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We’re working class and we know it, finds British Attitudes survey

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Reports of the death of class consciousness have been greatly exaggerated according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, says Sadie Robinson
Issue 2371
Mass support for a TUC march against austerity in 2011
Mass support for a TUC march against austerity in 2011 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

We are told that class is outdated and that society has become more individualistic. But the latest British Social Attitudes report contradicts this.

The 30th annual survey says “not a great deal changed” in how people see class between 1984 and 2012. Most people, around 60 percent, describe themselves as working class. That’s the same as in the early 1980s. 

The survey says, “Britain retains an intriguing attachment to a working class identity”. But it’s only intriguing for those who’d swallowed the idea that the working class is smaller or less relevant today.

Around seven in ten people say class has a big impact on opportunities. Again, that’s the same as in the early 1980s.

The researchers say their findings suggest “a need for caution before accepting some of the more sweeping claims relating to individualisation”.

Indeed, they say “the last 30 years have not seen a shift towards a less collectivist Britain”.

A massive 97 percent think it’s the government’s responsibility to provide health care. And 96 percent think the government should provide a decent standard of living for older people.

More than eight in ten said the government should provide decent housing for those who can’t afford it. 


And a 59 percent majority think  that the government should make sure that those out of work have a decent standard of living.

This figure has dropped dramatically from 81 percent in 1985. Interestingly much of the change in attitudes took place under Tony Blair’s New Labour as the party shifted to the right.

“It is notable that there was relatively little change in attitudes towards welfare and redistribution before Labour came to power in 1997,” the survey report says. And “the change of attitude has been most marked among Labour identifiers”.

Much of the mainstream media seized on the long-term trend of hardening attitudes towards welfare as evidence that people back cuts. But just 6 percent back cuts to spending on health, education and social benefits. 

And people were more likely to back extra spending on benefits in 2012 than in 2011— 34 percent compared to 28 percent.

Researchers say this shift is “likely to be driven by austerity and the experience of cuts”.

So 51 percent of people surveyed said unemployment benefits are too high—a drop of 11 percent since 2011. And 47 percent agreed that cutting benefits would damage too many people’s lives, up from 42 percent in 2011.

The report’s authors conclude, “Our findings raise doubts about the claim that inexorable long-term social changes are bringing about an unrelenting movement away from support for welfare or a more equal society.”


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