Why class still matters

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There have been a series of articles in the Guardian over the past week that have made it clear that class is still a very real issue and demands a Liberal Democrat response.

First, John Harris wrote about the impact of right to buy on Tuesday. Then, Felicity Lawrence wrote about the politics behind Jamie Oliver’s new Ministry of Food. Finally, today Jon Henley wrote about smoking, and how people on low incomes remain resistant to attempts to persuade people to kick the habit. It strikes me all these issues are linked.

Taking John Harris first, I don’t share this romantic vision of sprawling 1960s era housing estates draining the coffers of local government (“when I were a lad, this were all sprawling council estate”), but I well recognise the problems of landlordism (*ahem*). What is interesting about Harris’ article is his description of how the positive side of right to buy that was very clear in the mid-90s – where, as he said, you could tell which houses where privately owned and which were council run simply by looking at which ones had the hanging baskets or had been painted relatively recently – has given way to a culture of buy to rent. The nice homes have been sold, their occupants have moved either abroad or to the country, and their homes are being filled with economic migrants. Local people aren’t getting a look in and with no new council houses being built they have extremely limited options. As we have seen in Dagenham, this is fertile ground on which the BNP can build their lies and half-truths.

In student areas, such as Headingley in Leeds where I used to work and Fallowfield in Manchester where I lived as a student, the result has not been ethnic ghettos (although there are plenty of those in Leeds and Manchester) but student ghettos. What these areas have in common is that the toxic mix of right-to-buy and buy-to-let has atomised – or more accurately stratified – local communities. Our cities have curdled like milk, with the rich clumping together in gated communities. Council housing won’t solve that problem by itself (indeed it pre-existed council housing, albeit not to this extreme), because the problem with that is rooted in our exaggerated land values which we allow people to speculate on not because of who owns the property.

Buying back properties owned solely for investment purposes and building on land with inflated values is a very expensive way of levelling the playing field, but with no senior politician prepared to look seriously at taxing land values (nice to see Polly Toynbee on board with that particular issue), it may be the only thing we can do. Meanwhile the cost of housing will continue to price our own workforce out of a job and favour economic migrants willing to spend a couple of years sleeping on floors in the UK in order to better their families’ lot. You can’t blame them, but there is little to be gained from expanding our own underclass.

Jamie Oliver’s programme dealt with fundamentally the same problem but from a different angle. Instead of housing, his concern is – not surprisingly – food. Oliver has an agenda to get Britain eating more healthily. In 2005 he set out to transform school dinners successfully (although it should be pointed out that Lib-Lab controlled Scotland was way ahead of him), although this in turn lead to a backlash. That backlash lead him to ringleader Julie Critchlow and the town she lives in – Rotherham.

In order to get Rotherham eating more healthily, Oliver’s plan is simple – teach eight “can’t cook, won’t cook” local residents the basics of cooking but on the strict understanding that they will undertake to pass the recipes they learn on to two of their friends, who are then to pass the recipes on to another two and so on, until the whole of Rotherham is cooking. If that sounds like a nice idea in theory that doesn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of succeeding, on the basis of the first programme you are correct. By the end of the first episode (I’m blogging instead of watching part two), even the most enthusiastic of his eight trainees are flagging.

Oliver’s mistake is hardly unique. It is the problem common to anyone who is convinced that policy makers need only concern themselves with equality of opportunity and “meritocracy” as opposed to outcomes. The theory goes that if you give people the right training and opportunities, they will run with it – unless they are lazy and feckless and not worth bothering with. At several points in the programme, you can see Oliver wrestle with that idea. To his credit, he is prepared to try to understand, but watching him listen to explain why, at the end of a long day at work, they lack the energy to leap in the kitchen and rustle up a meal, you can see it really grates against his whole outlook on life. Thatcher has a lot to answer for.

As is the nature of such “reality” television programmes, they have cherry-picked some pretty extreme examples of individuals who can’t cook, including an unemployed mother of two who feeds her kids kebabs on the floor every evening and has never so much as boiled an egg in her life despite having a fitted kitchen. What is clear though is that the problem is more than simply educational; as Oliver acknowledges but perhaps does not internalise, the problem is actually cultural and deeply ingrained. That won’t be solved by a few cooking lessons.

It isn’t to say his initiative is a wasted exercise (although if he really does want to get millions of people cooking he should probably consider producing a 99p version of his £25 book), just that it can only scratch the surface.

This is reinforced by Jon Henley’s article. Independently, I drew remarkably similar conclusions to Darrell G on Moments of Clarity. We appear to have come up with an anti-smoking policy that has proven to be remarkably effective at stopping you smoking – so long has you happen to be well educated, well housed and on a good income. If you are from a lower socio-economic background all it appears to be doing is eating up a bigger slice of your income and leaving you even more addicted. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

“One of the things that means, says Jarvis, “is that if you’re a poor smoker you’re going to want to maximise the ‘hit’ you get from each cigarette, because it represents a larger chunk of your income. The amount of nicotine you can get from each cigarette is very elastic; it depends how hard you puff, how deeply you inhale, how much of the cigarette you smoke.” Across all age groups, and even if they smoke the same number of cigarettes, poorer smokers take in markedly more nicotine that wealthier ones. “Smokers in lower socio-economic groups,” says Jarvis, “are addicted to a higher hit. Their nicotine addiction is stronger.

I have to admit, that gave me a “what the fuck are we doing?” moment. Sheesh – maybe John Reid was right. Unlike Jon Henley, I’m less than sanguine about the progress we’ve made in reducing smoking because it seems to have increased inequality. This is skirting dangerously close to Morlock / Eloi territory.

But it is also silly to say that we should never have made smoking a public health issue and settled for a less healthy but more “equal” society. And the theory advanced by some libertarians that any political party that became pro-smoking would instantly become massively popular is pie in the sky as well and not backed up by any evidence. It isn’t that poor people want to smoke; its that they live tough lives that make them prone to dependency. It is the same underlying problem that Jamie Oliver identifies. It’s about quality of life, but fundamentally it is about economics.

Most studies I’ve seen suggest that social mobility is now going in reverse after a half-century of progress. If that is the case, and our society is becoming rigidly stratified once again, then despite the “classless society” platitudes of the 1990s, it is time we started talking about class. In this respect, I pay credit to Nick Clegg for forcing the agenda on the pupil premium. We need more of that sort of approach.

6 thoughts on “Why class still matters

  1. Since I have already been described by a lovely anonymous commentor as “mad as a box of frogs” for my pathological openness on my own blog tonight, I might as well continue spilling inappropriate amounts of confessions about my life on the internet *sigh*

    I am on a low income and live in a low income area. I am horribly addicted to nicotine and spend more than is wise of my available cash on cigarettes and yes, in the chip shop. I also forgo my trips to the gym more times than I don’t, in favour of sitting in front of Sky TV. Fact is, when life is miserable, there’s an all-pervading sense of can’t-be-arsed that overrides all my well-educated and well-meaning instincts to cook properly, look after myself, and not poison my lungs. It’s my little slice of the instant gratification that everybody wants and seems to feel entitled to have, and harmful or not it comforts me. I don’t know what the answer is. I have no idea at all what would convince me to live permanently in the good habits I flirt with from time to time – given that I already know how much healthier and happier I am when I make the effort to cook a decent meal every night, exercise regularly, and quit smoking, why don’t I stick to it? I’m as mystified as Jamie Oliver, and I give every appearance of being one of ‘them’.

  2. “It is the problem common to anyone who is convinced that policy makers need only concern themselves with equality of opportunity and “meritocracy” as opposed to outcomes. The theory goes that if you give people the right training and opportunities, they will run with it – unless they are lazy and feckless and not worth bothering with.”

    And what precisely is wrong with this? You can’t – and must not – give everyone the same regardless of effort. So long as everyone has the same opportunities, it is up to them to make the best use of it. There is no excuse for not doing what you can to improve your life, whether that be cooking rather than buying kebabs every day or extra training. If I work but they can’t be arsed, they shouldn’t get the same amount of income as I do. Equality of outcomes means that it is rationally in everyone’s interest to do as little as possible, since you all get the same no matter what.

    If they are tired “at the end of a long day at work [and] lack the energy to leap in the kitchen and rustle up a meal,” what do they think everyone else does? Everyone is tired after the working day. It’s certainly no excuse to not cook every single day of the week.

    Certainly when it comes to cooking or not cooking it has bugger-all to do with “class” and everything to do with laziness.

  3. I think Clegg said something admirable when he admitted to still smoking the occasional cigarette (presumably in the Blackadder sense). Namely that it was occasional. Smoking doesn’t need to be habitual even if the nicotine is addictive.

  4. “And the theory advanced by some libertarians that any political party that became pro-smoking would instantly become massively popular is pie in the sky as well and not backed up by any evidence.”

    Which libertarian advances this view?

    Can you name one?

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