The UK's most working-class government
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The UK's most working-class government

Britain's Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer chairs his first cabinet meeting on Saturday. (Photo: Reuters)
Britain's Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer chairs his first cabinet meeting on Saturday. (Photo: Reuters)

The United Kingdom has a new Labour government whose class composition are radically different from previous ones. According to our analysis of Labour's shadow cabinet, some 46% of Keir Starmer's cabinet members were raised by parents with "working class" occupations. That figure is well above average in terms of the broader working population, and it stands in stark contrast to the 7% who were of working-class origin in the last Conservative cabinet.

Similarly, while 69% of former prime minister Rishi Sunak's Conservative government was privately educated at some point, the figure for Mr Starmer's cabinet is 17%. That is significantly lower even than previous Labour cabinets. Some 32% of Tony Blair's first cabinet was privately educated, compared to 35% under Harold Wilson and 25% under Clement Attlee. Nationwide, around 10% of the UK's population has been privately educated at some point.

Mr Starmer himself personifies this shift. The son of a toolmaker, he spoke continually of his working-class roots during the campaign. "We were in a position on occasion where we couldn't pay our bills … so I know how that feels," he explained during his first debate against Mr Sunak.

This changing class profile could have significant political implications. In our new book, Born to Rule: The Making and Remaking of the British Elite, we draw on a survey of more than 3,000 people in Who's Who (Britain's longstanding catalogue of "noteworthy and influential people") to show that British elites from working-class backgrounds tend to tilt to the left politically and socially. They are more likely to favour increasing taxes on the rich, to emphasise reducing poverty, and to think Britain is a racist country.

Class origins do not only affect latent attitudes. We analysed every decision ever made by the UK Supreme Court and found that rulings by judges with upper-class backgrounds tended to favour the right (such as by limiting the power of the state or supporting big business). This residual influence of family origin may be even more acute among politicians. Our interviews with Labour MPs from working-class backgrounds revealed that their political identities were strongly rooted in their early experiences and the influence of left-leaning parents, grandparents, and local communities.

There are already some signs that the class composition of Mr Starmer's government will affect its policymaking. For example, the new prime minister has maintained a steely commitment to increasing taxes on private schools and abolishing the "non-dom" tax exemption (for people who live in the UK, but declare a permanent residence in another country). Both are issues that Labour governments failed to address in the past.

But this is not to suggest that the new government will be unleashing a class war. While politicians change frequently, most elites stick around for considerably longer. To get anything done, Mr Starmer and other key working-class Labour figures -- like Deputy PM Angela Rayner and new Health Secretary Wes Streeting -- will have to work with elites in the civil service, the business world, and beyond who do not share their class origins.

In fact, our research shows that over the past century, those from privileged backgrounds have remained vastly overrepresented among this wider British elite -- namely, those included in Who's Who. Since the 1890s, if you hailed from the top 1% of the wealth distribution, you were 20 times more likely than others your age to reach the British elite.

Even with the notable decline in their relative power, alumni from the country's nine most elite private schools -- the group of Clarendon Schools that includes Eton, Harrow, and Winchester -- are still 52 times more likely to reach the British elite than those who attend any other type of school. This high degree of class reproduction matters because elites from more privileged backgrounds also bring with them a rightward-tilting politics shaped by their life experiences.

Labour has long wrestled with this tension. Mr Blair eagerly sought Rupert Murdoch's endorsement, and Mr Starmer has worked hard to garner support from Britain's business leaders. He has placed great emphasis on endorsement letters signed by executives and even trotted out a billionaire who formerly donated to the Conservative Party.

It is worth noting that the corporate executives in our data are far more likely to be economically and culturally conservative -- favouring lower taxes and less public investment and espousing more reactionary views on race and the legacy of colonialism. The price of winning over this corporate elite, therefore, could be a change of direction on some issues.

Moreover, some within Labour's ranks are already sympathetic to Britain's corporate elite, not least because they are wealthy themselves. Class origins may shape political commitments, but they do so in the context of current wealth. Our data reveal that elites from working-class backgrounds who go on to become wealthy tend to be more conservative than elites from the same class origin who have amassed fewer assets.

Though we do not have detailed data on the economic circumstances of the new cabinet members, we do know that many had successful careers before entering politics. Few came up through the trade union movement or spent much time in working-class jobs. Professional, well-paid careers mingled with working-class backgrounds tend to produce a somewhat unpredictable combination that could manifest itself in capricious ways.

Many Labour politicians may retain a latent desire to tackle class inequality, as our results suggest. But these MPs will be torn between a longstanding sense of injustice inculcated through their family life, their very real economic advantages today, and the wider political context in which they are operating. Whatever Labour's leading figures might personally feel, they could end up suppressing the influence of their working-class roots. As Labour returns to power after almost 15 years in the wilderness, class will certainly matter, even if there is no class war. ©2024 Project Syndicate

Aaron Reeves is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Oxford. Sam Friedman is Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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