Who are the middle classes?
The BBC is reporting that the Prime Minister is to
say Labour will create “more middle class jobs than ever before” and the party represents the “mainstream majority”. And he will suggest middle class voters would suffer disproportionately under Tory plans to cut public spending. In the past, Mr Brown’s opponents have accused him of waging a class war.
But on the radio coverage it is also reported that allied to this is a call by Lord Mandelson for the 50p top rate tax to be lifted as soon as possible.
The media and politicians of all parties are very confused by class. In a common-sense world where words mean what they are meant to, middle would mean half way between top and bottom. That puts someone middle class on about £21,000 a year. Indeed this is what US politicians mean by middle class – the great mass of working joes and joannas who are not poor but earn well short of what we would call the professional middle classes.
But if those earning more than £150,000 a year pay less tax, then those in the middle will have to pay more for any given level of public spending. So I don’t see how this is possibly a policy to appeal to the middle classes – however defined.
Labour often seems stuck in narratives of the past that do not make sense today. After the 1992 general election many thought that John Smith’s shadow budget was egalitarian but alienated middle earners by putting a “cap on aspirations” by defining those asked to pay more as earning what those in the (real) middle could aspire to earn.
But that was at an income in those days of less than £30,000. Even allowing for inflation and income growth, that is still nowhere near £150,000.
That was an important and difficult debate for Labour in the run-up to the 1997 election.
But voters’ perception of Labour is now shaped by what they have done in government, not by the experience of either James Callaghan or the party’s ructions in the 1980s.
As we have shown in our Touchstones on the real middle Britain, they remain the great neglected electoral group, doing badly under the Conservatives and standing still at best under Labour.