Audit 2017: How effectively are class inequalities controlled in the UK?

Class is back – class inequalities now feature centrally in multiple media, are core to campaigns and protest movements, and are a part of everyday conversation. Mitigating their effects again plays a key role in policy formation and formal politics. As part of our 2017 Audit of UK Democracy, James Pattison and Tracey Warren consider how far the UK’s approach meets or falls below the types and levels of action that any liberal democracy requires.

mural grenfell

Mural near Grenfell Tower, London 2017. Photo: duncan c via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence

How should a genuinely democratic society promote greater class equality?

·  Public policy should focus on addressing and mitigating the structural causes of class inequality, rather than taking refuge in individualised explanations.

·  Positive policies are needed to ensure that working-class people have an equal political voice.

·  Class should become the 10th protected characteristic covered by the UK’s equality legislation.

·  This stance needs to be backed up by policies to curb the expression of discriminatory views and other ‘symbolic violence’ inflicted on working-class people and used to stigmatise them as a group and the places where they live.

·   Public policies need to guarantee quality working lives for the disadvantaged – providing a minimum floor to job quality so as to promote decent work. This floor should cover wages, work-time, job security, worker representation and support for a decent work-life balance.

·  Taxation and benefits policies should ensure a minimum income standard via transfers, and include a progressive system of taxation (with a levy on wealth).

·   In any capitalist society, social housing policies are an inescapable part of mitigating class inequalities. Meaningful reinvestment is needed in social housing – along with the democratisation of housing management and policy so as to fully include working-class residents in managing their own accommodation and neighbourhoods.

There was a time, not so long ago now, when the societal importance of class was doubted by some serious social scientists. Yet now class is increasingly recognised as having enduring significance for describing the distribution of advantage and disadvantage. A full decade of economic upheaval spanning the build-up to the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008-9, plus the acute austerity politics which followed, have raised anew key questions about the extent of class inequalities and how effectively class disparities are controlled.

A focus on injustice, inequality and value is fundamental to class-based analysis. Economic inequalities are core to how class shapes people’s everyday lives and life-chances. Yet this is not the entire story of our classed lives. Cultural understandings (following the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu) stress that class inequalities are also about how we relate to others and to ourselves. How class ‘intersects’ with other social divisions such as gender, ethnicity and age is also an important area of study for researchers.

Recent developments

Class is a highly-charged word which politicians, media commentators and others are often reluctant to use. ‘Class’ has often been a glaring absence from headline politics and policy formulation around inequalities. Instead, classed inequality is often discussed implicitly via terms that are politically more neutral, and lack a critical theoretical underpinning. Inequalities of ‘income’ feature heavily in public policy, with frequent recourse to ideas of ‘poverty’ and ‘the poor’; ‘economic disadvantage’; socio-economic ‘deprivation’ and the ‘deprived’; and ‘under-privileged’ to depict class-disadvantaged groups. In everyday language, talk of hipsters and chavs, or toffs and hoodies all contain classed assumptions. The names associated with those at the bottom of society are often particularly disparaging and morally loaded, ‘producing’ the working class as ‘disgusting subjects’ (Lawler, 2014).

The middle class was forecast (incorrectly) to fare most poorly in a projected ‘first middle-class recession’ and appeared, later, in the ‘squeezed middle’ narratives of the Labour party under Ed Miliband. The highly class-privileged – the upper class, the elite, the ‘super rich’ – also attracted attention in the face of deep economic inequalities post-crisis. High incomes are defined by HMRC (2017) as a minimum gross pay of £162,000 in 2014-15, but much executive pay in the private sector is far greater. Very high pay levels and the immense wealth held by ‘the one percent’ led to the birth of the Occupy protest movement in 2011 to work against inequality and towards improved democracy. Their slogan ‘We are the 99%’ promotes unity of the many against the privileged few. Protest movements against severe inequalities, symbolised by the excesses of the elite, mirror influential academic research into the extremes of class inequalities and the multiple negative impacts of intense inequality on society, by such writers as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, Danny Dorling, John Hills, Thomas Piketty and Guy Standing.

Questions about class disparities in the UK were boosted post-recession, and in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum. Again the working-class featured implicitly, as the vote outcome was ascribed to the impacts of austerity and globalisation on ‘left behind communities’. And some explicit critiques were made of the class background of Brexit voters.

The working class were central too to the discourses about the ‘just about managing’ and ‘ordinary working families’ in the 2016 campaign and 2017 manifestos of the Conservative party. In her first statement as PM, Theresa May said:

‘If you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise [..] You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school. If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly’. (Prime Minister’s Office 2016)

Mounting concerns with a very heavy concentration of wealth and privilege even made their way into the Conservative election manifesto in 2017, where a vision was set out of ‘A fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just a privileged few’ (p. 5). In its expressed aim to make Britain ‘the world’s Great Meritocracy’, the May government also stated (although again with class left implicit): ‘The greatest injustice in Britain today is that your life is largely determined not by your efforts and talents but by where you come from, who your parents are and what schools you attend’ (p. 49).

The class structure of the UK

The numbers of well-paying industrial manual jobs have fallen greatly in Britain over time, a drop fuelled by contracting manufacturing industries. There has been a long-term expansion of people working in services, with manual jobs concentrated especially in such low paid sectors as retail, hospitality and catering. The consequences for the overall occupational class structure are shown in Chart 1.

Chart 1: The official view of occupational classes in 2017

working categories

Source: Quarterly Labour Force Survey, April-June 2017

Nearly a third of the working population are professionals or managers (the two groupings on the left), while including the ‘associate professional and technical’ group would give almost half of the population in an upper/middle class group. Among the remaining ‘working class’ groups, women work especially in administrative/secretarial and caring/leisure jobs, while men overwhelmingly predominate in the ‘skilled trades’ and ‘process, plant and machinery operatives’.

Moving beyond the emphasis on occupation as a simplified signifier of class, an alternative approach focuses on how people see their own class position. In 2011, the ‘Great British Class Survey’ was carried out by sociologists in cooperation with the BBC, collecting information on the economic, social and cultural capital of 160,000 people. They concluded that traditional depictions of class (e.g. working, middle, upper) were out of date, and proposed instead a seven-class schema influenced far more equally by people’s occupations, their wealth, social contacts and their ‘cultural capital’ – shown in Table 1.

Table 1: The ‘Great British Class Survey’ categories

GBC survey categories% of UK population in 2011Brief description
Elite6Very high economic capital (especially savings), high social capital, very high highbrow cultural capita
Established middle class25High economic capital, high status of mean contacts, high highbrow and emerging cultural capital
Technical middle class6High economic capital, very high mean social contacts, but relatively few contacts reported, moderate cultural capital
New affluent workers15Moderately good economic capital, moderately poor mean score of social contacts, though high range, moderate highbrow but good emerging cultural capital
Traditional working class14Moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable house price, few social contacts, low highbrow and emerging cultural capita
Emergent service workers19Moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable household income, moderate social contacts, high emerging (but low highbrow) cultural capital
Precariat15Poor economic capital, and the lowest scores on every other criterion

Source: Savage et al (2012)

The elite and established middle class form almost a third of UK respondents, with a technical middle class and new affluent workers forming a further fifth in the middle. Other working class people divide relatively evenly between a traditional working class (often owning their homes, though), a group of emergent service workers (some with high cultural capital), and a ‘precariat’ whose economic and social position is fragile. While the survey and its methods have been contested, the overall messages posted about the results on the BBC website are less contentious, including this one: ‘The extremes of our class system are very important. The Elite and Precariat often get forgotten with more focus on the middle and working-classes’.

Despite the fall in the type of (manual) jobs traditionally seen as ‘working-class’, successive British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys have found that 60 to 63% of respondents see themselves as ‘working class’, with the remaining group (just under 40%) describing themselves as middle class’. There is hardly any variation from one year to the next. Self-identification as working class ‘has proven to be a remarkably stable feature of British society’ (Evans and Mellon, 2016: 4). The same surveys suggest that the economic climate between 2005 and 2015 made people more aware of class differences:

‘We find Britain divided along class lines. Nearly 8 in 10 of us think that the divide between social classes is wide or very wide. We are less likely now to think it possible to move between social classes than in the past’ (BSA 33 2016).

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) analysis

Current strengthsCurrent weaknesses
In terms of working lives:In terms of working lives:
Unemployment in mid 2017 stood at 4.4%. its lowest level since 1975 (ONS 2017), with positive consequences for class gaps in labour force participation rates and in levels of wages and income. Many concerns around deep class inequalities have been accentuated by the declining quality of new service jobs, especially in terms of worsening (or vanishing) job security, the expansion of zero-hours contracts and the so-called ‘gig economy’. Low official unemployment rates partly reflect a growth in work time underemployment (where low paid workers want but cannot get more paid hours – see below) and in marginal self-employment.
The UK has a ‘National Minimum Wage’ which rose to £7.50 in 2017 (for over 25s), almost matching the level in Germany. The NMW is set to increase substantially leading up to 2020. A ‘National Living Wage’ is being introduced for workers aged at least 25. The NMW is very low for younger workers - (dropping to only £5.60 an hour for 18-20 year olds). Real earnings in 2017 are lower than before the recession hit. The extent of in-work poverty is testament to the low paying jobs held by many of the working class.
Free childcare hours expanded to 30 hours in September 2017. This change can assist more women into paid work, though trials suggest it is being taking up more by middle class parents.Class inequalities persist in the support available for working parents. Given scarce supply, the extension of free child-care could deepen rather than reduce class inequalities in child-care use. Problems from the provider perspective (such as rising delivery costs, falling profits, difficulties in staff recruitment and limited space in venues for expanded numbers) also raise concerns about whether the policy changes are sustainable.
In terms of living standards:In terms of living standards:
The UK government spends around £486 billion (26% of GDP, 2015-16) on the welfare state.Systematic cutbacks in public spending continued into 2017 and are budgeted to continue throughout the life of this parliament. In 2017 the Institute of Fiscal Studies noted how ‘terrible’ economic growth since 2008 created ‘big problems’ for the finances of both households and government.
From April 2017, the child tax element paid to new claimants of the ‘Universal Credit’ scheme applies only for the first two children in a household. This is predicted to cut the benefits of 515,000 larger families by 2020.
Extending the conditionality of welfare payments, and the use of punitive benefit sanctions against people whose behaviour is judged non-compliant with increasingly prescriptive benefits rules, has adversely impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor people, both those who out of work and those in low paid and insecure jobs.
Stark class inequalities in living standards persist in the UK, as signalled by the huge gaps in income and wealth levels between ‘the 1%’ and the majority
In terms of housing provision:In terms of housing provision:
The Conservative Party’s 2017 manifesto promised reinvestment in ‘short-term’ social housing.More long-term and larger-scale solutions are needed to combat the current lack of affordable and social housing.
One substantial disincentive to well-off people or companies purchasing multiple ‘buy to let’ properties was introduced in 2016 with a Stamp Duty surcharge.Housing in Britain is still seen as a commodity rather than a basic right. ‘Gentrification’ in cities has especially reduced the supply of low-cost housing in convenient locations for getting to jobs. The expansion of ‘buy to let’ housing has raised all house prices and meant more households must cope with the expense and insecurity of private renting.
The pursuit of deregulation and removal of ‘red-tape’ in housing has had high human costs, as witnessed by the spiralling of multi-occupation and the lapses in securing basic safety in social housing demonstrated by the Grenfell Tower catastrophe.
In terms of representations of class:In terms of representations of class:
There was a small increase in the numbers of MPs from less privileged backgrounds at the 2017 general election. Fewer MPs than before from privileged backgrounds, and there was the lowest proportion of privately-educated MPs on record (29%).The dominant media and political representations of working-class people, and of the places where they live, remain disparaging - which weakens the political standing of the working class. In particular, structural or systematic inequalities are normally presented as the consequences of individual failings.
There is some evidence of softening public attitudes towards benefit claimants. The negative portrayal of benefits claimants legitimises austerity and deepens class inequality.

Future opportunitiesFuture threats
In terms of working lives:In terms of working lives:
The Taylor Review made clear that the quality of jobs is a key area for action, though its recommendations have been criticised for being too unambitious.Exiting the EU may become a serious threat to the quantity and quality of jobs in the UK if rights and entitlements around work guaranteed in EU law are not transposed into UK law, or are watered down in the transition.
A ‘real Living Wage’ campaign is persuading employers to voluntarily pay workers (aged 18 and older) a minimum of £8.45 (or £9.75 in London, where living costs are greater). This success has ramifications for narrowing the wage gap in those firms.Because it is a voluntary and statutory approach, only a minority of employers seem likely to sign up to a ‘real Living Wage’.
The 1% cap on public sector wage rises (affecting e.g. nurses, teachers, civil servants since 2012) has attracted mounting protests, and is widely expected to end. In September 2017 police and prison officers secured some increases in pay above the cap.Long-deferred public sector pay rises must all come out of existing government sector budgets. This inevitable ‘catch-up’ surge could squeeze finances further, or create pressures for compensating reductions in headcounts, in the public sector with its generally better working conditions and still-strong trade unions.
In terms of living standards:In terms of living standards:
Campaigns have grown to establish an unconditional ‘Basic Income’, which advocates claim can provide a safety net for all classes – and buttress democracy by reducing state surveillance of behaviours.Weak economic growth and cuts to welfare are predicted to power the biggest rise in inequality by 2020-1 for the last four decades (see below). Already planned cuts to benefits will impact more on low-income households.
Cuts to social care budgets signal threats to the most vulnerable in society.
In terms of housing provision:In terms of housing provision:
Building on campaigns such as SHOUT – the campaign for social housing may help to reverse the disinvestment in social housing over the last 30 years.Further gentrification continues to threaten to displace people from the less advantaged social classes – who may be priced out of more desirable areas, particularly in central London.
A greater democratisation of social housing management and policy may follow the Grenfell Inquiry report, where the ‘tenant management organisation’ in fact gave residents little influence.
Proposals to reintroduce local rent caps in areas of high housing stress have been aired by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Widely used in other countries, such caps might not only keep rising costs in check (so making renting from private landlords more affordable), but also help to lower house prices.
In terms of representations of class:
In terms of representations of class:
Making class a ‘protected characteristic’ in future Equality Acts could actively combat discrimination and stigmatisation of working-class people and neighbourhoods.The outcome of the EU referendum has been (inaccurately) attributed to a problematic ‘white’ working-class, reinforcing and potentially intensifying already existing social divisions along axes of class, ethnicity and migration status.
Achieving more increases in MPs from less privileged backgrounds could rebalance political representation.
More positive representations of working-class life in the media and public sphere could counteract key forces worsening the experiences of a classed society.

Changing working lives in a class society

Many questions about stark and potentially deepening class inequalities in the UK economy have been given added salience by pay freezes and cuts during and after the recession, Conservative governments pursuing greater deregulation of the labour market, radical austerity measures reducing public sector employment, growing underemployment and multi-jobbing, an expansion in ‘zero hours’ contracts, and the rise of the ‘gig economy’. Brexit brings the added risk, depending on the future UK-EU relationship, that some or all UK law derived from the EU may be impacted. This may include current workers’ rights (e.g. those based on the Working Time Directive) as well as forthcoming EU initiatives (such as around work-life balance).

Although UK employment levels are high, the quality of jobs (rather than their quantity) is widely seen as a major UK problem; and this issue is classed. In July 2017 at the Taylor Review into ‘Employment practices in the modern economy’ its lead author said:

‘Our national performance on the quantity of work is strong. But quantity alone is not enough for a thriving economy and fair society. We believe now is the time to complement that commitment to creating jobs with the goal of creating better jobs’. (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy 2017).

In terms of real earnings, in 2017 they were still lower than before the recession hit. Earnings fell across the board in recent years, impacting most at the middle and top of the income distribution (although reliable data on very highest incomes is hard to obtain). Incomes for the bottom earners were supported by the National Minimum Wage (NMW).

The impact of minimum wages on wage inequalities, employment levels and hours worked is heavily debated, but the NMW has clearly not increased UK joblessness (as many critics on the right had predicted) and has improved the wages of those in lower-level occupations. Coverage by NMW grew higher in 2016 for workers without qualifications, with disabilities, for women, ethnic minorities, migrants, part-timers and workers in cleaning, hairdressing and hospitality (Low Pay Commission, 2016).

The 2017 General Election campaigns saw commitments to raise NMW substantially in 2020 (to £8.75 from the Conservatives, and £10 from Labour). According to the Low Pay Commission, should the government rate be implemented then ‘measured on a like-for-like basis, the UK will have one of the highest minimum wages in the world’.

Surveys show that job security was the job attribute rated as important by most respondents (92% in 2015). But this was also the attribute they felt had become less attainable over time, with most disadvantage faced by those in the lowest social class. Job insecurity is known to be severe for workers in the so-called gig economy, perhaps most associated with such working-class jobs as driving and deliveries for Uber and Deliveroo. But it also applies in other occupations, such as writing, translating, coding and designing. Gig work is also associated with a range of other negative characteristics – notably very long, unregulated, and often anti-social hours; high intensity work; low pay; no employment protection, and no guarantee of work; and weak pensions arrangements.

A growing and also markedly classed phenomenon after the recession has been work-time underemployment (WTU). WTU disproportionally affects workers in lower level occupations, including part-timers who want but cannot find a full-time job, resulting in financial and psychological distress. Despite having more than one job, many low-paid workers needed more work to survive, with some participants working in up to 7 different jobs a week. Work-time underemployment, linked with severe financial hardship, was a growing cause of work-life imbalance for the working-class post-recession.

However, 2016-17 saw signs that ‘peak insecurity’ may have passed: with expansion in full-time employment and falls in self-employment, part-time work and zero-hours contracts as employers find it harder to attract staff on poor conditions. Chart 2 shows that the proportion of part-timers working part-time involuntarily rose steeply from 2008 to 2012, but have now begun to fall back almost as sharply. A number of legal judgements have expanded ‘gig’ workers’ rights and policy actions to rebalance workers’ lack of clout in negotiating with employers are promised, although how substantial any outcomes may be remains to be seen.

Chart 2: The proportion of women and men part-timers working part-time involuntarily because they could not find a full-time job

chart 2

Source: Labour Force Survey, series ID: YCDC

Turning to issues around parental employment, there are significant class gaps in the UK in how parents in paid work care for young children. Formal mechanisms (such as nurseries and childminders) are used far more by middle-class families, while informal care (often by grandparents) has remained dominant for working-class working parents. Access to good, affordable and convenient childcare is a key way to support parents (especially mothers), into paid work, but formal childcare has been prohibitively expensive for many. Government initiatives have invested in early education and childcare with explicit class-based motives to promote child development, narrow the gap in attainment ‘between the most disadvantaged children and their better off peers’, enable parents to work, and help with poverty- reduction.

From September 2017, working parents of children aged four became eligible to apply for 30 hours of funded, tax-free childcare per week for 38 weeks a year (doubling the 15 hours previously available in England). This scheme to ‘support parents into work or to work more hours should they wish to do so’ targets fathers and mothers earning or expecting to earn ‘the equivalent to 16 hours at National Minimum or Living Wage over the coming three months’. Parents earning more than £100,000 are not eligible. However, rather than favouring working-class families, trials of the scheme saw more uptake among middle-class families. Meanwhile, government statistics shows that many Sure Start centres, set up by the Labour government to support working-class pre-school children, closed (850 closed in England in 2010-16, while just eight new ones opened).

Living standards across classes

Working-class lives are marked by more strained living conditions than other classes, with post-recession accounts of increasing numbers of working-class people scraping by, reporting relentless and demoralising everyday worries about spending and accumulating debts. Some parents recount caring for children whilst being unable to heat their homes or afford hot water. In September 2016 the Resolution Foundation estimated that six million families were ‘just about managing’. Financial problems grew so intense in the UK over the past decade that the numbers of people using charitable food banks for essentials rocketed. Loan sharks offering high interest loans proliferated, as did pawn shops offering high-interest loans in exchange for personal items.

For the first time since the financial crash, in 2016 more respondents to the British Social Attitudes survey (48%) wanted taxation increased to allow greater spending than wanted levels to stay as they are (44%). More people (42%) agreed that government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well-off (while 28% disagreed).

The UK is committed to meeting the United Nation’s (UN) 2030 ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. One relevant target is to: ‘progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average’ (Target 10.1). Yet research by the Resolution Foundation found that the incomes of the bottom 40% of people were growing more slowly in 2016-17 than the higher 60%. Median household income in 2015–16 was only 3.7% higher than before the recession (2007–08), after adjusting for inflation, indicating only a ‘glacially’ slow growth over time.

Because levels of unemployment are low, there are fewer people in Britain without any earnings at all, and this has held income inequality down. A ‘Minimum Income Standard’ (MIS) for the United Kingdom, which reports on how much income households need to afford an acceptable minimum standard of living, also identified a steadying in 2016. However, few families can reach this MIS with only one person working full-time on the national minimum wage. Projections to 2020-21 suggest the biggest rise in inequality since the 1980s looms, powered by weak economic growth and by cuts to welfare for those with the lowest incomes.

The absolute poverty level is defined in the government’s official measure as falling below 60% of median household income. Levels here have changed little and showed about 20% of households living in poverty in 2015-16. Yet this lack of progress in reducing poverty is historically rare. Inflation rose sharply in 2017 while benefit cuts are deepening, adding to the risks of more class-based financial hardship. The majority of those officially classified as ‘poor’ are not in households with no paid work at all: most live in a household where someone is in (low) paid work. According to the Child Poverty Action Group there were 3.9 million children living in poverty in 2014-15, amounting to 28% of all children in the country.

Poverty adversely impacts people’s lives in manifold ways. For example, fully 60% of families in the bottom income quintile would like, but cannot afford, to take their children away on holiday for just one week a year. ‘Fuel poverty’ among low-income families has increased, testifying to life on a low-income with rising bills and an inadequate everyday standard of living. Between April 2016 and March 2017, the Trussell Trust supplied nearly 1,183,000 three-day emergency food supplies, a 7% increase on the previous year. More supplies were given July/August 2016 than in the previous two months – when children were in school and receiving school dinners.

Meanwhile the ‘poverty premium’ consists of the ‘additional costs [that] low-income households pay for goods and services compared to those on higher incomes’. This amounts to an estimated extra £490 per household per year, including the extra costs of living in economically disadvantaged areas (e.g. paying an extra £74 for car insurance and an additional £227 in grocery bills in locations poorly served by supermarkets).

Changes in how state benefits are paid have also worsened working people’s lives.  The Universal Credit (UC) was designed to replace six working-age benefits. It targets both those out of work and in paid work on a low-income and with few savings, estimated to be eight million households. UC was devised with multiple aims: to simplify the benefits system, to make work pay, to increase take up of some benefits, and to reduce fraud and error. Yet its implementation has set off many alarms. Numerous problems have been cited with inefficiencies in its delivery, delaying its full roll out until 2020.

Because benefits are now paid monthly, and in arrears, there are also serious concerns about how people can get by in the long period before a first UC payment (up to 6 weeks), with ramifications for those who are in a ‘low pay/no pay’ cycle caused by insecure jobs. Referrals for emergency food supplies grew higher in those areas where UC was rolled out (a 17% average increase) compared to the national average of 7%. Queries have also been raised about UC’s imposition of monthly household budgeting on those low-income households who operated weekly accounting before UC. This impacts heavily on women who are commonly responsible for budgeting, shopping and feeding families. It also creates extra things that can go wrong for people poor at managing money.

More fundamentally, there are serious concerns with Universal Credit’s underpinning assumptions, including a conditionality that is ‘backed by an extensive tiered system of very harsh benefit sanctions and a new range of civil penalty fines’. For working-class people UC extends conditionality, and harsh sanctions, to low-paid workers in insecure jobs. The impact of benefit sanctions on people living with a disability or chronic illness has also attracted condemnation – as in the film I, Daniel Blake. The claimed evidence that sanctions increase employment rates for disabled people is far from conclusive. Overall, UC’s founding assumptions are ‘divorced from what we know’ from established research on what life is like for those either in ‘low-waged and often insecure employment’ or on a low non-waged income.

Equally slated was the so-called bedroom tax, portrayed by ministers as removing a subsidy for working-age social housing tenants deemed to have a spare bedroom (by 14% for one spare bedroom, 25% for two or more). First implemented in 2013 a formal evaluation, commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2015, found that affected tenants were forced to cut back on essentials such as heating and food. Other research has shown mounting hardship and debt from the policy has adversely affected tenants’ mental health, family relationships and community networks. It has also led to falls in children’s performance in school linked to having less private space to study in circumstances of intensifying poverty.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of living standards, inequalities of wealth far outstrip those of income in the UK. The system of taxation in the UK has not kept up with the ‘meteoric rise’ in the amount of wealth held by ‘the 1%’. For 2014 data the Resolution Foundation estimated that ‘the 1%’ owned £11 trillion in financial, private pension, property and physical wealth (14% of the nation’s assets). By contrast, the lowest 15% of people on a wealth scale either owned no assets at all or were in debt. Low and middle-income households have weak financial safety nets, if any. Even more people are struggling to save anything in a decade marked by low-income growth. In 2016, 64% of people living in low and middle-income households reported having less than £1,500 in savings.

How housing inequalities condition class

One of the biggest demands on income, especially for poor people, is accommodation and housing. Being able to secure a stable home in an area has huge implications for people’s access to jobs, transport costs, and the environment in which they can afford to live.

Greater inequalities in housing have opened up over recent years. At one extreme by 2017 there was a 32% increase in homelessness case actions by English local authorities since 2009. At the other extreme the super-rich are buying up multiple properties, which are then left empty or underused whilst they appreciate in value for their already wealthy owners. Nowhere are these extremes of inequality more evident than in London, where the highest concentrations of wealth exist side by side with the highest concentrations of poverty. Cunningham and Savage dispute dominant claims that it is middle-class gentrifiers that have had the biggest impact on the class structure of London. Instead they argue that it is the global elites of many countries who have colonised central London, with less advantaged social classes being pushed towards the outskirts of the capital.

There has been an important change in the balance of homeownership (once expected to be dominant in the Thatcher years) and private renting, now resurgent as a UK housing tenure. Arguably since the 2008 financial crash the onset of a ‘housing crisis’ has more accurately been a crisis for middle-class home owners and investors who have experienced unexpected greater uncertainty (but also historically low interest rates). Despite this, the wealth of the UK’s richest groups has grown due to financial policy actions propping up asset values, including house prices. Conservative and coalition government policies responding to the housing crisis focus mainly on home ownership, for instance with subsidies aimed at getting first-time buyers on the housing ladder.

The policy emphasis on home ownership despite the adverse trends that have steadily eroded its role has been criticised because it does not prevent poverty, with over half of those living in poverty being homeowners; and because the burden of mortgage repayments is too high for the lowest paid (even if they could secure low interest rates). Conservative policy partly reflects a calculation that homeownership will produce political quietism – a goal of political control central to Thatcher’s now vanished ideal of a property-owning democracy.

By contrast, those with the lowest incomes have suffered the most in housing, especially amongst younger people. Insecurity in housing (moving from one rental flat to another) has become an extension of the precarity stemming from insecure work, and the rolling back of social security. Home ownership remains financially out of reach, and because social housing is scarce, this only leaves the private rental market, where cheap housing is insecure, expensive, and more likely to be of poor quality. The most vulnerable families are almost always renting, paying more and more to private landlords from meagre incomes. In the nine years from 2006 the proportion of people living in the private rented sector who are in poverty increased by around two fifths.

In the past, social housing in Britain reflected a recognition that for the working-class there is a perpetual housing crisis, albeit to varying degrees. For much of history, especially before 1919 and since 1979, working-class existence has been marked by inadequate housing. One of the key housing issues facing the working-class today stems from the transformation of the vision of good quality and secure housing as a basic right, to housing chiefly as an economic resource or investment. In 1979 42% of the UK population lived in council housing, today it is only 8%, arising largely from the Thatcher government’s 1980s Right to Buy scheme. Many former council houses are now in the hands of profit-seeking private landlords. They do not usually maintain these homes to the former standards, and they charge significantly higher rents that are mostly subsidised from public funds paying housing benefits. For instance, one study showed how one tenant on a former council estate was charged £800 per month by her private landlord, for a unit that the council would charge £360 for, with the difference coming from the public purse.

This situation typifies the commodification of housing, where profit becomes the priority, housing prices are inflated and residents’ needs are not met. Successive governments have squeezed spending on social housing, putting greater pressure on the need for affordable social housing. The 2017 Conservative Party manifesto does include a promise to build a ‘new generation of social housing’, a pledge partly maintained at the Conservative conference in 2017. However, the manifesto also envisaged that after 10-15 years these houses will return to the market to be sold privately via automatic right-to-buy policy.

The Grenfell Tower disaster

Many of the issues discussed in this chapter converge in the Grenfell Tower disaster, where at least 80 people died in a fire on 14 June 2017 that spread enormously rapidly throughout the whole block. Coming just six days after the general election the complete destruction of the council tower block, crammed with desperate (often refugee) families just a few streets away from some of London’s wealthiest housing, dramatised the existence of extreme inequalities in the capital.

It also raised acute questions of democracy, because the warning voices of concerned council tenants had been systematically ignored in implementing the cheapest possible refurbishment of blocks in Kensington and Chelsea, one of the UK’s richest local authorities. Years of complaints from tenants’ associations such as the Grenfell Action Group, highlighting the risk the building was at from disaster, were ignored out of hand. As well as the tenants’ fears being ignored, it was also discovered that the cladding used during refurbishment was made from flammable material and had been chosen as a cost-cutting measure. And shifts towards ever more ‘light touch’ building and fire safety regulations were exposed as leaving not just Grenfell tenants but thousands of residents in hundreds of blocks across the country at terrible risk.

This example also illustrates the many ways in which damaging representations of the working-class (below) can serve to delegitimise and undermine legitimate concerns and effectively erase working-class voices from central and local state concerns. The austerity-induced commodification of housing, where homes are seen as maintainable only in ways that scarce resources would allow, rather than the priority being that they were a safe place to live, clearly contributed to the deaths of largely working-class residents – and graphically illustrated the ‘dark side’ of neoliberal deregulation and privatisation.

Representations of the working class

The way that working-class people and the places they live are pictured and portrayed for the rest of society plays a vital part in how class inequalities are controlled in the UK. The language of class may be absent from debates, but discussions of ‘chavs’, ‘welfare’, ‘council estates’ and ‘sink estates’, and even the names of particular places, all contain classed assumptions.

There is a well-established sociological argument that working-class people are not taken seriously by more powerful groups, who consider them to be unable to understand or usefully articulate their experiences. Partly this originates from the way that working-class people are reproduced as ‘disgusting subjects’ through discriminatory descriptions of their bodies, clothes, behaviour and taste, most explicitly associated with the tracksuited chav. These outward markers become signifiers of social class and an underlying pathology, which are associated with a perceived lack of taste.

Bourdieu’s concept of social distinction has been deployed to illustrate how middle-class taste is perceived as legitimate, and produced in opposition to a ‘tasteless’ working-class, by extending it to argue that this also represents the working-class as lacking value, pathological and immoral. So, there is a symbolic struggle between classes over legitimacy, middle-class culture is seen by dominant groups and interests as having value, and working-class culture is defined by a lack of culture.

Bourdieu called this process ‘symbolic violence’, where domination is accepted tacitly and the dominated working-class are not seen as having the right or ability to make legitimate judgements. It manifests as the (‘natural’) underrepresentation of working-class political opinion amidst multiple dominant political ideas generated by the middle and upper classes. This plays a vital part in the reproduction of the established order via processes of cultural reproduction.

Another area where these processes of social classification, symbolic violence and disgust are most evident is the explosion in popularity of reality television, especially the ‘poverty porn’ sub-genre which began in 2013 and has remained popular since. TV programmes such as Benefits Street became a catalyst for public debate centred on questions of the welfare state. Poverty porn produces a symbolic divide between the ‘worker’ and the ‘shirker’ and encourages viewers to scorn the lifestyles of those featured in the programmes. Structural inequalities stemming from deindustrialisation and the precarity of the contemporary labour market are obscured, and instead poverty (as discussed above) is reproduced as a lifestyle choice, with benefits claimants depicted as living it up at taxpayers’ expense.

Such understandings have become ‘common sense’ and have been much utilised as an ideological tool to legitimise austerity and the rolling back of the welfare state, which further deepens already existing class inequality. Whilst the 2017 BSA survey found evidence of softening attitudes towards benefits recipients, more people remain critical of benefit fraud than tax evasion. The ideological immediacy and apparent accessibility of poverty porn TV encourages the public to regard the majority of benefit claims as fraudulent.

Derogatory representations of working-class people are also extended to the places where they live, with certain place names being classed signifiers for dangerous people and places. Politicians and policy makers often represent the places where poor people live as the problem rather than seeing them as a symptom of broader structural inequalities. They use deprived areas as backdrops to make political claims that certain areas are able to entrench poverty and disadvantage – for example, PM David Cameron’s war on ‘sink estates’. Like the pathological representations of the working-class, these depictions deflect attention away from the external forces that produce the conditions of existence for residents there, and instead stigmatise neighbourhoods further. These messages can divide residents from each other, obstruct the potential for collective resistance to poor treatment, and often shape the future with regulations, investment and/or disinvestment in stigmatised territories.

A final coda: in the fallout from the Brexit referendum, it was the working class who were blamed for the vote to leave the European Union, although the factors involved were actually far more complex than this. Leave voters were frequently portrayed as being from disadvantaged areas that had been ‘left behind’ by globalisation, particularly de-industrialised northern English towns (i.e. implicitly white working-class communities). But if the conditions of being ‘left behind’ stem from the precarity of present-day existence, then these conditions are also shared by migrants and ethnic minorities. The association of being ‘left behind’ with a white working-class denies the classed inequalities effecting minority groups, and has the potential to deepen already existing social divisions along axes of class, ethnicity and migration status.


Class remains a fundamental form of deep inequality and injustice in the UK in 2017. It also ‘intersects’ with other social divisions, with many ramifications for how we understand the lives and life chances of different class groups of women and men.

In a liberal democracy like the UK it is only feasible to better control class disparities and narrow class inequality gaps more effectively both by establishing a firmer ceiling for the highly privileged (as housing market changes have shown), and by lifting the floor that supports the least class-advantaged in society (as the minimum wage and living wages have shown is feasible). In addition, class upbringing still lies outside the list of ‘protected characteristics’ that are covered by the Equality Act 2010 (which include sex, race, age, sexual orientation etc.). Current equality legislation does not prevent employers, education providers, government departments and so on from discriminating, harassing or victimising someone on the basis of their social class. This is a relatively easy thing to change, and doing so could counteract representations of working class people and areas that do so much to intensify the effects of inequalities.

This post does not represent the views of the LSE.

Tracey Warren is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham.

James Pattison is a postgraduate research student in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham.

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