By Jack Newbury
Which political party represents the elite of the UK?
University students are disproportionately Labour supporters. This age demographic firmly views the Tories as the elite. Though the answer seems obvious, this is not a trick question. Ask the 65+ age demographic about elites and they reach very different conclusions. Seemingly British society is unable to agree who the elite are.
This disagreement can explain much of the divided nature of politics today.
In post-war Britain the consensus was clear: the Conservatives were the party of the elite. Tory voters were (statistically) the university-educated, high earning, property owners of society. Labour conversely stood as the party of the working class. The political divide was simple; based on the economic dynamic between the top and bottom of society.
Today, the picture has become more complex. The university-educated are no longer Tory voters, they are overwhelmingly left-wing. Equally, at the last election, the working class voted largely for the Tories (48%) instead of Labour (33%). Clearly, class, wealth and education no longer combine to accurately indicate someone’s status in society.
Therefore, our understanding of ‘the elite’ is no longer compatible with the current composition of society. Education, earnings, and property are now dominated by different groups, resulting in a society with multiple incarnations of the elite.
Property ownership is an arguably unlikely prospect for many young people. Stagnant wages in the face of surging house prices make that first step onto the property ladder ever more improbable. For young people, the desire to own their home makes those with property a type of elite. Older people, especially those 65+ and retired are the demographic most likely to own their own homes, having bought them when wages and house prices were more closely bound. These older people are therefore seen as a type of elite by the younger generation.
Young people do not avoid the ‘elite’ label though. This generation is, in terms of university qualifications, the most educated generation ever.
Access to higher educational standards is a form of ‘elite’ as well. For those who did not attend university, these institutions can feel like snobbish cults for free-riding students.
Those without higher education, like a large proportion of older ‘Leave’ voters report feeling ‘left behind’ and ‘alienated’ by society. For them, the socio-cultural agenda (which areas of politics are important, what we should research, how to make the world better, what is important to this country’s identity) is dominated by arrogant, university-educated youths. This group’s desire to exert increasing influence over sociocultural issues leads them to perceive this educated younger generation as an elite.
Retired people and the younger generation are united in another sense though. Both demographics have a lack of cash revenue. Older people tend to have their money tied up in a house or pension whereas younger people are struggling to find well-compensated jobs.
These groups come to view entrepreneurs, business owners and the “merchant right” as another type of economic elite; not tied to property or education in the same way as the past. To summarise, who you view as the elite largely depends on where you are in society and what you want, be that socioeconomic influence or property.
Resolving these divisions will be no simple task. Rightly or wrongly, political parties are exploiting these compelling narratives to stoke their support.
Voters are more likely to turn out if they feel threatened by a group of elites in society on whom they can blame their misfortunes.
The Left has done this historically by warning of an economic elite whilst the right has, most recently through the culture wars narrative, pushed the idea of a liberal sociocultural elite threatening British values.
We ought to treat our political rivals more neutrally; refocusing ourselves to the arguments they make not the people they are. Healing politics will be no easy task but the first step is treating each other a little bit more like humans. The first step in that process is to understand the elite.
Image: Ed g2s via Wikimedia Commons