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Interview: Claire Ainsley – speaking up for the new working class

A new book by the executive director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Claire Ainsley (pictured), warns that changes to Britain’s economy over the last 40 years have created a new working class, who cannot be ignored by Westminster.

New Start spoke to Claire about her book, The new working class and why national politicians need to pay attention to the millions of neglected lower and middle-income voters if they want to form the next government.

What does the working class look like in 2018?

The new working class that I’m describing in this book is different to the traditional working class. When politicians talk about working class voters, which is not very often, they are talking about the traditional working class, which is a small part of the population, these days. The new working class is a much bigger group. It is people who are low and middle incomes, but the jobs they do are very different. They might be in the service sector, retail and hospitality. It’s essentially people living below medium incomes.

What are the big issues that this new working class are facing?

I looked at data around what their concerns are, using the British Social Attitudes Survey. Their top concern is money or debt. Their second concern is health. The third is immigration and following that care and responsibilities, work and housing.

Is there a disconnect between the new working class and mainstream politicians?

Absolutely! The motivation for writing the book was a sense that politicians of all political parties have not really listened well enough to these voters, who are on low and middle incomes. The book sends a message to them that part of democracy is that they should be representing citizens more equitably, and if they keep failing to listen to them, there’s no guarantee that they will win their votes over the long term.

What can politicians do then to bridge this divide and reconnect with these voters?

The main message from the book is that politicians must listen to what voters actually think, rather than interpret what these voters think through their own world views. For example, immigration is one of the issues that voters raise, but it’s not the only issue. The message from the book is to come up with policies and programme that address voters’ core issues. In the book, I put forward a framework for policy that is based on their values. The values that came top for these voters were fairness, family, hard work and decency. So I grouped policy suggestions around each of these areas.

What were the key policies you flagged up in the book?

For families I suggested putting family stability at the heart of a policy programme. I recommended a significant increase in the funding we put into our healthcare, moving over time to a tax for healthcare. On hard work, I suggested good work should be the goal of the industrial, and there should be much greater economic and political devolution into the regions of England, Wales and Scotland.

How important is it to devolve more powers to regional areas?

Devolution in itself will not reconnect voters to democracy. If there are more powers devolved then these areas need to make sure they are including, connecting and listening to voters. I do think one of the major issues is the imbalance between London and South East’s economy and the rest of the country. One of the main recommendations is to have new jobs and growth deal, which will allow powers to be devolved to generate opportiunies evenly spread around the country.

How important is it to address the growing skills shortage in this country?

Skills is one of the main areas in the book, both in terms of education and also adapting adult skills once people end work, and also reskilling people when they have to move jobs. The idea of a job for life is pretty rare now. To meet the challenges of automation and to enable people who will be at a disadvantage in moving jobs, there needs to be a greater focus on adult skills for workers in their 40s and 50s. Part of the point I make in the book is there is so much focus on higher education these days, but less of a focus on adult learning.

How confident are you that issues like this can be addressed by people in Westminster?

The book is an attempt to gain attention for these issues. They are just not issues that can just be sorted out in Westminster. They are for local and regional governments. But having said that, if Westminster does not pay more attention to these issues, people are going to feel further and further away from what our politics and our democracy looks like. The book is designed to be a wake-up call to politicians to say they need to be listening to the concerns of these voters.

How hopeful are you that a lot of these issues will be addressed?

I think it’s essential for democracy. I think it will be very difficult for Labour to gain a parliamentary majority unless it is seen tackling these issues. Equally, the Conservatives unless they win over the voters of the new working class, it will be more difficult for them to form a majority. The book aims to set out a positive way forward, as opposed to some of the more backward-looking approaches we’ve seen in the response in the vote to leave the EU.

The new working class: How to win hearts, minds and votes by Claire Ainsley is available now from Policy Press.

Jamie Hailstone
Senior reporter - NewStart

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