The fabulous new book, The Class Ceiling makes the reality plain. Even when children from working class families break barriers in childhood and education, and struggle through to get the same jobs as their middle class peers, there is still a penalty.
On average, that penalty is £6,400 a year, or 16% of annual pay, and as we know, class isn’t separate from gender or race, far from it. Working-class women earn £19,000 a year less than middle-class men in the same jobs, and BAME working-class women face the biggest penalty of all. Even when you compare people with the same degrees from the same universities, there is a class pay penalty of £5,000 every single year.
As this shows, what your parents did for a living still makes a huge difference to your life chances. Class inequality is deeply ingrained in our society, and I believe it remains a burning, vital issue of social justice.
We are the party of equality and social justice. We are the party of working people; the working class. We know that at our core. It cannot be clearer that class inequality and class discrimination must be part of our living political agenda.
We live in a deeply divided country, and these divisions were exposed, for many of us so, so painfully, by the recent referendum.
When the brutal Brexit debacle finally ends, our communities will be seeking the sunny uplands they were promised. People are rightly going to be looking for an agenda that fixes the problems many voted to solve and we need to find solutions that unify across that division. There will be fertile ground for our narrative: rebuilding Britain so it truly works for the many - by tackling inequalities, including class, and working to end poverty.
Simply recognising the importance and urgency of articulating a Labour class agenda does not mean that solving the issues of class inequality will be simple.
Usually we can easily agree on what being the party of the working class means; it’s when we campaign against child poverty and zero hours contracts, when we fight for unionisation, a living wage, high-quality state education and healthcare. When we fight for a social security system that expresses, spreads, and guarantees for all the solidarity that is a real, living part of the history of working class communities.
But sometimes it’s hard. We fought for access to learning and the professions, for the right for the children of working people to seek higher education. Millions of working class people, like me and my sister, took those opportunities, although despite our efforts access has remained hugely biased towards the middle class and privately educated.
From the 1920s to the 1970s, we made social housing a reality for the many. The Tories used that asset as an opportunity. With Right to Buy, they’ve turned the promise of homes for all, a permanent universal social service, into housing wealth for one generation at the expense of the future.
We created millions of good public sector jobs, with pay, conditions and progression previously reserved for the middle class. Arguably, this lead to the only enduring burst of absolute upward social mobility our country has ever seen.
Some of our past achievements have been corrupted by Tory administrations and Tory ideas, but even when we’ve had successes that have dramatically improved the lives of the many, we’ve helped to create social change that has altered the story of class in our country.
Many children of working class parents, and their children in turn, now own a home, have a degree, or work in a job where they have control, opportunities, and earning power. It is now entirely misleading to think of working class people primarily in terms of the factory floors where both my parents worked.
Nowadays working class people are more likely to be care or call centre workers than in manufacturing. But, as the class pay gap shows, it is equally misleading to pretend that class isn’t about the work we do or where that puts us within the economy and society.
It is overwhelmingly working class people, not those from middle class backgrounds, who are vulnerable to poverty and homelessness, stuck in precarious work with little opportunity to grow or progress, and unrepresented in our institutions.
The working/middle class divide still matters in policy terms as well. When we think about designing public services, for example. We have to ensure that they don’t just serve those with the sharpest elbows. We have to remember that this was the fate that, in some places at least, befell much of the wonderful Sure Start provision, even before austerity slashed it.
The same will apply as we move towards public ownership of the utilities. We need to make sure we get rid of the poverty premium at the same time we cut out the profiteers, and that means designing services that are responsive to those with the greatest needs, not just those with the most insistent voices.
These messy realities of class are sometimes uncomfortable for us to recognise. We have to face them, but we can’t get bogged down. Because there’s another class distinction, one that is more important now than it’s been since our party first came to power almost a century ago.
This distinction unites all of us in our movement. In many ways, it’s the driving force of so much of our narrative and policy agenda now, from our commitment to end austerity without raising taxes except on the top 5%, to our emphasis on tackling tax avoidance, dirty money in the City of London, and profiteering from exploitative and socially destructive business practices.
I’m talking about the gaping chasm between the rest of us and those at the very top. Those who take a vastly outsized share of the benefits of economic growth. Those who simply have no connection with the rest of us because they don’t go to our schools, use our NHS, live in our communities. Those whose fortunes are so strongly tied to those of capital. The few.
Both ways of understanding class have power within our movement, and both capture part of the social injustice that afflicts our society and our world today. A true Labour class agenda, the agenda we need to unite our country after Brexit, will include both.