The revolt of the 'squeezed middle': why new cross-society coalitions in British politics are now possible.

Author:Antonucci, Lorenza
Position:SOCIETY AND POLITICS IN 2017

Two--somewhat contradictory--trends have characterised British politics after Brexit. The result of the referendum vote sparked the resurgence of class analysis and a renewed interest in working-class politics. After the surprisingly positive performance of Jeremy Corbyn in the June 2017 general election, public attention has turned to a new category of voters who appear crucial for progressive politics: young people and, in particular, students.

Often portrayed as obnoxious and superficial (see the Channel 4 documentary The Secret Life of Students), in recent years students have been very receptive to progressive proposals and have become the mobilising political force behind Corbynism and Momentum. In an unexpected twist, the Conservative Party has started to court the youth vote and look for student-friendly policies, witnessed in Theresa May's recent pledges to freeze tuition fees at [pounds sterling]9,250 and revise pay-back criteria for student loans. May's proposals are obviously a very modest response to the idea of removing loans altogether. It is telling, however, that in less than a year the Conservatives' priorities have shifted from winning back working-class support after the apparently 'anti-elite' protest vote of Brexit to re-engaging comparatively well-educated young voters.

According to the common narrative that emerged after Brexit, these groups of people--working-class communities and young students--could not be more different. A polarised view of society has emerged since the referendum, which understands Brexit as an anti-Establishment backlash by working-class communities who have been 'globalisation losers'. The experiences of these communities, according to this narrative, are in direct opposition to those of educated young people at university--the 'globalisation winners'--who mostly backed Remain. The Brexit vote has been interpreted largely as a resurgence of traditional class politics, in a U-turn from the post-class vision of society put forward by New Labour. The result of the 2017 general election added a layer of complication to this narrative. The many students in UK higher education (the 'product' of New Labour's strategy to expand higher education) have in fact shown more support for Corbyn's progressive manifesto than disenfranchised working-class voters. Those who are familiar with student politics were hardly surprised by this. In recent years, students have been at the forefront of anti-austerity movements around Europe, and the student protests of 2010 mobilised thousands across the UK. Since then, the dramatic increase of fees and withdrawal of funding grants have catalysed pre-existing discontent, ripening this group for political engagement by the Left.

The opposition between Brexit voters and students, moreover, is largely superficial. In order to capture the Zeitgeist of British politics, we need to look beyond identity debates over globalisation 'winners' and 'losers' and instead focus on people's material conditions. Brexit voters and students in fact share a common trait: a diminishing of material conditions and enhanced precarity emblematic of a 'squeezed middle'. Significant sections of the British population are now victims of the mismatch between the assumptions of established political strategies and their everyday lives.

In order to explain--and resolve--the apparent contradictions between the 'left-behind' working class and the student precariat, I will provide a new narrative, which unfolds in three acts. The first concerns Brexit and who voted for it. The second explores the material reasons behind the student politics that emerged during the general election. The third contains some ideas on how to bridge the dislocation between elite-level policies and the lives of ordinary people, focusing on two areas that are at the heart of post-New Labour policymaking, namely the labour market and higher education.

First act, Brexit: the uneducated left-behind vs. the educated middle-class?

In the aftermath of the UK's referendum on its membership of the EU, there have been repeated attempts to clarify who Leave voters actually were. Brexit has been interpreted as symbolic of an epochal shift towards anti-establishment politics. Indeed, initial interpretations of the Brexit vote depicted Leave voters as marginalised segments--in educational and economic terms--of society, who channelled their dislocation through the referendum. (1) The popular view remains that Brexit was the unified response of a specific social class, namely the working class, which finally found a voice. (2)

A deeper look at who voted for Brexit suggests that evidence for this view is less clear-cut than originally assumed. Swales's rigorous analysis shows that the profile of the Brexit voter is far more heterogeneous than initially thought, and much more diverse than the conventional image of the 'left behind' working class. As well as people with little education and status, the Leave vote also comprised an element with high educational histories and solidly 'middle-class' jobs. (3) Indeed, the popularity of Brexit among middle-class communities has begun to receive popular press attention. (4) How can we make sense of this apparent contradiction?

Certainly, there are profound socioeconomic processes associated with Brexit, in particular in relation to the effect of austerity. (5) Unconvinced by the straightforward dichotomies used until now to explain Brexit, we ran a new study that highlighted the significance to Brexit of an 'intermediate class', whose experiences actually more closely resemble those of 'ordinary Brits'. (6) This class enjoys intermediate/upper-intermediate levels of education, stable jobs and median levels of income. However, its earning power and social position is rapidly declining, and its members face an increasing challenge in maintaining their lifestyle. In her analysis of Trumpism, Joan Williams has stressed that debates around working-class populism take as their focus what is actually an impoverished middle class, rather than the lowest strata of the poor and the left behind. (7) So too we must understand this intermediary sociological grouping if we are to comprehend contemporary British politics.

The idea of a 'squeezed middle' is highly useful...

To continue reading

Request your trial