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Review: The New Working Class: What Is Going On?

The most shared article on Harvard Business Review in the last five years was not about business strategy or leadership techniques. It was What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class. The post published immediately after the 2016 election of Donald Trump received over 750,000 likes and shares on Facebook. This was more than four times as much engagement as any other post on HBR (BuzzSumo). Many Americans could not understand why 68 million people had voted for Trump and were suddenly very interested in what was happening beyond their metropolitan, progressive neighbourhoods.

The reaction was similar following the Brexit vote in the UK. How did Hampstead and Hull, who both shared political allegiance to the Labour Party, fracture so badly over Brexit? Three quarters of people voting in Hampstead backed Remain while two thirds of people in Hull backed Leave. In the following 2017 election just a third of working class voters backed Labour.

The political shifts taking place have prompted new research into the working class and the publication of new books such as David Goodhart's 'The Road To Somewhere', Joan Williams's 'White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America', Amy Goldstein's 'Janesville' and Claire Ainsley's 'The New Working Class'

A disappointing aspect of the Brexit aftermath has been the determination of many liberal journalists, politicians and academics to undermine the legitimacy of the vote and overturn the decision, rather than argue over the form Brexit should take. Such a reversal would reinforce and confirm the views of working class voters that their views are ignored and they have no influence on decisions.

Rather than exploring why tens of millions of people chose to vote for Brexit or for Trump, it can be easier to blame misinformation, Russian interference, and social media. These may have played a part but do we really understand what is happening in working class communities? Should we be worried that Steve Bannon is right when he says the media is "just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no fucking idea what is going on."

Some journalists do admit that they had become disconnected. Robert Peston for example, says "my entire circle were out of touch with millions of British people."  Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the New York Times recently commented in an interview with David Axelrod, that he and his journalists didn't understand the level of anger and "how much of a desire there was for change. How upset people were with the elites."

It is therefore encouraging and important to have people like Goldstein, who through a series of very personal stories, explores the changes taking place in working class communities. It is also useful to have people like Goodhart try to make sense of the new political tribes. Goodhart refers to the two new tribes as the 'anywheres' and the 'somewheres'. The somewheres have a geographical identity, they are rooted in a specific community, usually a small town or in the countryside, they are socially conservative and often less educated. Education as we will see is a big dividing factor, if you could only ask one question to determine which way people voted in the Brexit referendum it would be do you have a university degree.

The New Working Class

Claire Ainsley's book 'The New Working Class' is a welcome addition for those trying to understand the shifts in working class politics. Claire is the Executive Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Ainsley argues there is a new working class which is distinct from the traditional working class. They often work in the services industry doing jobs in retail, hospitality and social care. They are multi-ethnic, much more diverse and more likely to be female. Their employment is increasingly contract based, part-time and insecure.

Both Ainsley and Williams emphasise that the new working class is not the poor but a much larger group. This new class according to Ainsley makes up nearly half the population. Goodhart also says that the 'somewheres' make up around half of the population. Williams argues working class now means middle class and the poor is a much smaller group. Williams says the working class actually resent the poor. They resent people getting free benefits while they work hard for long hours and that many policies are aimed at the poor rather than at helping those working people who are just about managing.

The new working class is not defined simply by economics and wealth but by a range of cultural identities. There is a perception that social class is determined by occupation and wealth but other factors such as whether someone went to private school and their parents occupation are also influential. Only four per cent of doctors and six per cent of barristers are from working class origins (Social Mobility Commission 2016).

Ainsley argues the new working class is more disparate, more atomised and has multiple social identities that make a single collective identity less possible. Savage argues that social class arises from economic capital (wealth and income), cultural capital (tastes, interests and activities) and social (networks, friendships and associations).

Education has become a major dividing factor. Students and those with university degrees are more liberal and open. They are not necessarily richer but they have a different social identity. They make up the majority of the 'anywheres' in Goodhart's analysis.

Ainsley draws on findings from the Policy Exchange’s research for the Just About Managing report by James Frayne, and argues the new working class has four key values which are: family, fairness, hard work and decency. The most powerful social identity is the family. Ainsley argues 'women are more likely to see policy through the prism of their children's lives'.

Many of the new working class live in smaller towns. Economic growth has been in cities where the population is getting younger, whereas the population is ageing in towns and villages. The demand for public services has fallen disproportionately on less prosperous areas.

Thew new working class do not feel optimistic about the future. Social mobility is declining and working class people generally feel things have got worse for them. 68 per cent agreed with the statement 'Britain has changed for the worst over the past 20-30 years' (YouGov).

The new working class is also much more likely to experience crime. Property crime is higher in low income areas and low income adults are over 50% more likely to be a victim of violence, robbery or theft.

A Job No Longer Means Security Or Dignity

Ainsley notes that "getting a job does not mean your family will not be living in poverty."

Between 2008 and 2014 the cost of essentials went up three times faster than average earnings. Lower income households experience higher levels of inflation. Wages have been relatively static since the 2008 financial crash and employment has become more insecure with the rise of zero hours contracts, flexible working and temporary work.

The vasty majority of the new working class are in work. However, the new jobs in retail, warehouses and the service sector do not have the same terms, leave, sick pay and pensions as former traditional working class jobs and importantly they do not have the same respect and dignity.

Williams argues that the white working class resent professionals and references the findings of
Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men. The issue of pride and dignity in work comes across in Ainsley's book. Williams quotes Alfred Lubrano from his book Limbo that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job.” Frances Fukuyama in his 2018 essay on identity politics comments "Hard work should confer dignity on an individual. But many white working-class Americans feel that their dignity is not recognized."

There is also something about the arrogance and condescending nature of professionals that antagonises working people. Williams argues that Hillary Clinton "epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite".

There are many jobs such as shop workers, cleaners, care workers, cooks, delivery workers, bar tenders, and coffee shop staff which even if they have a full-time contract, require flexible patterns of shift working. Often their employer is a contractor as the work has been outsourced from the company where they work. It can also be difficult to relocate geographically due to the costs of housing. It is also very difficult for those with caring responsibilities or disabilities to move.

Low pay is endemic meaning it is difficult for them to save. Recent surveys have found that a quarter of people have no savings and those that do have very low savings. This makes them permanently vulnerable. Those at the bottom have been referred to as the precariat.

These workers are rightly not persuaded by economic arguments about the economy and GDP. The benefits of economic growth are not shared equally as the chart for the US below demonstrates.

Ainsley notes that job security has become a major concern for the new working class.

Political Representation

Ainsley argues this new working class is in need of political representation. The allegiance of the working class to the Labour Party has declined consistently. In 2015 the working class vote was split fairly evenly between Labour and Conservative, and thirty per cent voted for the SNP and UKIP.

The working class has been politically marginalised by the dominance of what Goodhart calls the 'anywheres': the social and economic liberals, university educated, with professional jobs. The priorities of poorer people have been ignored relative to the interests of the dominant grouping. This is reflected in studies that show working class voters on lower incomes are more distrustful of MPs and feel they have less control on issues that matter to them.

Working class voters feel their legitimate concerns about levels of immigration are dismissed as racism. Gordon Brown commented in 2010 that an older Labour voter who voiced concerns about immigration was a 'bigoted women'. The concerns appear to be less about immigration per se than the pace of change. The areas where the rate of immigration increase was fastest were the most likely to vote Leave in the EU referendum.

Ainsley comments 'There is a profound disconnect between the concerns of the new working class and the dominant political discourse as presented by mainstream media.' This appears self-evident as we witness the overwhelming focus of this week's media on Boris Johnson's burka comments in a newspaper article and Jeremy Corbyn's attendance at a ceremony for Palestinians, rather than the real issues facing working people across the country.

Ainsley argues voters do not view policies through an ideological lens, they support left wing policies such as spending on the NHS, they also support more right wing policies on issues such as crime. Some have argued the linear left-right assumptions do not exist and people are a complex mix supporting more authoritarian policies on crime or terrorism and more liberal polices on other issues. Interestingly a YouGov poll found voters favoured introducing stricter disciple in schools above reducing class sizes or making sure exam standards match the best in the world. Achen and Bartels argue voters do not make rational choices at the ballot box but vote based on identity and social group attachments.

Matthew Goodwin also argues that the rise in support for popular nationalism is driven by identity issues more than economic issues. He says 'as long as progressives fail to address the values gap, populists will have significant influence on Europe's political landscape.'

Creating Hope

The most important priority for the new working class is family. However, all people in the UK, regardless of income, think the next generation will be worse off than the one before it. Home ownership has become out of reach for millions of the new working class.

The new working class are employed but feel insecure and vulnerable. They also feel a lack of dignity and respect. The people that called Brexit voters stupid, who didn't understand what they were voting for, do little to dispel this view.

In 2011 62% of all people agreed with the proposition in a YouGov poll that “Britain has changed in recent times beyond recognition, it sometimes feels like a foreign country and this makes me uncomfortable.”

Ainsley bravely proposes a series of policy initiatives designed to reconnect political parties with the new working class. These are difficult to disagree with in principle, for example:

  • Drive a new era of regional economic growth that puts positive improvements for citizens at its heart, and an industrial strategy organised around the goal of good work.
  • Provide access to high quality jobs for people from the locality.
  • Create an employment rights floor to safeguard all workers from practices that unfairly decrease their job security. 
  • Inspire a learning revolution for adult workers, in adult education and at work, with a new alliance between employers and government. 
  • Kick-start a national house building programme.
  • Introduce a points-based system for migration once Britain leaves the EU.

These policies though beg the question of the role of the nation state and the limits of policy and regulation in a globalised world where new employment, job creation and employment practices are being driven by corporate companies headquartered elsewhere.

Ainsley argues that "for serious democratic renewal to occur, politicians and political institutions should start by listening to expressed views and attitudes of the electorate about what they want from democracy."