Is the UK becoming a classless society? Part six of six

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Part Six  Summary  Conclusions and Appendix 


I have presented some statistical data which indicate that that substantial economic and social inequalities exist in contemporary UK society:

  • Personal incomes are unequally distributed.
  • Personal wealth is distributed more unequally than personal incomes.
  • Opportunities for upward social mobility are limited.
  • Relative poverty is widespread.

 On the basis of these data, most (but not all) sociologists would conclude that the UK is a class-divided society which does contain a recognisable upper class.

However, the overall nature of the UK class structure and of the upper class within the class structure have been analysed from differing sociological perspectives. I have outlined these differing perspectives under the following headings:

  • Marxist, Weberian and Functionalist perspectives
  • The Managerial revolution
  • Neo-Marxism and Neo-Weberianism
  • Post- Fordism ,Late Modernity and Post-Modernity
  • The New Right, The Third Way and subsequent political developments
  • The Great British Class Survey
  • Perceptions of the UK Class Structure
  • Well: do you believe him?

Further Watching

Beyond the Spirit Level (Video Lecture by Professor Kate Pickett).

Click here and here for introductory videos on Marx and Marxism: an ideal starting point.

 Click here for an excellent podcast by Dr Pete Woodcock (University of Huddersfield) on Karl Marx.

Click here for a very useful screen cast by Steve Bassett of Park College Sociology Department.

Click here and here for podcasts (11-18 minutes) By Prof David Harvey on The Contradictions of Capitalism. NEW links added October 2017 (Via these links you can find longer, more detailed discussions and lectures by Professor David Harvey).


 Appendix :Some recent analyses of social class and voting behaviour

  The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class (Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, 2017)

Click here for a review  of this book.  July 2019.

The main focus of The New Politics of Class is upon long-term trends in the relationships between social class and voting behaviour from the 1960s to the UK referendum on EU membership in 2016. However, in pursuing this analysis the authors conclude that in their view it is abundantly clearly that social-class divisions are still deeply entrenched in British Society. I cannot do justice to the technicalities of their analysis in this short summary, but among the key conclusions of their research are the following.

  1. Objective class divisions in British society remain very substantial as is indicated by:
  • social class differences in earnings
  • social class differences in labour market security
  • social class differences in health
  • social class differences in educational attainment
  • limited prospects of upward social mobility for working class people.
  1. Whereas both Beck and Pakulski & Waters argued that economic inequalities might continue to exist in the late C20th century, but that such inequalities could not be regarded as class inequalities because of what they perceived to be the declining consciousness of social class, Evans & Tilley argue that class consciousness remains powerful in contemporary Britain. In support of this conclusion they make the following points:
  • British Election Survey data illustrate that in the last 50 years there has been very little change in the proportion of respondents ready to describe themselves as either middle or working class. Thus, around 50% will describe themselves as either working or middle class in unprompted questions, and when prompted as to the possible existence of social classes, approximately 90% of respondents will classify themselves as either working class (approx 60%) or middle class (approx 30%). There has been little change in these percentages in the last 50 years.
  • Also, only approximately 10% of objectively working-class respondents are likely to define themselves as middle class, whereas rather more (approximately 20%) of middle class respondents are likely to define themselves as working class.
  • From the 1960s to 2015, approximately 50% of respondents have agreed that there is bound to be some conflict between different social classes.
  • In 1970, 27% of respondents agreed that class divisions were very wide, 24% agreed that they were fairly wide, 40% said they were not very wide, and 9% said there were no class differences. In 2015 the percentages were 24%, 53%, 21% and 2%.
  • With regard to perceptions of social mobility in 1963, 30% of respondents said that mobility between classes was very difficult, 28% said it was fairly difficult, and 42% said it was not very difficult. In 2015 the comparable percentages were 21%, 52% and 28%. Thus, although the proportion of respondents saying mobility was very difficult had declined, the proportions saying that it was either very difficult or fairly difficult had increased.


  1.   There have been complex theoretical disputes as to relationships between voting behaviour and social class. In the 1970s it was widely argued that the extent of class voting had declined significantly, whereas in the 1980s it came to be argued, especially by the psephologists Heath, Curtice and Jowell, that when different measures of social class were adopted and class voting was measured in relative rather than absolute terms, class voting had not in fact declined. However, by the early 21st century the general consensus among psephologists has been that class voting has indeed declined, whether it is measured in absolute or relative terms.

 It then came to be argued that the decline in class voting pointed to declining class consciousness and hence to the declining importance of social class as a determinant of political behaviour. However, Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley reject this line of argument. Instead, while they agree that class voting has indeed declined significantly, they argue that this has occurred because both major political parties have responded to the relative growth of the middle class and relative decline of the working class by tailoring their policy programmes and overall political images to the assumed preferences of middle class votes. This has meant that, particularly in the Blair/Brown = Cameron era, the political differences between the Labour and Conservative Parties have narrowed, which has meant that social class differences in support for these parties have also narrowed.

 When Labour and Conservative parties were widely perceived as the parties of the working class and the middle class respectively, one would obviously expect substantial social-class differences in voting behaviour, but as the differences between the parties narrowed, one would expect social-class differences in voting behaviour to narrow. They have done so not because of declining class consciousness because of changes in the nature of the political parties themselves.

 This study was published prior to the 2017 General Election. I hope to post some information on social class and voting behaviour in the 2017 and 2019 General Elections fairly soon.

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