Thursday, 23 November 2017

The 'new' power of class

Mike Savage


We asked a selection of authors to respond to ‘The New Politics of Class’ by Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley

Class still fundamentally affects political engagement, but today it happens indirectly rather than through overt class struggle at the ballot box.

From the time of the 1992 general election, and certainly from the electoral success of ‘New Labour’ in the 1997 election, it became clear that the relationship between class and vote was breaking down. The Labour party was moving to the middle ground and downplayed its historical association with the Labour movement, and winning more middle class votes. On the face of it, there has been a declining salience of class in affecting electoral outcomes in the UK.

Not so fast! Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley’s new book attempts an important rebalancing act. They argue that class is still at the centre of political alignments, but that the ‘new’ power of class lies in differential levels of political engagement rather than in differences in party preferences.

The new class divide is that the working classes increasingly abstain from formal electoral politics because they feel they are not being effectively represented. To illustrate, the class gap in non-voting has risen precipitately since 1987. Only around 20 per cent of well educated professionals did not vote in 2015, compared to around 50 per cent of workers with low education levels (controlling for trade union membership, gender, race, region and religion).

Interestingly, Evans and Tilley’s argument chimes with that of Pierre Bourdieu, whose brilliant observation in Distinction that the prime political divide is not between left and right, but between those who are engaged and excluded from politics, is underlined here (although his work is not mentioned here).

This book does a signal service in insisting that class is not dead, but there is a sense that the book seems both narrow and also detached from the real world of political debate we are currently experiencing. We learn little about the politics of populism, elites, experts, racism, immigration, nationalism and meritocracy, which currently dominate the agenda, and which indicates the visceral ways that ‘a new politics of class’ operates today.

We need to careful in assuming that there is strong class consciousness today. There is abundant evidence that ethnicity, sexuality, gender, nationality, age and location are often more salient than social class, but as this is not discussed here. For example the relative success of Corbyn's Labour party in the 2017 general election, with its left wing manifesto, appears much more linked to the support of younger votes and ethnic minorities than to any recovery of its working class base. Class is often powerful precisely because it is not talked about, or fully recognised by electors.

Make no mistake, this is an important book reasserting the importance of class, though I feel that further work needs to be done to draw out how class itself is being remade and how intersectionalities with race, gender and age are crucial in generating contemporary political divisions. My Social Class in the 21st Century is one attempt to do this.

Mike Savage is Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

This article is adapted from a piece in The Political Quarterly journal. You can read the full article here.

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