Class: The Issue That Won’t Go Away (Guest Blog)

We are pleased to publish this guest blog about the enduring importance of class from Connor Drake who is a final year Social Policy student at the University of York, and is also (one half of) their Student Union’s first Working Class and Social Mobility Officer.

As someone who comes from Bradford, an ethnically diverse, working class town, I have experienced hardship and educational difficulty, and I understand the importance of analysing and challenging the stark divisions that exist in our society.

We can see how class has been viewed by people over time, how that has changed and how things have also maybe come full circle. In ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, the philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote: “The way in which the vast mass of the poor are treated by modern society is truly scandalous. They are herded into great cities where they breathe a fouler air than in the countryside which they have left. … How is it possible that the poorer classes can remain healthy and have a reasonable expectation of life under such conditions? What can one expect but that they should suffer from … an excessively low expectation of life?”

In 1989, British academic Richard Hoggart wrote in his ‘Introduction to Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier’ that “Each decade we declare that we have buried class … each decade the coffin stays empty.” And yet, ten years after Hoggart, in 1999, former Prime Minister Tony Blair made the bold statement that “We’re all middle class now.”  So who is right?

A poll in late 2017 found that half of people surveyed identified as working class, which shows that, class is not, in fact, buried, and that, contrary to what Mr Blair declared almost two decades ago, we are not all middle class now. What also cannot be ignored is the absolutely abhorrent rise in poverty (of all kinds and definitions), air pollution, and the resurgence of, as Engels says, an “excessively low expectation of life,” perhaps suggesting that in 2018, things aren’t actually that much different from the mid-1800s. These divisions are also borne out through statistics and the lived realities of working class people:

  • Stalled social mobility as shown by the OECD, taking poor people five generations to reach median income in the UK, due to low pay and decline in industry, various welfare reforms and rising living costs. This means that someone will probably still be saying all this in about 100 years – if we have managed to avoid nuclear apocalypse before then.
  • Inequality at all levels of the education system, based on class and where one is born (postcode can predict university attendance) – and poorer students generally do less well than their better off peers in school.

Class is still – and has always been – a prominent issue in British society, despite efforts to eschew discussions of it. For this reason alone, the work of The Equality Trust and others, in highlighting the stark divisions and inequalities that so blight our society, is absolutely vital.

Connor Drake

This is a guest blog and the views of the author are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust