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Not the Squeezed Middle… but Sid's heirs

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-10-18 at 09.05.03The phrase is in vogue.  Tim used it recently. I've used it too. It tends to get conflated with other labels, such as -

  • Middle-income earners.
  • The middle classes.
  • The striving classes.
  • The coping classes.
  • The comfortable classes

- and so on.  But does the "Squeezed Middle" really overlap with these contested description, is it any use anyway - and can anyone do better?  To unearth its origins is to help discover the answers.

As I've written before, the phrase was recently set out by John Healey - the most capable Minister I faced across the Despatch Box in the Commons, and now Labour's Shadow Health Secretary - in an open letter offering his Party strategic guidance.

He described the Squeezed Middle as:

"More than seven million families with an annual income between £14,500 and £33,000: 14 million people working hard for low and modest wages".

Three points follow:

First, the Squeezed Middle isn't the same thing as what the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail call "the middle class".

Some of its members, certainly, will be middle class.  Others won't be.  But this particular group is not to be confused with people who pay top-rate tax - who the Tory press and some others tend to identify with the middle class to the point where a casual reader would believe the two to be identical.

I'm unwilling to cite examples, but Max Hastings' recent piece in the Financial Times didn't avoid the trap altogether.  His article was headlined: "Politicians beware, the squeezed middle is here to stay".

He cited as evidence higher tuition fees (which will certainly affect this group) and the removal of child benefit from top-rate taxpayers (which, as we've seen, won't).

He went on to refer to "a relatively high-income family on, say, £60,000 a year".  He was right to grasp that such a family income is indeed relatively high, but this group of people is different from Healey's Squeezed Middle.

To be fair, many Mail and Telegraph readers live in the south-east, where incomes tend to be higher than in other parts of the country - a point that I'll return to later.

Second, the Squeezed Middle describes a group so broad as to render the phrase almost useless.

Sure, it's not wide enough as to encompass top-rate taxpayers, or to be identified with "the middle class".  But the group that it covers stretches so widely as to call its usefulness into question.

To understand why, it's important to understand Healey's background.  He's a former TUC Campaign Director, and he's turned to its work for inspiration - in particular to a survey it published last year called "Life in the middle".

The TUC did what statisticians and campaigners sometimes do - namely, divide the population into different groups.  It concentrated on the "middle fifth" of the population.

Healey looked at roughly the same group - those on either side of the median income figure (£22,000 a year, he claimed).  Hence the stretch from £18,000 to £30,000.  He described this group of people as including -

"IT workers, HGV drivers, joiners, warehouse managers, lab technicians, nurses, teaching assistants, call centre supervisors, shop staff. They are the backbone of the British economy and heart of our public services."

According to the TUC -

  • 77 per cent of the middle quintile own their own home.
  • 45 per cent are in full-time employment in white collar or skilled manual jobs (19 per cent work part-time and 20 per cent are retired).
  • 28 per cent have a degree.
  • 19 per cent own shares.
  • 30 per cent are political "don't knows".
  • And the quintile is the most indebted.

I've added these details to give something of the flavour of Healey and the TUC's thinking.  But ConservativeHome readers will have spotted the limitations in such an approach.  They're the same as those thrown up by the IFS rows over the budget and the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The IFS reports essentially treated people as passive instruments - analysing the effects of the Budget on incomes.  This is a perfectly legitimate exercise in its own terms.

What they couldn't take into account, however, was the dynamic effect of, say, Iain Duncan-Smith's welfare-to-work reforms.  Healey and the TUC fall into the same trap by allocating people to a quintile and treating them as though they'll definitely stay there.  However -

  • Human beings aren't items to be categorised on a spreadsheet, confined by being bunched into quintiles or deciles.  Rather, they're people who tend to confound neat definitions, and who frequently move between one thing and other.
  • So while a household which lives on £30,000 is nothing to do with households paying top-rate tax, its members may well feel that they've more in common with a household living on £40,000 than one living on £18,000, and be trying to move up the income ladder.
  • George Osborne is apparently seized of the point.  James Forsyth wrote recently about the Chancellor's interest in couples with a household income of between £20,000 and £40,000 a year.  Forsyth called them "Cameron's couples", and glanced backwards to "Selsdon Man" and "Essex Man".

Third, the Squeezed Middle is better viewed, less pejoratively, as the C1s and - especially - the C2s.  And for reasons I'll explain, parts of these groups can be called "Sid's Heirs".

"The C2s" was heard during the 1980s even more often that "the Squeezed Middle" is today.  Many were the British equivalent of "Reagan Democrats" - ex-Labour voters who crossed the political floor to vote for Thatcher's Conservative Party, lured by the prospect of buying their council houses and repelled by the sight of trade union power.

Remember "Tell Sid"?  Older readers will.  It was the advertising campaign for British Gas shares during privatisation - see the illustration at the top of this piece. It captured the upwardly-mobile, catching-the-rising-tide, had-enough-of-Labour, the-Tories-sold-me-my-Council-House, Our-People mood of the Thatcher years.  (The Government is on the case - see here and here.)

So if one were to risk a more optimistic label than Healey for the C1s and especially the C2s - bearing in mind my warning about lumping such a big group together - one could title parts of these groups "Sid's Heirs".  Can they be sold a Tory prospectus as attractive as that sold to their parents' generation during the 1980s?  And, if so, what would it look like?

Answers - or at least suggestions - tomorrow.


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