms what sociologists have asserted for many years: that class-based identities are more diffuse and harder than ever to pin down. Almost a third of people we interviewed in occupations that are classified as working class considered themselves to be middle class. It also finds that the sense of being ‘left behind’ and pessimism cuts across social groups. Forty-eight per cent of white working-class respondents agreed with the statement that ‘the economic system these days is generally worse for people like me than it was in the past’, but so did 44 per cent of those considered to be middle class.
Polarised social demarcations have helped reduce complex challenges to clear cut choices – juxtaposing openness and the future against stuck in the past isolationism and communitarianism. But the choice is not that simple. This has been most clearly reflected in recent debates about immigration. Crude measures to cut immigration have proven to be economically damaging, particularly to the higher education and technology sectors. And they have come at the expense of efforts to actively mitigate the most challenging social impacts of mass migration through community policy and the introduction of measures which seek to protect the most vulnerable workers from wage-undercutting and rogue landlords. In short, both Clacton and Cambridge have come out as losers. Unsurprisingly, public anxiety about the issue remains very high, with 51 per cent of poll respondents agreeing with the statement ‘I’d support reducing immigration even if it was bad for Britain’s economy’.
Letting go of Clacton will only help fuel the latent sense of detachment from political life among the white working classes. Our poll found that almost two out work three white working-class citizens believe that democracy in Britain does not adequately address their interests. Eighty-six per cent felt that politicians did not understand people like them. Studies, such as the Open Society’s Foundation research in Higher Blackley in Manchester, have shown that such resentment is widespread.
But a politics which seeks to counter detachment by legitimising a sense of grievance and resentment rather than diffusing it is not the solution. Such dog-whistle democracy will only set in train a downward spiral of negativity towards political institutions and processes. It is also important to recognise that – to dust off an old phrase – ‘we’re all in it together’ – white, black, working class and middle class – when it comes to feeling that the current political and economic system is failing to deliver. So the response needs to be an inclusive one which involves a meaningful and constructive engagement with all sections of society and one which recognises the importance of organising communities and rebuilding civic infrastructure so that people have more power to shape their own lives.
Phoebe Griffith is associate director of communities and integration at IPPR
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