Monday, 18 December 2017

Occupation class is on the decline, but cultural class is on the rise

Eric Kaufmann


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


The New Politics of Class by Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley offers a comprehensive new sociology and politics of class. For its wealth of useful empirical research alone, this book should be required reading for students of British politics.

An interesting dilemma presented by the authors is the tension between concluding class is in decline for structural reasons even as its cultural stability suggests it is as important as ever.

The country is clearly shifting from manual to non-manual occupations. The new knowledge economy has created more opportunities for professional and managerial occupations. As a result, the share of the labour force in working class occupations has fallen from 60 per cent in 1950 to about a quarter today.

Yet there is a paradox: more of the country identifies as working class than middle class. When asked to choose in a forced-choice format, the ratio of working to middle class is around 60:40. This has changed very little since 1960, suggesting that class identity has a strong inherited component that is only partly rooted in material realities such as educational attainment or profession.

To illustrate, opposition to immigration and the European Union remains persistent amongst working class people. In both cases, there is an independent conservative effect of being working class even when education and other predictors are held constant. Education matters about 3 to 5 times more than class for immigration opinion, but is only twice as important as class for views on the EU. This portends a widening class aspect to the emerging globalist-nationalist ‘culture war’.

In the Citizenship Surveys and Understanding Society, working class people who strongly identify with their class also identify more strongly with their nation. These differing class versions of national identity are nicely captured in qualitative work which finds that many in the white working class see Englishness as an insurgent identity which is being denied by the liberal middle class, while sections of the middle class view Englishness as unrespectable.

Evans and Tilley could have mentioned that political discourse has also become more sensitive to the term ‘white working class’ even as discussions of class conflict have faded.

The white working class/English nationalism nexus has been at the centre of a new politics of anti-liberal elite resentment, from the rise of the British Nationalist Party (BNP) in Barking and Dagenham in 2006 to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) from 2009 and Brexit.

Consider the blowback for Labour from Gordon Brown's comments about Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy in 2010; and from Emily Thornberry's 2014 tweet depicting a George Cross-covered working class home in Rochester. These were about cultural more than economic tension.

In view of the fact that 60 per cent of the country identifies as working class while working class identity predicts hostility to immigration, it would be wrong to write class's obituary. Indeed, quite the reverse is true.

Perhaps what we face is a culture war between ethno-nationalists and globalists in which class identity—increasingly emptied of material connotations—is an upstream engine of cultural politics.

Alternatively, as Corbyn's performance shows, the white working class may become a swing vote pulled culturally toward the Tories and economically to Labour. This configuration means that if the Tories move in a liberal direction, opting for a soft Brexit where immigration remains at its current level, UKIP could recover its 13 per cent vote share.

But I digress. The point of The New Politics of Class is not to engage in punditry and prediction, and that is to be commended. Taken at once, the book is a remarkable achievement and certain to be talked about by students of British society and politics for years to come.

Erik Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London and author of Whiteshift (Penguin, 2018).

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

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