New Labour’s record on ‘class’

(1) A problem we often face as researchers is to cope with an overwhelming amount of information on different measures of different types of inequality.  As I posted earlier in the week, we need high-quality statistics – but we also need to try and turn this into a coherent narrative, which is often much harder.  With this in mind, I thought I’d share an idea of how not to drown in numbers when evaluating inequality in Britain, using ideas from perhaps the most significant British sociologist of his generation, John Goldthorpe.

In a recent article, Goldthorpe considers the book ‘Towards a More Equal Society?’ (TAMES) – a book by many of my colleagues here at LSE on the UK Labour government’s record on equality 1997-2007.  As Goldthorpe admits, the book is excellent in most ways; it summarises Labour’s aims, successes and failures across a whole range of areas (from education to migration to income), and is required reading for serious policy commentators.

But according to Goldthorpe, the book fails in linking these different types of inequality to one another.   We see Labour’s record on policies aiming to tackle education inequalities, health inequalities, area-based inequalities; and the redistribution they attempted to tackle income inequalities.  But the sense in which there is something fundamental about the British capitalist system that gives rise to these inequalities – class – is never addressed. Indeed, as Goldthorpe points out, “‘class’ [in TAMES] is understood not as referring to relational structures…but simply as one possible ‘marker’ of inequality that can be used more or less interchangeably with any other.”

Yet Labour’s record on class – and the economic structure of society more generally – are crucial for understanding whether Labour genuinely created a more equal society. Goldthorpe argues that class is more strongly associated with deprivation than any other factor, and the main reason for this is because class is strongly linked to unemployment:

“Thus, as Michael White has put it, a relatively high risk of unemployment would appear ‘inherent to the condition’ of being in the working class, and primarily on account of the employment relations of which working-class positions are defined: i.e. ones that carry no particular expectation of continuity, that can often be terminated fairly easily, and with relatively short periods of notice and small amounts of compensation.”

I feel Goldthorpe is a little over-critical of both TAMES and Labour here; Abigail McKnight’s chapter in TAMES makes clear that one of the Government’s major achievements was in lowering the risk of unemployment, including for disadvantaged groups. But Goldthorpe is surely right that other inequalities are tied into class, and that Labour’s record on employment relations is not impressive – a minimum wage and some greater rights, yes, but “a reversal of the limitations placed on the unions’ liberty to take industrial action was never on the agenda, nor were any other measures that might have increased workers’ capacity to influence the terms of the employment relationship.”

This is not to agree with Goldthorpe that Labour should be judged a failure on this basis. But surely he is right that to avoid getting lost in a sea of contradictory figures on inequality, we need to “[recognize] that Britain is a strongly class stratified society and [ask] how far New Labour had engaged in what TH Marshall…referred to as ‘class abatement’.” We’ll come back repeatedly to these issues around theory and the links between different inequalities as the blog develops.


(1) This article was published on Oct 15th, but on Oct 17th I changed the title (from ‘How not to drown in numbers…’), after realising that the title didn’t really tell people what the article is about.  I know this is potentially confusing so I’ll try and make sure I avoid this in future…

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at
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2 Responses to New Labour’s record on ‘class’

  1. Pingback: Why the Welfare State doesn’t matter any more | Inequalities

  2. Pingback: Why evidence-based policy won’t tackle inequalities | Inequalities

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