The story of the week has undoubtedly been class. One debate on class - the ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ argument - has been used by the political class to distract from the debate we should be having, about the widening inequalities in wealth, power and influence that have undermined our society and our politics. So, which debate do we really want to have?
The BBC’s Great British Class Calculator gained a lot of attention this week, easily playing into the British obsession with the class system and social standing, although we preferred the Daily Mail Class Calculator developed by Jonathan Cresswell. Despite (or perhaps because) it was a parody, the latter captured the attitudinal aspects of class identity - how we think about our place in the social and political structure - far better than the BBC’s effort, developed by academics at the London School of Economics and York and Manchester universities.
This week also saw Iain Duncan Smith called on to live on £53 a week, after being challenged by a caller to Monday’s Today programme. IDS dismissed the challenge as a ‘stunt’, but it clearly touched a popular nerve (at the time of writing, the online petition is approaching half a million signatures). IDS retorted that he knew all about poverty because he had spent time on the dole, although looking at some of the Government’s welfare reforms it’s less than apparent what he learnt from the experience.
The day after Black Monday, George Osborne (more on him in a moment) made a speech defending the ‘fairness’ of the reforms, hitting back against increasing criticisms, such as the churches’ report published by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church. This report showed how evidence and statistics have been misused, misrepresented and manipulated to create untruths that stigmatise poor people, welfare recipients and those in receipt of benefits. Another report this week from the New Policy Institute demonstrated the impact of this misrepresentation, by calculating the cumulative impact of reforms such as the bedroom tax and changes to council tax benefit on hundreds of thousands of already struggling families.
George Osborne was back in the headlines a couple of days later after seeming to concur with the Daily Mail’s (strangely ungrammatical) ‘A vile product of welfare UK’ front page - and in terms of media coverage succeeded once again in making his ’strivers and skivers’ argument this week’s eye of the shit storm. The left fell for it completely, effectively reinforcing Osborne’s agenda by criticising his comments as ‘cynical’ and ‘desperate’ rather than presenting an alternative to what are undeniably widespread public concerns.
Much as I’m loathe to concur with anything in the Mail, there is some truth to the notion that parts of the middle-class left are out-of-touch with a swathe of working class opinion - even if the evidence on welfare spending doesn’t always support these views. But what is also widely recognised about George Osborne is that he plays the politics of dividing lines in much the same way as Gordon Brown did as chancellor and prime minister (although when even natural allies such as Fraser Nelson writing in the Spectator recoils, you probably need to rethink your strategy). We don’t have to play along.
Just as the right often accuses the left of seeking to divide people by talking about social class, so the left often accuses the right of trying to divide society through the specious labeling of some people as ‘scroungers’ and so on. But both are surely distractions from a more fundamental question to which none of the main political parties have anything like a coherent response: how are we going to create a more open, more just, more equal society in which no-one has to struggle to survive on £53 a week or anything like it? As Martin Webber, a social work academic, commented this week:”…the gulf between our ruling elite and the poorest in society is an enduring feature of British society. But the huge inequality it creates is harmful to the health and wealth of the UK. Rather than retreating to their inherited mansions, politicians need to wake up to this and do something about these harmful social divisions.”
In this way, if we are playing dividing lines, the real difference highlighted this week is not between seven newly-defined social classes, or even between strivers and skivers, but between a positioning-obsessed, pandering ‘professionalised’ political elite, and the rest of us who would prefer it if our political leaders did some genuine leading rather than trying either to manipulate or meekly follow perceived ‘public opinion’. In lieu of this, if we want honesty and courage we need to look to grassroots groups and campaigners, alongside frontline practitioners, who in the absence of the Labour Party are fast becoming the real opposition in this country.