Social class matters

Dr Laura Kilby (Sheffield Hallam University) sees parallels between Angela Rayner, her own life, and higher education.

As one of very few senior politicians from a working-class background, and a woman to boot, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner is often on the receiving end of sexism and misogyny. Enmeshed with sexist abuse is a striking level of class-based hostility, recognised by Rayner herself, who has said the recent Mail on Sunday article ‘wasn’t just about me as a woman, it was also steeped in classism and about where I come from, where I grew up’. 

Rayner repeatedly deals with abuse on social media, questioning her intellectual capability and calling her ‘thick’. Such attacks are seemingly triggered by her northern accent, which is taken as a proxy of her working-class roots. The abuse is further exacerbated by her determination to challenge class-based prejudice and display pride in her background. This focus on accent will come as no surprise to sociolinguists who have long-studied relationships between so-termed working-class accents and forms of discrimination.  

Rayner’s experience is, sadly, an excellent example not only of how class-based prejudice is alive and well, but also how it intersects with class and gender. Of course, there are similar intersections with class and race, and a range of other protected characteristics. Until we address the way that class-based privilege shapes – and constrains – our political elite, we are unlikely to be able to address the many other contexts in which class-based identity both limits and divides members of our society.  

A disavowed concern

Social class has become an increasingly disavowed concern in most areas of social life. The denial of social class – be that a denial that it exists at all, or denial that it has any impact or relevance in a person’s life – is routinely grounded in discourses of meritocracy and enmeshed within narrow ideals of democracy. Such discourse trades on arguments which claim that we all have the same opportunities irrespective of class: unfettered access to a good education, free healthcare, social support for those in need, equal workplace opportunities, and all of this is enshrined in legal and political frameworks to protect each one of us, no matter our class. But of course, social class is currently not a legally protected characteristic, and therein lies a problem.  

If we are seeking a generous explanation for why social class is ignored then perhaps it is, at least partly, driven by a collective desire for a fair and equal society where social class is not something we would want to influence our judgements or decisions about other people, or indeed about ourselves. It’s a misguided idea that all we have to do is believe social class doesn’t exist to make it go away. We only need look at the continuing story of racism endemic in our society to realise that simply denying a thing exists, or claiming we are ‘blind’ to it, is not only unhelpful, but also part of the problem.

When it comes to particular contexts where we should pay more attention to class, we need to start at the very top of our social hierarchies and begin with our political institutions. The argument that social class doesn’t exist (or doesn’t matter), immediately begins to ring hollow when we look at the class-based identities of those individuals, and collectives who dominate in our most elite positions of privilege and power. 

Beyond politics, we also need to look at education, healthcare, the justice system. Regarding education, it’s not only about Higher Education: we also need to address the impact of social class from children’s early years education onwards. For so many young people from working class backgrounds, higher education will remain out of reach unless we tackle class-based discrimination throughout their formative experiences. From as young as 4, when I started school, I remember being labelled as ‘free school meals’. I remember asking what it meant and being told it was for children who didn’t have a dad at home and didn’t have any money. Whilst that might have been factually correct, as I got older, I also realised that being labelled ‘free school meals’ created a whole host of other assumptions – about my intellectual ability, my moral values, and my home life. As a result, my meals might have been free, but dinner was about the only thing that I got from school. Just like Angela Rayner, I left school at 16. I didn’t believe in education and education didn’t believe in me.

Higher education

I believe universities have a particular responsibility to recognise the challenges that many students from working class backgrounds have already overcome to reach university. They then need to fully consider how they will ensure that universities are places of social inclusion and that value class-based diversity and support their students in adjusting to university life.

Recent years have seen a drive in HE through widening participation programmes to increase the numbers of students from more diverse backgrounds, including those from lower SES groups. But there is a long way to go in order to really understand the needs of students from working class backgrounds. For example, the first time I went to a university I was a mature student, and my main fear was what would happen when I first went on campus. It took me a week to get over the shock that I could just walk into buildings, and nobody asked what I was doing there. I honestly still find it amazing – and brilliant – that university campuses are open spaces. Forget the intellectual challenges, the biggest early hurdles for me were trying to figure out where I fit in. This is one of the reasons I now research student experiences of ‘imposterism’ and locate that experience in its social context rather than something grounded in the individual. The truth is, if you are a student, or an academic from a working-class background, in many respects, you are an imposter. We need to recognise that and change the culture that makes it so. 

Personal and collective identity

Fundamentally, social class is an issue of both personal and collective identity. When we treat social class as inconsequential, we are telling people that they are inconsequential. We are telling them that a big part of what connects them to their families, their background, their childhood, and their culture is inconsequential. To say that social class matters is not to deny people opportunities for social mobility or insist that social class is immutable. Quite the opposite, if we are to enable social mobility, for those who seek it, we must first acknowledge the class-based positions that people want to mobilise from and recognise the barriers that prevent social mobility. 

We also need to recognise that social class is about much more than changes in a person’s wealth, or measures of SES. Identity is complicated, and for some who would be considered as having ‘come from a working-class background’, a term which already implies an upward direction of travel, there is often a tension here. It is perfectly possible to want to retain your so-termed working class values, roots and culture – and, like Angela Rayner, your accent – whilst refusing to be kept in professional or educational boxes traditionally reserved for the working classes by the elite. It is also possible to desire and achieve material wealth and still identify as working class. So much about social class, especially working-class identity, is to be celebrated, not ignored. The problem we have isn’t necessarily with class itself, it’s the way social class gets used as a marker of societal worth.  

Having social class recognised as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act would represent a crucial shift away from a culture of denial that social class exists. Until social class is recognised as a protected characteristic, it will remain almost impossible to tackle class-based discrimination in all walks of life including the workplace and in education. Moreover, social class intersects with many of the existing protected characteristics. Recognising social class will enable more nuanced considerations of how forms of prejudice and discrimination are multi-layered and intersecting. If we are serious about the pursuit of equality and fairness for all, it is essential that social class is recognised as a protected characteristic. 

-        The British Psychological Society’s policy theme for 2022 is ‘tackling class-based inequality’. There is an online event on 20 May

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