Tilting Towards the Cosmopolitan Axis? The complexity of class in the UK
Part of the meltdown of "official" politics we're charting at A/UK is that the socio-economic statistics aren't lining up with the traditional party-political identities. For example, the last UK general election showed a near-even split in the manual working class between Tory and Labour. What does "working class" even mean in these days of temporary work, high levels of graduates, and post-code polarisation?
There is an interesting paper in this month's Political Quarterly, titled "Tilting Towards the Cosmopolitan Axis? Political Change in England and the 2017 General Election", by Jennings and Stoker (free online for the moment, but here's the PDF). It demonstrates how the Corbyn campaign connected with what is known as "the ‘precariat’ and emerging service workers... younger and more diverse and more educated populations often working in ‘cosmopolitan’ industries".
We are less interested in the fate of one particular party, and more interested to see what range of messages and policies could appeal to this sector. An article in Prospect magazine spells out the research:
Our understanding of what it means to be “working class” is being left in the dust by various factors of social capital, and a changing, global labour market that has seen a rapid erosion of manual jobs and a rise in the service economy. In this new world, entirely new classes have emerged.
Before these dramatic shifts, it was easy to rely on measurements such as NRS social grading —using "ABC12DE" to code by occupation—to assess the status of class politics. These occupational measurements were most relevant in an era wherein ‘blue collar’ professions dominated Britain’s working classes. It is now difficult to argue that such a way of measuring can accurately capture the complexities of modern, and particularly millennial, British workers—who have moved en-masse to the office, but seen little wage growth...
Young people for instance, both graduate and non-graduate, are caught in a perpetual adolescence, existing from one short rental to another, often on wages that leave much to be desired. Now degrees are the bare minimum for entry-level jobs, especially since the post-1992 expansion, university is not necessarily the esteemed tool of social mobility it once was.
It provides far greater opportunity than those without a degree, of course, but is not a passport out of the fraught rental market, or to stability. Graduates may go on to join others in the rank of “emergent service workers.” Vulnerable to the pressures of the gig economy, those who do not have access to the bank of mum and dad have little prospect of home ownership.
The difference between the ‘traditional’ working class—often classified, also, by education—and the younger renters in this emergent service class enthused by Corbyn’s message, is not necessarily due to a disparity of income, but rather geography, age and values. Despite having little income, for instance, the latter are likely to have built up strong social capital, and have values borne from a diverse pool of friends either as a result of university life or living in a large city.
They are thus “metropolitan elite”—but only as a euphemism for social liberalism. And in their urban lives, they join the precariat: the most vulnerable workers and the unemployed. They, too, struggle to get by in large cities. Both groups, according to Jennings and Stoker, had a strengthened resolve to vote Labour in 2017—attracted to the economic revolution that might hand them a stake in a society that affords them neither the affordable homes nor the free education of their parents.