UK Politics

Viewpoint: Why the class struggle is not dead

  • 1 September 2011
  • From the section UK Politics
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Workers leave a factory in 1956
Image caption Class stereotypes were more defined in the 1950s and 60s when the way people dressed gave away their background

Left-wing commentator Polly Toynbee, presenter of BBC Radio 4's The Class Ceiling, gives her take on whether the class struggle is dead in the UK.

Class is dead and deference has gone the way of difference in dress, while the young all speak the same estuary or mockney. Apart from a thin platinum layer of the mega-rich and a silt of dysfunctional fallers, aren't we a classless society these days?

That's the convenient myth promoted by all parties since John Major proclaimed "the classless society" and Tony Blair declared "the class war is over".

Politicians seeking votes from high, middle and low sell a vision of a modern country where nearly everyone is "middle" nowadays.

With nine out of 10 MPs graduates and the fading of trade unionism, the voice of working class interests is rarely heard.

A BritainThinks poll finds only 24% call themselves working class - they say it not with pride but define it as "poor" and "struggling" in low-paid work. And 71% call themselves middle class (none admitted being upper class).

So have we become more classless? Dig a little deeper and class still hurts.

In making our series The Class Ceiling, we asked everyone from vox pops in the street to experts, politicians and academics the same question.

Had they felt the painful jagged edge of class? Everyone had a story to tell.

A welder told of sitting in work clothes with his kids in a first-class carriage when a posh passenger summoned the conductor to check his ticket.

A politician at Cambridge was embarrassed by thinking a dinner engagement meant lunchtime.

An academic from a working-class family keeps the letter inviting him to an Oxford interview to check "you are appropriate in dress, manners and writing".

A working-class girl was floored by what to do with an avocado pear.

Class is still everywhere, as unavoidable as knowing the difference in background between a child called Waynetta and one called Anastasia.

Those two girls' futures will diverge too. The chances of them changing places in life are quite remote, with the "class ceiling" fixed more firmly than a generation ago.

'Brain research'

The post-war years saw a surge of upward class mobility with a great increase in white-collar and middle managerial jobs, pulling up many with few qualifications.

A two-thirds working-class society turned two-thirds middle class, less via education than the changing labour market.

But that social progress has stopped; a study comparing the fate of children born in 1958 with those born in 1970 shows the later group more sealed in the social class of their birth.

Sutton Trust research shows children's achievement in Britain is linked more closely to their parents' status than in most developed countries.

Image caption School may do little to change the future for youngsters if their class trajectory is set before they arrive

Only 21% of children from the lowest fifth of incomes get five good GCSEs compared with 75% from the richest fifth.

School does relatively little to change class trajectory, which is all but set well before they arrive.

Latest brain research shows how much the first year of life shapes future ability, determined by love, language, empathy and intellectual stimulation - or the lack of it.

All parties urge the importance of early years, yet we spend least on the youngest.

All parties avoid the inconvenient fact raised by Oxford's John Goldthorpe - what goes up must come down. If the lower classes rise, then some from higher classes must fall.

Room at the top is limited, as are top university places, with little prospect of another 1960s-style surge in good jobs - as many recent graduates are finding.

Money is not everything but it is a pretty close match for class. And in the past 30 years, the income gap has widened.

GDP doubled since 1978, but only the top 10% saw incomes grow at or above that rate, twice as fast as the median and four times faster than the bottom 10%.

As Universities Minister David Willetts has honestly acknowledged: "Western societies with less mobility are the ones with less equality too."

When the income gap is wide, few cross the class divide, so remedies may lie less in schools than in the society they reflect.

As epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson tells us: "Boosting social mobility without addressing income inequality is like trying to diet without worrying about calories."

Part One of The Class Ceiling can be heard on BBC Radio 4 at 09:00 on Thursday 1 September 2011. A shortened version of the programme will be broadcast at 21.30 and the whole programme can be heard after on BBC iPlayer

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