This week I have been struck by two recent findings. First was the percentage of MPs who are millionaires – some 78% – held up against the national population percentage of millionaires – 0.7%. True or not, the focus of our national life in Westminster is clearly dominated by the wealthy and financially comfortable. This fact struck home to me in a week when a blitzkrieg of cuts and taxes hit the most vulnerable in our society square-on. I listened to a podcast (Trends with Benefits) this week too from This American Life (recommended) about the incredible rise there in claims for US federal disability payments. An investigation found that incapacity was the label given to those who now had no place in the economy, nowhere to work. Jobs designed for their experience and qualifications have just disappeared from small town America.
A new model of class
The other finding came from a study published in April’s Sociology called A New Model of Social Class which examines the findings from the BBC Lab UK’s Great British Class Survey. The survey’s findings were widely reported as they offered a more nuanced picture of class distinctions in today’s society. Based on 161,400 web respondents’ data, the investigators – from LSE, Universities of Manchester and York amongst others – discovered a new seven class model. The experiment examined the characteristics of respondents in three fields of capital: economic, social and cultural. They suggest that dependence on the 1970s Nuffield Class Schema with its near exclusive focus on occupation as a definition of ones class was insufficient and the broader characteristics of social and cultural capital gives a better current picture of class in the UK.
The seven classes are fascinating in themselves but I was particularly struck by the figures attached to the elite (7%) and the ‘precariat’ (15%) at either end of the model. The elite are those who have the highest level of all three types of capital. Their mean household income, average house price and average savings set them clearly aside from the other six classes. The academics note “their residences are all over-represented in the south east of England, and especially in areas close to London in the affluent Home counties.”
The ‘precariat’ – a combination of precarious and proletariat – are the poorest social class. With a household income of only £8,000 pa, negligible savings and likely to rent rather than own their home, these folk have few contacts and hardly engage in any cultural activities. The model distinguishes them from other classes such as the traditional working class as facing more extreme exclusion. The authors write that “they are located in old industrial areas, but often away from the large urban areas…London and the South East tends to score low [meaning there are few ‘precariat’ households in London and the South East.]”
Organising in trying times
Everyone is aware of the growing gulf between those in the ‘precariat’ and the elite. For decades in the last century, the distinctions between rich and poor were becoming less jarring and we felt a more equal nation. Today the direction of travel is most clearly in the opposite direction. The poor can hardly get more destitute without widespread starvation whilst the rich continue to concentrate wealth, influence and fine living in a few hands. Of course in the midst of such analysis there are always anomalies but the 7% elite certainly contains a immense range of circumstances within its own ranks. Those who by luck of birth scrape into the elite are significantly less privileged than those with multimillion pound bank portfolios. The 0.7% millionaires exercise extraordinary influence over our national life; their numbers alone must make them the 1% in London.
Which brings me back to London and to our parliamentary representatives. Wealth is clearly an important characteristic of the ruling class and has always been so. The concentration of the elite in London and the South East, the focus here of the parliamentary and state machine, the media empires and the financial oligarchy provides a lesson in power dynamics. Recently, the network of powerful families has been strikingly exposed through the Leveson Inquiry, opening up the close and in some cases intimate relations between police, media chiefs and senior politicians. Whilst it played out on a national stage, Leveson was more about London’s elite than any other single group.
For me, the elite is most clearly at work in three strands of our city’s life: the City of London, the Palace of Westminster and Whitehall and the array of global media interests such as the Murdoch empire. London’s life is held in a stranglehold by a few very powerful people in major institutions; they are mostly unelected and unresponsive to public opinion. This small group of major players remain shadowy but closely knit, sharing a broadly common vision for the city and able through their contacts, money and power to determine the life of its citizens. That our democratic structures have been colonised by the elite is shameful but points to the continuing importance of legislation and regulation in offering some kind of legitimacy to corporate actions.
Valuing each other
My heart is not with the elite, however well they dress up their notions of celebrity and consumption. As an organiser in London, my heart is with the ‘precariat’, that 15% of our population – mostly outside London and other major cities – who have not been offered any stake in this society. Even so, in London, we see many struggling to bring up their children on the meagre offerings of state benefits. We see people incapacitated by the economy and thrown away by their fellow citizens as not worth the effort. The unemployed, van drivers, cleaners, carpenters, care workers, cashiers and postal workers (all occupations over-represented in the ‘precariat’) all offer our community valuable assets in their skills, knowledge and experience but they too often live lives that are precarious and full of anxiety.
London is a rich and varied city. It is justly proud of creating a hugely successful powerhouse of growth and creativity whilst remaining open to people and influences from across the globe. However, a city that is riven by social divisions and class-based hatreds is one that is all too easy to conceive London becoming. As citizens together of this complex and ever shifting capital, we need to recognise how much we owe to the hundreds of thousands of cleaners and serving staff who provide us with their work each day. But we need too to analyse how current policies serve the elite at the expense of the ‘precariat’ and how the concentration of London’s power in a few hands can be challenged and reversed. It is only through our collective effort that the power of the few can become the potential of the many.
Lindsey Green and Jon Rees (2012) A People’s History of London Verso
David Kynaston; David Milner (ed) (2012) City of London: The History Vintage
David Priestland (2012) Merchant, Soldier, Sagfe – A New History of Power Allen Lane