Dr. Ged Mirfin is a Business Economist at Peel Policy Forum
Are “We” all Working Class Now?: The Rise of the New White Collar Working Class and Why Radical Tax Cutting Measures are Key to restoring the fortunes of the Tory Party
The link between economic performance and voter behaviour appears to be broken. Three consecutive quarters of improving economic Ggowth have failed to dent a stubborn lead in the opinion polls for Labour. This is not simply a function of the time-lags that exist between improved economic performance and the inculcation of a feel-good factor, as the beneficial effects of economic growth are eventually felt beyond the confines of Greater London and the home counties The impact of a prolonged recession and the impact of austerity policies in Britain have effected fundamental changes in the class structure – changing the way in which key socio-demographic groups behave.
Political affiliation has become less about aspirant lifestyles, and more about the maintenance of living standards in which, although the rate of inflation is much reduced in absolute terms in comparison to previous eras, its growth continues to outstrip that of wages – in the price of commodities and utilities, in particular. The result is that the effect of inflation is actually felt far more than when it was at double-digit levels, because wages were rising much faster to compensate for this. It is taking far longer for the feel good factor to be felt in voter’s pockets, particularly amongst current or former public sector employees who have either been subjected to a pay freeze for the last three years, or are having to face the brutal realities of working in a far more insecure private sector in which they are much more expendable commodities.
It is an experience that many are not enjoying, and they blame the Conservatives for their plight. Public sector employment was seen by many as a safe haven. Exposed to the brutal realities of the private sector, they are adopting a fundamentally different outlook – indeed, they are reverting to their roots. These are working class strivers, who sought through education and professional qualifications a route into white collar employment. As a consequence of economic Insecurity, they are beginning to question what it means to be middle class. Being told that “we are all in it together” has made them look over their shoulder, consider where they have come from, and question hard whether their situation is not in fact dissimiliar to that of the working class. In effect, they are asking themselves the question: are we all working class Now?
This problem has been compounded by the length of the recovery and by the time it is taking to rebuild the economy. The squeezed middle classes, which have been hit the hardest economically, are suffering from what I have called post-traumatic debt stress. We have been conditioned to believe that the electoral and political cycles are contiguous – but a radical disjuncture is opening up between the two. Governments are faced with managing expectations over a much longer economic horizon. The consequence is that there is a danger for the foreseeable future of single term governments, and of a willingness to turn to political alternatives offering simple reflationary solutions or more extreme political solutions like withdrawal from the EU. Neither are they likely to deliver a permanent feelgood factor, or one sufficiently long lasting to sustain a government in office for the long-term.
Peter Kellner’s recent article for You Gov: “What the ‘squeezed middle’ really want” is particularly revealing. He rightly identifies that Ed Miliband’s call for a 20-month freeze in gas and electricity prices has struck a chord with white collar working class voters. Where I take issue with him is with the ephemeral nature he accords to the debate over living standards, which he argues “is likely to ebb and flow” in the run up to the next election. Instead, I would argue that it has become a much more permanent fixture in of the political narrative in the UK as a direct consequence of deep changes that have taken place in the class structure. In my view, he fails sufficiently to understand that the “squeezed middle” is not ill-defined. Yes, the political views of this segment of the electorate are currently confused and ambiguous, as it gazes, Janus-like, both upwards, looking at what it could aspirationally achieve, but also downwards looking towards what it needs to protect and maintain.
Are we perhaps witnessing the first indications of negative social mobility and what Marxist-tinged sociologists have dubbed the “Proletarianization of the Bourgeoisie”? Embourgeoisement theory posits that as a result of their economic efforts working class people tend to assume the lifestyle and individualistic values of the so-called middle classes. The question is, has the process gone into reverse? One’s position within the middle class – and with it middle class attitudes – are not necessarily fixed or irreversible.
A modern take on the issue has been offered by David Boyle in his recently-published book, “Broken: Who Killed the Middle Classes?” Boyle addresses the question of why the middle classes are diminishing and how their status, independence and values are being eroded, with many facing the threat of redundancy and permanent job insecurity. They are confronted with a poisonous mixture of uncertainty and doubt about their position and role – which reinforces their suspicion that maybe they are not really middle class after all.
What they want is to be able to maintain their standard of living. The best way they see of doing this is by radical tax cutting measures, which would allow them to keep as much of the money in their pockets to counter the impact of wages not keeping pace with persistently stubborn inflation and rising commodity and energy price rises. I would argue that the Conservative Party is missing a trick in pushing immediately for deep cuts in the rate of income tax for middle income groups, not only to make them feel more prosperous but also, critically, to shorten the time-lag between the beginning of recovery and the beginning of a feel good factor. It is the shortest route to bringing what I would call New White Collar Working Class voters back onside.