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Don't expect class warfare from working class ministers

The Labor leader's new cabinet will have more people from working-class backgrounds than any British cabinet to date, and this is sure to influence policy-making

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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Britain will get a new Labor government and its class composition will be radically different from the previous one. According to our analysis of Labour's shadow cabinet, approximately 46% of likely members of Keir Starmer's government were raised by parents who held "working class" jobs. This figure is well above the average proportion of workers in the general population and is in stark contrast to the 7% of outgoing Conservative government members who come from working class backgrounds.

Additionally, in the outgoing Conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, 69% of members attended private schools (at least some of the time), while in the presumed Starmer cabinet the figure is 17. This is much lower than even previous Labor cabinets. About 32% of Tony Blair's first cabinet had completed private schools, and we can compare that with 35% from Harold Wilson's cabinet and 25% of Clement Attlee's ministers. In the UK as a whole, approximately 10% of the population have attended private schools at least once.

Starmer is the personification of this turnaround. As the son of a mechanic, during the election campaign he constantly talked about his working-class roots. "Sometimes we couldn't pay our bills on time... so I know how it is," he explained during the first debate with Sunak.

Changes in the class profile of government can have serious political consequences. In a new book, Born to Rule: The Making and Remaking of the British Elite, we use data from a survey of more than 3.000 people from Who's Who (a long-running British publication featuring the names of "famous and influential people") to show that members working-class British elites tend to lean politically and socially to the left. They are most likely to support higher taxes on the rich, talk about the need to fight poverty and think the UK is a racist country.

Class background does not only affect latent attitudes. We analyzed all the decisions ever made by the UK Supreme Court and found that decisions by judges who came from the upper echelons of society tended to favor the right (for example, limiting the powers of the state or supporting big business). The hidden role of family background for politicians may be even more important. We interviewed Labor MPs who grew up in working-class families and found that the roots of their political identity lie in childhood experiences shaped by left-wing parents, grandparents and neighbours.

Signs that the class composition of Starmer's government will influence its policies are already visible. For example, the future Prime Minister remains firmly committed to the idea of ​​raising taxes on private schools and eliminating tax relief for "non-residents" (that is, people who live in the UK but list another country as their permanent residence). Labor governments in the past have failed to address those two issues.

However, this does not mean that the new government will start a class war. Although politicians change often, the elite stay the same much longer. To get anything done, Starmer and other key working-class Labor figures (such as deputy party leader Angela Rayner and shadow government health secretary Wes Streeting) will have to work with elites in the civil service, business and beyond. , and who may have a different class origin.

In addition, our research shows that during the last century, members of the privileged strata of society were disproportionately represented among the British elite, that is, among those included in Who's Who. Since the 1890s, if you came from the top 1% of the country's wealth distribution, you were 20 times more likely to join the British elite than your peers.

Although the comparative strength of graduates from the country's nine most elite private schools (the Clarendon group of schools, including Eton, Harrow and Winchester) has fallen significantly, they are still 52 times more likely to join Britain's elite than those who went to other schools. This high level of class reproduction is very significant because elites of privileged origin have a tendency towards right-wing politics, shaped by their life experiences.

The Labor Party has been trying to solve this problem for a long time. Blair actively sought the support of Rupert Murdoch, and Starmer spent much of his energy securing the support of British business leaders. He placed great importance on letters of support signed by company executives and even lured a billionaire who had previously donated money to the Conservative Party.

It is worth noting that, according to our data, corporate executives are more likely to be economically and culturally conservative—favoring lower taxes and less public investment, and espousing more reactionary views on race and the legacy of colonialism. The price of gaining the support of this corporate elite, therefore, could be a change of course on a number of issues.

In addition, there are those in Labor who sympathize with the British corporate elite because they are rich people themselves. Class background can influence political affiliation, but this influence also depends on the current level of wealth. Our data show that wealthy working-class elites tend to be more conservative than elites with the same background who have acquired less wealth.

We do not have detailed data on the economic status of the new members of the government, but we know that many of them had successful careers before entering politics. Few of them made their way thanks to work in the trade union movement or a long career as a worker. Well-paid working-class professionals are a combination that can produce highly unpredictable forms.

As our analysis shows, many Labor politicians may have a latent desire to tackle class inequality. However, these MPs will be torn between: a long-standing sense of injustice, which they experienced as children; the real economic advantages they have today; the wider political situation in which they must act. Whatever the feelings of Labor leaders, they may end up suppressing the influence of their working-class background. With Labor returning to power after almost 15 years of oblivion, class will of course be of particular importance even if there is no class war.

A. Reeves is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Oxford;

Sam Friedman is Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024. (translation: NR)

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