Poverty, politics and a new kind of class war?

Poverty, politics and a new kind of class war?

Tracy Shildrick

Over recent years poverty has re-emerged as a political and popular topic of conversation in the UK. This is, in part, due to the dramatic rise in the use of food banks and the emergence of so called ‘poverty porn’ exemplified by TV programs such as Benefit Street and the public debate and controversy that these developments have provoked. As the numbers of people experiencing poverty increase, as a deliberate consequence of punitive policies and the impact of austerity measures, stigmatisation of those experiencing poverty or in receipt of welfare has also increased. Critical work is being done by those with political power to manipulate and frame the terms of the discussion, particularly around poverty and economic insecurity. Poverty and welfare receipt are now almost universally presented as social problems that are self-inflicted. At the same time opportunities for decent livelihoods are being progressively dismantled, eroded and in some cases completely decimated. What is going on in this context? How have these excesses and injustices come to pass?

That more people experiencing poverty are in jobs, that worker rights and union powers are being further eroded and that ‘poor work’ and labour market churning is rapidly becoming the norm for many, is cleverly concealed behind a discourse of ‘fairness’ or popular and easily digested sound bites. This can be seen in examples like the Conservatives current favourite slogan, the ‘party for the worker’ (from Cameron in 2014) who argue that they are committed to ‘fighting burning injustices’ (May in 2016). Whilst attitudes towards poverty and the welfare state tend to be heavily influenced by easy sound bites and simplistic and stigmatising narratives, the recent vote to leave the European Union appears to have revealed a number of less straightforward  insights into these issues.

Poverty and economic insecurity has emerged as at least one of the key issues in light of the recent vote by the UK to leave the European Union. Evidence suggests that for some groups the anger and frustration at being locked-out of the benefits of capitalism, went at least some way to provoke the response offered via votes to leave. Voter turnout in the referendum was untypically high. 72.2% of the general population turned out to vote compared with 66.1% in the 2015 general election. Turn out in general elections has typically been around this level in recent years but slipped as low as 59.4% in 2001. It is generally accepted that the UK voting public are to some degree politically apathetic about the choice of parties on election day and many report that they see little point in voting as politics has little to offer them or that they see little difference between the main parties on offer. The EU vote clearly captured the UK population’s political imagination in a way that recent general election politics has not. It not only spurred people to get out and vote but stirred up more emphatic political passions on both sides, the like of which the country had not seen for a very long time (or at least, not since that of the Scottish referendum vote on independence in 2014).

The vote to leave the EU was likely the result of a complex interplay of factors and issues that will only be better understood in the fullness of time and with necessary research. One of my own studies – conducted before the referendum was on the agenda – revealed some relevant and interesting insights into people’s views on politics more generally. In a study conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we included a brief question on politics as part of a wider discussion about interviewees’ lives and attitudes to employment and welfare. Generally, our interviewees responded to this question by claiming not to be interested in politics. In many respects their immediate responses directly mirrored the sorts of political disaffection narratives that have been often repeated as a way of explaining increasing numbers of voters’ tendency to stay away from the ballot box. Yet, interestingly these responses were often followed with – sometimes very strong – opinions around issues such as, for example, welfare reform and MP’s expenses.

Some of our older interviewees expressed both resignation and sometimes anger at the declining employment opportunities they had witnessed in their local areas. Many older interviewees pointed to the Thatcher government as a critical period when they began to see changes for the worse. Many were able to point to the qualitative decline in wages in, for example, the steel works where previously well-paid jobs had been reduced to ones that paid the minimum wage. The decline of working conditions in respect of the steel industry on Teesside (the steel works were subsequently closed) was writ large on the lives of many of our interviewees. Many had also been on the receiving end of welfare reforms. The stress, anxiety, untold worry and the very real hardship that these changes to welfare brought engendered feelings of anger as well as disempowerment. Many knew they were being treated unfairly and unjustly.

That our interviewees also often experienced worsening health as a result of the stress and reductions in their (already small) incomes meant their ability to challenge decisions – that quite often they struggled to understand – was severely limited. But this did not mean that they were unable to recognize that they were being treated harshly or unfairly. They were frequently vocal about their intense feelings regarding the social injustice of changes to their communities. In June 2016 the United Nations ruled that UK welfare reforms and austerity measures were in breach of international human rights. Our interviewees were not casual observers of the social changes wrought by these reforms. These had significantly impacted working class life opportunities where our research participants lived and they felt the sharp end of these transformations.

It should be of little surprise that interviewees’ grasp of history and economic policy was often razor sharp in its accuracy and astuteness. For some, the perceived behavior of members of parliament, in respect of MP’s expenses or simply MP’s distance (in every sense of the word) from their own lives and experiences produced strong feelings of anger and resentment. Our interviewees were disaffected and often angry at what mainstream politics had to offer, citing examples of policies that had negatively impacted on their lives and opportunities. One young woman talked about the withdrawal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance as being a direct withdrawal of support that could help people move forwards with their lives. The sense of anger in much of this commentary was palpable. Our interviewees were not disengaged or uninterested in political issues. In fact many were deeply affected by political actions and policies and had much to say about their impacts. An acute sense of injustice and unfairness featured prominently in these narratives.

Whether it was exactly this sort of anger that manifested itself in the vote to leave the EU is too early to say, but early evidence would suggest feelings of being left behind or locked out of prosperity have some place in the puzzle that made-up the decision for many to vote in favour of leaving. There is clearly an urgent need for more research to unravel the nature of the relationship between economic change and the class-enmity of recent decades of policymaking from the centre. For some at least, the vote was one for change, was underpinned by a deep dissatisfaction with both contemporary politics and the lived realities of deepening structural inequality. The vote to leave the EU may have been momentous but the animosity and anger behind it might in the fullness of time prove to be even more so.


Tracy Shildrick is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds, UK.