This article, believe it or believe it not, first appeared in of all newspapers ‘THE GUARDIAN’ on Friday 13th December 2013
Britain will pay the price for shafting the working class
The middle class has taken over, and the price we’re paying is the destruction of all we hold dear
Of the attributes Britons hold dear, the most potent is stability. Our traditions endure, institutions survive. We seem loth to countenance revolution. And yet we have experienced a coup d’etat of sorts and the question must be asked: just when did the middle classes take untrammelled control of the levers? It always was a force; but now there is hegemony. Today, a glimpse of what has happened to the vanquished.
According to the conservative think-tank Policy Exchange, the under-representation of people from working-class backgrounds in public spheres such as parliament and magistrates courts can be reasonably described as shameful. It suggests an inquiry is necessary, perhaps run by the government equalities office and the equality and human rights commission. One can disagree with its diagnosis of the problem. Policy Exchange, true to its leaning, says the diversity policies of the last Labour government were too narrow – too much focus on race and gender – but that feels like scratching at the surface. Still, who can dispute that the problem exists?
One can look to the figures. According to the Sutton Trust think-tank – which focuses on social mobility – 68% of “leading public servants” went to private schools. It says 63% of leading lawyers were privately educated, as were 60% of the upper ranks of the armed forces. Independent schools produce more than half of the nation’s leading journalists, diplomats, financiers and business people. Policy Exchange says just 4% of MP’s previously worked in manual trades.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to a would-be Labour councillor: a busy man; a professional. So busy that he thought the task of actually campaigning to get himself elected might be too time-consuming. So he placed an advert online seeking someone to do his campaigning for him. The powers that be took a dim view and the ad was promptly withdrawn, but I took to wondering what the councillors I knew in Newham in London, where I grew up and was a cub reporter, would have thought of him.
These were people who had graduated to the council having been shop stewards and tenants’ association leaders. Charlie, the taxi driver; Lew, the tube driver; Jim, the car plant worker. I think of activists such as Sue, the diffident single mother who galvanised the residents in one tower block and then another and then built a campaign that culminating in a clutch of dangerous tower blocks being demolished. There were working-class people in representative positions, voicing the concerns of people from their communities. Fewer now. What happened?
Thatcherism happened. The social geographer Danny Dorling details how the grocer’s daughter from Grantham fractured the post-war reality of the poor becoming less poor and the narrowing of the gap between the very poor and very rich. “By the time Thatcher left office in 1990, the annual incomes of the richest 0.01% of society had climbed to 70 times the national mean.” For them to win, as they did under Thatcher and New Labour, others had to lose. Those who lost most were working-class communities.
With their institutions unravelled and a daily battle for subsistence, how are they to seek office in meaningful numbers? With what support? There are excellent groups building capacity, such as Citizens UK, but still the fundamental problem remains. Dorling recently estimated that of the bottom 50% of people in Britain by income “all are financially insecure”. How is that a springboard?
The total capture of the professions by the middle classes happened. Take journalism. I entered national journalism 27 years ago with no degree – just a year’s college training, funded by a council grant, and after an apprenticeship on the Newham Recorder. That was when journalism was a trade, not a profession, and there were routes of entry for other than the middle classes. People took those routes to senior positions in our industry. With the middle class self-selecting, we wouldn’t stand a chance today.
The country ticks along, stable and first-world prosperous. So why does the absence of working-class representation matter? Because it conflicts with everything we say we want for Britain: inclusion, fairness, equality of opportunity. Because without the broadest input, our institutions become myopic; our democracy atrophied. Isn’t that the story of the last 30 years?
• This article was amended on 13 December 2013. It originally stated that the Sutton Trust had found that 68% of public servants were privately educated. This should have read “leading public servants” – the missing word has now been added, along with a link to the study