James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
The problem English politicians have had getting more houses built is a case study of where power lies in this country and the nature of influence. While poll after poll shows public concern about the lack of affordable housing, politicians ultimately struggle to overcome what seem to be minority concerns. How can this be?
It is widely believed that Tory Governments won’t defy their rural constituents’ opposition to planning reform – as if party politics was a defining issue. However, it isn’t the fact that those that oppose change are often Tory that’s important – although this isn’t irrelevant – but the fact that they’re usually upper-middle class, vocal and highly networked. This makes them formidable public advocates.
Those people that oppose new housing developments know how to make their views known to politicians and the media. On this issue of planning reform, they promise endless hostile media coverage, difficult town hall meetings and more complex legal challenges. Most politicians haven’t got the stomach to take them on in earnest.
It’s not just in the area of planning that the active and networked upper-middle class punch above their weight. Childcare is an issue that has taken up considerable amounts of politicians’ time in recent years but it’s an issue of particular (not exclusive) interest to the upper-middle professional class. They have also helped shape a highly liberal policy towards immigration. And thinking of a niche issue for a moment, they’ve also helped to protect the charitable status of independent schools.
This is not to say that these policy preferences are necessarily bad things – nor is it to suggest that the upper middle class are in some way immoral. On the contrary, they help form the backbone of what we recognise as civilised society. Rather, it simply makes the point that this group of hyper-networked upper middle class people wield huge power over public policy.
Unlike other groups in Britain that have influenced public policy and continue to do so, the upper-middle class haven’t had the need to create formal, national campaigns to lobby politicians. They mobilise informally at the local level wherever they need to – and the right people always hear them.