Are we all middle-class now? A protest from 1999 (Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

December 14, 2022   6 mins

Are we, to quote New Labour in the Nineties, “all middle-class now”? Do we all want to be? Not according to recent polling; far from middle-class norms pervading, British people disproportionately see themselves as working-class.

To understand why, it’s worth reading a paper by the Tony Blair Institute (TBI) from earlier this year, written by former YouGov president Peter Kellner. The report breaks the population into four subsets.

There are two “consistent” groups: those who are middle-class by occupation and say they are middle-class (26% of the population) and those who are working-class “on paper” and say they are working-class (31%). And there are two “crossover” groups: those in middle-class jobs who say they are working-class (31%) and those in working-class professions who say they are middle-class (12%).

The dynamic between the “crossover” groups speaks to some of the most interesting elements of post-war politics. Underlying it is an abiding non-sequitur — thanks to both segments believing themselves to be a member of the opposite class. Hence, these groups include some of politics’ most familiar stock characters, from the self-hating liberal to the bootstraps Tory, via the beret-wearing student and White Van Man.

Much commentary has been spent analysing the last of the four tribes — those who are working-class “on paper” but don’t identify as such. Described as “blue collar aspirational”, this upwardly mobile group were Tony Blair’s target market. Having been successfully courted by Margaret Thatcher, they were won back by New Labour in 1997, drifting away again after 2010. The progressive need to speak to these voters is, Blair says, “entirely familiar”. And he’s right that parts of the labour movement struggle to do this.

Yet less attention is paid to the other “crossover” group. Dubbed “white collar progressives” in the report, this section of society embodies the reverse of blue-collar aspiration. They are middle-class in professional terms but see themselves as working-class, and are the joint largest group.

This cohort has, I suspect, grown significantly in recent years — as both white-collar jobs and progressive values have become more common. It seems highly unlikely that they would have outnumbered blue-collar aspirationals five-to-two in the Eighties, as they do now. Peter Kellner himself conducted the same polling exercise in 2014, and even then there were fewer white-collar progressives. Since then, around a fifth of the ABC1 population seems to have switched to a working-class identity. Even among those earning over £62,000, half now say they’re working-class, according to the most recent poll.

The politics of Kellner’s four segments goes some way to explaining this discrepancy. White-collar progressives are the most straightforwardly Left-wing — the only grouping which backed Labour in 2019. They represent, in this respect, a set of progressive values which is on the rise in developed nations — something which drives, you could argue, their identification with those who have less.

Problem solved? Well yes, a bit. But although political leaning may explain why white-collar progressives vote “against their interests”, it doesn’t tell us why they see themselves as working-class. This matters, I think, and we’ll come onto why shortly.

The fact that so many do misidentify as working-class is frequently a source of ridicule, and this is often well-deserved. In his 2014 analysis, Kellner likened them to Dave Spart, Private Eye’s satire of a middle-class radical. The parody Twitter account Corbyn Superfan was Spart’s digital descendent: the privately educated son of a Berkshire executive, Corbyn Superfan was avowedly working-class and expected that his hardship would be alleviated under “Jez”.

We tend to treat white collar progressives — unlike the aspirational working-classes — as a nuisance more than a phenomenon, and rarely take them seriously. But look at the data and it quickly becomes clear that they’re not all hipsters and revolutionaries.

Do white-collar progressives wish simply to “descend” the social rungs — to perform aspiration in reverse? Do they want to get off the property ladder, as working-class Thatcherites aimed to buy their council houses and get onto it? This is the implication, if you invert the idea that a working-class person identifying as middle-class is evidence of “aspiration”.

There are, of course, some methodological factors we cannot ignore: the major role which our parents’ social class plays in how we identify, and the limitations of the ABC1/C2DE grading system in a service-based economy, which means that many non-manual jobs carry low pay or low status. But the blue-collar aspirational group are also prey to some of these caveats, and have remained smaller and more stable. So it seems there must be wider elements at play.

My own theory is that three factors explain the rise of reverse aspiration: a society which is increasingly egalitarian, an economy which is unequal, and a culture which is individualistic. Let’s begin with the first. Many of the assumptions which govern our politics and society are broadly egalitarian. All the main parties acknowledge the notion of equality, and the “on your bike” mantras of Thatcherism are largely unsayable — as Liz Truss can testify.

Different political strains apply this in conflicting ways, attacking different “elites”. The Right claim to speak for those who are truly self-made, while the Left wish to champion those who have overcome genuine oppression and hardship. But neither would be keen to admit to being born with a silver spoon, and both purport to “punch up”.

Our political ethos, then, prizes humble beginnings, encounters with adversity and connection to the lives of ordinary people. This is so ubiquitous that it’s only when you read a Penguin Classic novel — when a Victorian character hides their “low” birth, or experiences the public shame of losing their fortune — that you remember it was not ever thus. Of course, today’s egalitarian norms are unquestionably a good thing. But they make people more likely to disguise their advantages, and to focus on the aspects of their identity which are untainted by privilege.

The second factor is economic. Despite the egalitarian mores described above, the UK economy is in fact — like many developed nations — deeply unequal and getting more so. This contradiction reflects the phenomenon of the past 70 years, whereby the Left have won cultural battles but lost economic ones. You’re more likely to hear a Geordie accent reading the news, but your economic prospects if you’re from the North-East are comparatively worse. An unequal economy leads to working-class identification, I think, because the human tendency is often to look upwards for comparisons rather than down. The presence among us of people with vast riches make us all feel poorer.

An economically unequal society also means, over time, that wealth — particularly housing wealth, often thanks to inheritance — begins to matter more than income. This compounds the importance of our parents’ social class, as a determinant of identity. Let’s take a working-class-born 30-something in a well-paid job. If this person cannot afford a property inside the M25 despite a good salary, they’ll probably feel more closely wedded to their upbringing — especially if they watch middle-class-born contemporaries gifted money from parents to buy a house.

The final factor is our individualistic culture. A study from a few years ago, for example, found that “language in American books has become increasingly focused on the self and uniqueness in the decades since 1960”. Each person, it seems, wants to feel that they have a distinctive merit and story of their own. This has surely accelerated in the age of social media, and nor is it necessarily a bad thing. A focus on the innate value of the individual can lead away from nativism, just as it can open the door to narcissism.

But it means that we put a greater focus on our own personal narratives. And these narratives usually need a hurdle or two to overcome, in order to carry meaning. Otherwise, you’re starting the book at the end. One effect of individualism, therefore, is that you get large numbers of embarrassed meritocrats, who feel they need to construct a reality in which they’re swimming against the tide.

Given the deterministic quality of the above, one could be forgiven for asking: does any of it matter? But for those looking to advance fairness and equality, I believe it does. Part of the reason why concerns the political debate itself. Many elements of our modern culture war boil down, on both Left and Right, to arguments around who is truly privileged, who is pretending to be and who has the right to decide. These can never be resolved without a full audit of each person’s “lived experience”. But they cause a massive distraction and leave all parties feeling misunderstood.

The other aspect is particularly important for progressive politics. Policy-making gets a lot harder, from a Left-liberal perspective, if large numbers of society’s “haves” believe they are its “have nots”. The Corbyn project’s focus on free higher education was a good example of where this leads — to initiatives which pose as egalitarian victories, while in effect helping those who are already doing well.

During the Eighties and Nineties, political arguments on the Left were often about the need to understand aspiration. Maybe, two decades into a new century, we need to start thinking about how we handle its opposite.

Chris Clarke is a social researcher and former political press officer, and is the author of The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master