Tuesday 6 November 2012

Class and Political Values

In this interesting piece carried by the latest edition of Progress Magazine, YouGov supremo Peter Kellner writes “New polling for Progress shows that working-class attitudes are not what some in the Labour party imagine them to be” and subsequently goes on to argue that social class does not condition values, politics, and voting habits as it once did. Anyone with a passing knowledge of recent work on the sociology of class, or indeed the theoretical justification underpinning New Labourism and the Third Way are likely to have encountered similar arguments at some point. However, unfortunately for Peter and in spite of his intention, his argument underlines the continuing salience of class – but not in the way he or his left wing opponents might expect.

The class definition Peter employs is the widely-accepted National Readership Survey approach to grading. It runs like this:

Occupation of Chief Income Earner
Upper Middle
Senior managerial, administrative, professional
Middle managerial, administrative, professional
Lower Middle
Supervisory, clerical, junior managerial, administrative, professional
Skilled Working
Skilled manual workers
Semi- and unskilled manual workers
Casual/part-time workers, pensioners, benefit-dependent

See here for more information. It is also worth noting the NRS definition excludes the 'upper class', the wealthy minority who sit at the pinnacle of the class structure and are therefore outside the grading.

Please allow me an aside before we get to the meat of the matter.

I don't like this approach to defining class. It smacks too much of a tick box approach. It has the advantage of easy codification for use in tables, matrices, statistical packages, and market surveys. It has the tendency, as Peter shows below, to treat these analytical distinctions as really existing divisions in the class structure. As Marx was fond of saying, one should not mistake the things of logic with the logic of things.

I don’t particularly blame Peter for working with the ‘standard definition’. It’s not just pollsters who uncritically go by this definition. For the wonk milieu, mainstream politics, and the entire advertising/marketing industry, NRS is an article of faith. But to use the old language, I still believe it’s one’s relationship to the means of production that counts. If you work in an office as opposed to a factory or a shop floor, if your labour is by brain instead of by hand, chances are you are as working class as any production operative, care worker, train driver, or shop assistant (there is a good chance you - the reader - are working class too). It is undeniable the composition of the division of labour has transformed these last 30-odd years, but the content of those class relationships remain fundamentally unchanged.

With that out the way, let’s get to the rub. What Peter wants to investigate is the view that working class voters, by his definition, are the special repository of progressive politics and, by extension, test the left’s orthodox touchstone that the working class is the vehicle for socialist change. He observes:
We asked more than 15,000 people where they placed themselves on a scale from left to right. As the figures below show, middle-class voters are more likely to describe themselves as left-of-centre than working-class voters are. But they are also more likely to describe themselves as right-of-centre – the biggest difference between the classes is the number of ‘don’t knows’: one in three DE voters, but only one in eight AB voters. If we take the difference between left and right, then there is a one-point lead for the left among the middle classes, and a larger, eight-point, lead for the left among DE voters. So, in relative terms, there is a slightly greater overall tilt to the left among DE voters – but the larger truth is that social class plays only a marginal role in determining how leftwing or rightwing we are.
Okay. Going on, YouGov asked its sample about their attitudes on seven issues. There were big majorities for three progressive policy ends - workers on company boards, taking the railways back into public ownership, and for gay marriage. However, there were big anti-progressive majorities on three other issues: ending all immigration, stopping overseas aid, and no to higher taxes for funding public services. The seventh issue people were asked about - should unemployment benefit be reduced - saw a more even split.

Breaking the results down by NRS class, Peter notes that middle and working class voters hold similar views on four of the seven issues. On the other three, working class respondents are two-to-one in favour of ending all immigration, and scrapping overseas aid. The middle class, by contrast, appear more progressive: they split evenly on both questions. These "surprising" findings appear to be bucked by unemployment benefits - the middle class are 53-38% in favour of a reduction, as opposed to 45-40% against in the working class bracket. However, separating out the C2s finds them as favourable to benefit reduction as the middle class groupings. As Peter observes, the DEs are against, presumably because they would or are more likely to be directly affected. And as if to underline the point, the attitudes of the C2s "show scant signs of working class solidarity".

To his credit, Peter says this doesn't mean Labour should throw its principles overboard and adopt a thoroughly reactionary agenda, but it exposes the misplaced hopes the Labour left and others have in the socialist propensities of the working class. With the disassociation of politics from class, it therefore makes little sense to adopt the sorts of policies the left think can win back disengaged working class votes.

While I accept the argument that "it is worth understanding where people actually are", there are three problems with Peter's position.

1. In the comments, Dan Paskins observes "it is no great surprise that 'reactionary' policy proposals on issues of high public concern are a greater priority than 'progressive' policy proposals on issues of low public concern." While not quite asking leading questions for proof of an expected outcome, there are issues of framing here that Peter did not address.

2. YouGov finds the three progressive, left wing policies - workers on company boards, rail renationalisation, and gay marriage - score big majorities across all the class gradings. Rather than being of interest only to a shrinking industrial working class, does this not show left policies can have swing potential and win large numbers of people from all strata to a properly social democratic Labour manifesto?

3. Peter inadvertently shows the continued salience of class. While he links perceived material interests among the DEs to opposing cuts to unemployment benefit, he overlooks how these interests condition the non-progressive responses to immigration, overseas aid, and higher taxes to pay for public services on the part of the C2DEs. As we saw in the earlier discussion on working class benefit-bashing, right wing arguments against the welfare state make sense from the standpoint of everyday experiences of working people. The idea you have to work while others are living it up on benefits funded by the taxes you pay has a deep resonance, precisely because of their class location. This insight, this negative manifestation of, for want of a better phrase, working class "identity" goes some way to explain YouGov's findings. As anyone who regularly canvasses people will tell you, anti-immigration sentiment tends not to have a racist wellspring as much anymore - it is in the main fuelled by perceptions of benefit dependency, jumping the housing queue, taking jobs off locals, and undercutting wages. Likewise with overseas aid - why give poor people elsewhere money when we have things we urgently need at home, such as funds for hospitals or care for the elderly? And why should workers pay more from their increasingly-squeezed pay packets for public services that are being cut and they seldom use anyway?

Therefore, by YouGov's own admission, left wing policies can be popular and class does matter. The tough political task for socialists and Labour people is to argue and advocate alternatives to these reactionary politics that speak to working class life experience and perceptions with ones that do so even more convincingly.


Rhiannon said...

The classification system is really limited. Amongst other things, there seems to be a big issue with gender. Am I B/C1 because I could be classed as a professional working in FE or am I E because I'm part time? While women probably should be classified as lower in the system due to the structural disadvantages associated with their high representation in the part time work force there are massive differences in the relative wages and levels of autonomy in different types of part time work.

Anonymous said...

The economic elite would love open borders.

Nick Fredman said...

Good to see you blogging again Phil. You're right about the limitations of class understood and measured as classifications of individual attributes, but you miss a far bigger problem with this report and the 'standard' classification system: it's not about class at all, but socio-economic status as constructed by occupation, education and income and so on.

The latter is important, and should IMO be given more theoretical and empirical attention by Marxists, but as what it is, distinct if related to class as understood as relationships within the system of social production. That is, tradespeople, associate professionals and professionals if you want to treat them as groups are sharply divided between some who are self-employed, the few who employ others and the large majority who are constrained to sell their labour power. While in empirical work mentioned below I treat at least upper managers as a distinct class due to relations of control at work, there's also differences between owner managers and salaried managers.

It's possible to use substantial academic surveys to treat class in this more appropriate (if still limited) way as I assume surveys like the British Election Study like the Australian equivalent I've used asks about employment status (self-employed, employer or worker) as well as occupation, income, education etc and a whole range of attitudinal questions.

You're also right to point to the limitations of extrapolating too much from single attitude questions which respondents might interpret differently, but there's more sophisticated and valid ways to analyse structures of attitudes from surveys: particularly seeing if responses to a range of questions on a topic vary similarly, which suggests a deeper underlying attitudinal structure, and constructing a score from this (factor analysis).

I've used such a classification of class and such an analysis of attitudes, as well as qualitative data, to look at the Australian Greens in an article coming up in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, a version of which is at . I've got a something just about done with a comrade and colleague which goes more into the idea of a contemporary labour aristocracy constructed by education (rather than fluffy obfuscations about the "middle class") and uses sequential regressions as well as factor analysis to show quite nicely that party vote is strongly determined by a few attitudinal structures and that these structures are in turn largely determined by class and education.

Chris said...

clerical and administrative clearly belong to the working class. Skilled manual possibly to the lower middle. At least in the context of the survey.

The main problem with the analysis is that it assumes opinions are formed freely, are fixed and that ruling class idea are not the ruling idea of society. The point is to change opinions, not simply react to whatever they are.

Nick Fredman said...

"Clerical and administrative clearly belong to the working class. Skilled manual possibly to the lower middle"

Sorry but this is utter rubbish, surrendering to the obfuscations of these classifications. Skilled *employed* manual workers, and IMO opinion all white collar workers including professionals without significant managerial control or significant capital, are workers. A skilled manual small business owner is just that, a petty bourgeois. Death to the useless and misleading term "middle class". In most cases this means educated white collar worker. See further above.

Chris said...

I said in the context of this survey, which seeks to classify people as being worthy or unworthy, is a scale of worthiness. Clearly skilled manual workers have greater skills and training than clerical and admin staff. It is indicative of the snobbery of the bourgeois that they put a pen pusher or a spreadheet clicker above a skilled engineering worker. He wears a suit so he must be more worthy, he gets his hands dirty = less worth.

I personally agree they all belong to the working class. On managers, this can be difficult. Where I work in the public sector, which is very hierarchical, you get supervisors/managers at almost every level. So you have posts such as senior admin officer managing the admin officer. These hierarchies are how those in power maintain their rule.

The question for socialists is how to respond to these hierarchies?

Phil said...

That, as they say, is the rub.