If you were to go by British political programming, there’s only one kind of battleground that matters in this general election. Forget about Liberal Democrat/Conservative marginals in the south-west (snoozefest), don’t worry your pretty little head about the SNP, and who gives a stuff about Northern Ireland when their MPs aren’t propping up an English prime minister? All eyes are turned to the “red wall” – a phrase absolutely no one was using a month ago. It’s a collection of Labour-held leave-voting seats in the north and Midlands, populated solely by Workington man. Or so believes a certain breed of Westminster journalist who loves an opportunity to airily homogenise those bits of the country which aren’t yet served by the Victoria line.
It’s of course true that Labour, in the face of the Brexit culture war, is struggling to hold together both the remain and leave wings of its electoral coalition. YouGov’s MRP poll at the end of November held portents of doom, suggesting that Labour was behind the Conservatives in 43 out of 76 of those key target seats. And somewhat inevitably, this election is therefore being treated as a referendum on Labour’s ability to mobilise working-class voters.
On Sunday’s edition of The Marr Show, Sir John Curtice admonished Labour’s Gloria De Piero for suggesting that her party was the party of workers. “But of course you are no longer a party of the working class. You’re a party of young people,” interjected Britain’s foremost psephologist, adding that Corbyn’s party was seen as “too leftwing and too socially liberal” for its traditional “red wall” heartlands. This idea of working-class social conservatism marks a stark contrast to the Neil Kinnock years, when the Labour leader deliberately pivoted towards the professional classes as a means to “distance the party from working-class radicalism”. But while my own career as a jobbing lecturer has yet to reach the lofty academic heights of Sir John, I’ve got to say that this formulation of class is, if you want to use the Latin term, a load of fraff.
Call me a vulgar Marxist if you must, but a quick look at the economic status of the UK’s yoof tells you why it’s so absurd to treat “young” and “working class” as mutually exclusive categories: 81% of graduates will spend 30 years of their working lives with tuition debt hanging over their heads; half of 18- to 24-year-olds believe they’ll be in debt all their lives; one-fifth of all workers under 30 (going up to a quarter for young black people) are illegally paid less than the minimum wage. Young people are more likely to be on a zero-hours contract, and far less likely than previous generations to own their home. Don’t let the avocado toast fool you – young people make up the majority of the UK’s income- and asset-poor.
The assumption that “working class” and “young people” are two irreconcilable brackets can’t be blamed on one psephologist though. It comes from the National Readership Society’s (NRS) system of social grading. You might have heard the categories ABC1 and C2DE referred to gnomically by pollsters and pundits as bywords for “middle class” and “working class” respectively. Developed more than 50 years ago, and unchanged since, the NRS model has its origins in market research, and works by classifying according to the occupation of “the head of the household”. So ABC1 includes everyone from senior management to the temp in admin. C2DE contains skilled and unskilled manual workers, the unemployed, and some pensioners. Do you see the problem?
Britain’s done a lot of changing in the past 50 years. The decline of manufacturing and heavy industry under Margaret Thatcher ripped the economic heart out of huge swathes of the country, and dramatically transformed class composition. It created what Prof Guy Standing calls “the precariat”: a class of low-paid and precariously employed white-collar workers, whose income is so insecure that they cannot be thought of as holding a traditional occupation in any meaningful sense. So the manual v non-manual labour divide is no longer a meaningful way to think about class. It’s absurd to categorise someone on a rubbish wage in retail, hospitality or the service industry as being part of the same class bracket (ABC1) as a banker.
But most importantly, the NRS social grade doesn’t measure wealth. Which is why putting pensioners in the same bracket as the unemployed is an utterly ridiculous way to think about how class works in this country. Pensioners are not a homogenous group when it comes to money: 16% of pensioners live in poverty, rising to 36% among private renters. Those on fixed incomes are disproportionately hurt by Britain’s cost of living crisis, and one in six are forced to choose between food and heating come the winter.
But it’s also the case that there is a clear generational gap in wealth between Britain’s older and younger people, and one which doesn’t seem set to close anytime soon. One in six baby boomers in the UK owns a second home, and a whopping one in five is a millionaire. Those who are able to capitalise on access to credit and the low cost of housing in decades past have been able to benefit from, and indeed exacerbate, the same overheated housing market which has locked out young people. It’s possible then, for a pensioner who lives off wealth to be classed as a C2DE, while a debt-laden millennial just about surviving on low wages gets classed as ABC1.
The NRS social grade can’t be trusted to measure class at all. And so using it as a basis on which to decry Labour’s loss of the working class is completely and utterly flawed. In fact, mobilising the vote of working-class young people in “red wall” seats might be the key to frustrating Boris Johnson in this general election. Millennials in both the east and west Midlands, as well as Yorkshire and the Humber, have endured some of the sharpest falls in living standards out of anywhere in the UK.
The problem with reducing the actually existing diverse working class to a homogeneous cohort of older white Brits with regional accents is that it’s fundamentally misleading. It doesn’t tell you much about either the concentration of wealth or would-be Labour voters, and indeed nothing at all about how to meet the material needs of working-class people who have suffered from decades of deindustrialisation and chronic underfunding by central government. Addressing the gaping regional inequalities in power, money, and infrastructure will be key to neutralising Brexit’s ability to corrode the “red wall”. No one but the ruling class wins in a culture war.
• Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media, and lectures in political theory at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam