British social attitudes: Top-down austerity is clearly being rejected

The survey results show gaping class divisions, but also an opportunity for change


The small matter of a referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU, and its subsequent political fallout, has trumped all else that is newsworthy.

Which is a shame because Thursday saw the publication of NatCen Social Research’s British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) – and it contains a lot of very interesting information.

For example more than three out of four people in 2015 (when the survey took place) felt that the class divide in the UK is ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ wide.

This is combined with the fact that 60 per cent pf Britons today consider themselves to be working class – which is exactly the same proportion as did in 1983 when the BSA began, a year before the miners’ strike.

I believe this is very significant. It’s very easy to be carried away and over-hyped about the current socio-political situation in the UK, but it does feel like we’re living through interesting times.

Indeed some feel, from either side of the EU debate-divide, that the Leave vote is an expression of disillusionment with the status quo, boiled up and delivered in a way that has put the frighteners on the establishment – both political and financial.

The enemy of the working man back in 1984 was very clear; the lack of a credible plan to help working people weather huge economic and employment changes resulted in a historic fight on class lines.

While nothing too significant has actually happened yet since last Thursday, the uncertainty of the next few years (and weeks and months) makes you wonder what awaits us.

The enemy of the working man is a lot more subtle today. What the BSA shows – bringing this all full circle – is that inequality is real and those at the bottom of the pile know it full well.

It is equally interesting that nearly three out of four people believe it is ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ difficult to move between classes, a rise from 65 per cent in 2005.

Closely related is the correlation found between stress at work and low skilled occupations, as well as the fact that close to one in three of those in semi-routine and routine jobs find work stressful ‘always’ or ‘often’, up from 19 per cent in 2005.

Despite the fact that the researchers at NatCen Social Research have found social class identity has less to do with how much you earn and more with your familial identity, there is a correlation to be found between moving jobs and the so-called ‘hourglass economy’.

With the labour force today, we see a hollowing-out of middle-wage occupations (where there are increases only in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jobs, with few routes out of the latter into the former).

This can be felt along class lines, too. If I begin a job at entry level, no matter how hard I try I will never get a senior level job because there are no jobs to work through on the way to that level.

Increasingly, being poor but upwardly mobile just means trying harder to be poor.

The most useful book in recent times that looks at this issue is by former Left Foot Forward editor James Bloodworth in The Myth of Meritocracy, in which he discusses the lies peddled about social mobility and the untruths sold to working class kids that if you try hard you can be anything you want – forgetting to mention how society and the economy works in exactly the opposite way.

Unfortunately the research published today also finds that 45 per cent of Britons back further cuts in benefits for unemployed people while six out of 10 say there should be a limit on how long people receive unemployment benefit.

This seems particularly pernicious given the degree to which our economic recovery has been built on sand, by which I mean self-employment, zero-hours contracts, and casual employment. Recently my boss Sian Williams, at Toynbee Hall, made this vital observation about the way things are going:

“‘Mainstream’ life [is becoming] increasingly unusual. The employment market is shifting away from the kind of permanence we know as normal, towards shorter-term and ever-changing conditions […]

Zero-hours contracts are increasingly being used for part-time employment, and thus mainly affect people who either need to work part-time for educational or caring reasons, or who are ‘blending’ different forms of income […]

The data also shows that self-employment is likely to be both an alternative to long-term unemployment among all income ranges and a top-up option for those who are past the formal retirement age.

Consequently, there will be a growing population who do not have a single job with a monthly salary, and who increasingly rely on irregular and unpredictable work as their main source of income”.

Mainstream life is becoming unusual and people’s financial lives more precarious. The welfare system is a safety net; but the perception of it being so is becoming lost.

Though, on the plus side 45 per cent of those surveyed back an increase in taxation and public spending, which as has been found is back at pre-crash levels and its highest point for a decade.

Austerity from the top – causing major inequality between nations and individuals – is clearly being rejected. And consciousness is being raised.

The factors that got us to this point should give us reason to be scornful, but surely there is an opportunity here waiting in the wings.”

Carl Packman is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and the author of Loansharks: The rise and rise of payday lending

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.