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National Equality Panel confirms that class is the main issue

Despite every effort to hide it, a recent report by an independent panel set up by the government confirms that class is the most important factor determining inequality in society.

The National Equality Panel published An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK in January. At first glance the 460 page report tells us nothing new – economic inequalities, high both in relation to other countries and previous historical periods, reinforce themselves across the lifecycle and across generations.

The first sentence of the executive summary suggests the usual focus of state-backed investigations into inequality has been adopted. It informs us that the objective of the report was to ‘examine how inequalities in people’s economic outcomes are related to their characteristics and circumstances.’ Tellingly, it highlights three examples of people’s ‘characteristics and circumstance’ as gender, ethnicity and age – the holy trinity of liberal concern with inequality.

Yet despite this initial bias towards traditional liberal concerns, the most important, if not the most visible, message of the report is that class is the determining and underlying factor underpinning inequality:

‘Differences in outcomes between the more and less advantaged within each social group, however the population is classified (i.e. by gender, ethnicity, age, etc.), are much greater than differences between social groups. Even if all differences between groups were removed, overall inequalities would remain wide. The inequality growth of the last forty years is mostly attributable to growing gaps within groups rather than between them.’

Notwithstanding this critical observation, class itself only gets a mention in the executive summary after the ‘social groups’, within which these wide inequalities have been identified, i.e. those of gender, age, ethnicity and religious affiliation, disability status and sexual orientation. Yet each of the sections focussing on these three areas conclude with the same message – inequalities within social groups defined in these ways are more marked than inequalities between them.

For instance, in the case of gender: ‘There is almost as much inequality between well and low-paid women as between well and low-paid men.’

In the case of age the report ‘illustrates the way in which inequalities within groups are often much greater than those between groups,’ while for ethnicity, ‘variation in incomes within ethnic groups is generally as wide as across the population as a whole.’

The class issue sits strikingly yet uncomfortably at the heart of much analysis like this. As noted in a recent IWCA article on the media’s response to John Denham’s announcement on the race versus class issue, a continuing trend can be seen where newspapers like the Financial Times seem far happier investigating and describing class issues than liberal-leaning publications such as The Guardian.

In the week before the publication of the National Equality Panel report, for example, the Financial Times carried an editorial piece entitled Britain must find the room for class’ (18 January 2010), noting that:

‘The UK Labour party treats social class as a punchline. Labour politicians’ interest in the topic has recently taken the form of schoolboy jokes about the background of David Cameron. The most up-to-date studies on social mobility suggest that it is unusually difficult for disadvantaged British children to overtake their more fortunate rivals. A 2007 OECD study put the UK at the bottom of a panel of 12 countries – including the US, Canada and Australia – for social mobility. The problem persists, in part, because the political elite is so nervous about making the hard political and economic choices which would make a difference. All mainstream parties have incentives to chase the votes of middle-income swing seats. So there is little national discourse about the wealth, educational opportunities, family support or social networks that allow the middle class – who live in the target constituencies – to defend entrenched positions. Instead, the parties dress up middle-class giveaways – such as income tax cuts or tax breaks for marriage – as measures to alleviate poverty,’ (emphasis added).

The Guardian, while it appeared to acknowledge the severity of the situation in the here and now, seemed more concerned to absolve New Labour for its wholesale adoption and continuation of neoliberal policies by finding comfortable, almost foetal like refuge in blaming everything on Thatcher (‘A broken society, yes. But broken by Thatcher’, 29 January 2010).

An earlier piece in The Guardian (‘Recession creating ‘sense of victimhood’ among white working class’, 22 January 2010) saw the paper on much more comfortable ground, continuing the traditional liberal theme of analysing and presenting what are essentially class issues using a framework defined entirely by race and ethnicity. The story in this case was a report by the Barrow Cadbury Trust lamenting the lack of civil society within white working class communities compared to that found in ‘high minority ethnic populations’.

This kind of perspective seems to be a continuation of a theme started in 2008 by the BBC’s white working class season, where a hamfisted and counter productive attempt was made by the liberal media to undo some of the damage done by decades of analysis and policy based on political multiculturalism – which predictably resulted in multiculturalist panaceas being put forward to solve problems which were themselves the product of multiculturalist ‘solutions’ in the first place.

The IWCA pointed out the flaws in this approach at the time, both on this website (‘Has society turned its back on itself?’) and on the BBC itself (Doton Adeyabo programme on BBC London on 16 March, on Radio 5 Live and on Radio 4′s ‘You and Yours’).

The white working class are thus picked up and analysed, in true multiculturalist fashion, like another minority identity grouping that needs its own ‘community structures’ (step forward the BNP!) and are listed, measured, compared and judged in relation to seemingly ‘classless’ blacks, muslims, pakistanis etc. The Guardian’s commentary on the National Equality Panel report notes that:

‘White working-class communities are struggling to deal with the recession because of a lack of civil society, a leading charity claims. According to a new report by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, an absence of the community groups commonly found in areas with high minority ethnic populations is giving white communities “nothing but a shared sense of victimhood”.

‘The study of deprived districts in Birmingham found that predominantly white council wards, which have traditionally been seen as “privet-hedged middling suburbs”, lacked community structures such as churches, mosques and youth groups that have helped ease the impact of economic decline in wards with high minority ethnic populations.

‘The study found informal groups based at mosques, temples and churches, as well as youth clubs and groups for women and pensioners helped to improve social cohesion and mutual support among high minority ethnic populations in inner city areas. However in outer city areas, researchers found that the white population felt less in control of their communities as there were fewer such local groups.

‘But the trust said that its findings should not be used as another excuse to pit communities against each other. Without investment in community groups, it was easy for extremist groups to step into the gap, providing local activities and exploiting feelings of isolation.”The BNP have become canny operators in local communities, reaching out to people through simple acts such as clearing rubbish or holding fetes,” Griffiths said.’

Apart from the comical suggestion that the only reason that the white working class are struggling to deal with recession is because of a lack of civil society in white working class areas, a quite bizarre conclusion appears to emerge in the report stating that the findings should not be used as an excuse to pit communities against each other, but then argues for funding/investment on the basis of (presumably ethnic/religious/white working class) community groups.

It’s also an odd claim that the existence of mosques/temples/churches help to improve social cohesion – it appears that social cohesion is now judged on the basis of how socially cohesive a particular ethnic/religious group are within themselves rather than across these divides.

The tone of the Barrow Cadbury Trust report seems to focus not on addressing the root cause of most social ills – economic inequality – but instead on the merits of creating a ‘happy poor’. This same theme can also be seen emerging in the Poverty section of the soon to be released Conservative Party election manifesto.

The Financial Times notes that (‘Doubts cast on child poverty strategy’, 19 January 2010) the Tories intend to ditch a previously firm pledge to end child poverty in the UK by 2020 by ‘adopting such broad measures of deprivation that it would be hard to identify or measure progress’ and are set to ‘announce the use of “a matrix of measures” that moves away from “the old individualised ways” of measuring poverty towards “a richer picture”.’

The Tories seem to have come to the same conclusion as the Barrow Cadbury Report: as long as you can somehow, magically, produce a ‘happy poor’ then real determining underlying economic conditions and the root inequalities that arise from them become something that can be safely ignored.

Some other recent news items on class and inequality:

‘Wealth gap far wider than income divide’ (Financial Times, 27 January 2010)

‘Social advantages still shape life chances’ (Financial Times 27 January 2010)

‘Quandary for policymakers as answers to problem remain elusive’ (Financial Times, 5 January 2010)

‘Class holds you back more than gender or race’ (BBC News, 21 January 2010)

‘Middle class workers richer than they think’ (Financial Times, 4 January 2010)

An Anatomy of Economic inequality in the UK (National Equality Panel, 27 January)

3 Responses to “National Equality Panel confirms that class is the main issue”

  1. Sam Says:

    “Differences in outcomes between the more and less advantaged within each social group, however the population is classified (i.e. by gender, ethnicity, age, etc.), are much greater than differences between social groups.”

    And this is the key thing, the point that identity politics of all kinds ignores and intends to obscure: there’s no fundamental clash of interests between genders, races or age groups, it’s class cleavages that transcend all of these and lie at the root of things. It’s amply demonstrated in the resources provided here, yet the political centre has no interest in addressing this. It’s taken the emergence of the BNP for New Labour to even rhetorically acknowledge the issue of class.

  2. Fred Says:

    Class is just more identity politics, no difference.

  3. Barnsdale Brigade Says:

    “Class is just more identity politics, no difference.”

    Except, of course, for the small matter that class transcends virtually every other ‘identity’ and single issue concern.

    Sorry to repeat what Sam has already said, but it doesn’t look like Fred understands the overarching importance of class (as if it wasn’t obvious from the above post). May we humbly suggest that he reads ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett.

    The authors use rigorous scientific methodology – in order to create what they call ‘evidence-based politics’ – to examine the effects of social equality (aka ‘class’) on an incredibly wide spectrum of seemingly unrelated problems – everything from teenage pregnancy to sustainability.

    Class not only lies at the root of virtually all human problems; it remains the single greatest obstacle to solving those problems. The only viable way to re-politicise people to the extent required to tackle the major issues of the day is to re-engage them by making politics relevant to people across the entire socioeconomic spectrum. Only the levelling of class inequality can pave the way for building a dynamic and responsive political system – as opposed to the the outdated sham we currently enjoy.

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