Where is Middle Britain?


12:40 pm - May 28th 2009

by Nigel Stanley    


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Newspapers and politicians are obsessed with something they call Middle Britain. But a new TUC Touchstone pamphlet published today finds that not only have few of them ever visited it, but most do not even know where it is.

The only definition of middle Britain that makes any sense is to look at people on the middle of the income scale. But how many know where this falls?

Of course I’m going to tell you. But before you read on – and I’ve put it right at the end* of the article to stop you reading it now, why not test yourself on the TUC’s middlebritainometer?

The media definition does not come from official statistics. A report by insurance company Axa last year saying the average income in middle Britain was £62,000 was widely and uncritically reported.

Labour’s internal debate is often couched as who can most appeal to middle Britain. Just as Mrs Thatcher won support from what she called middle England, Tony Blair is often said to have achieved his landslide through an appeal to middle Britain.

But if you work from the media definition, this debate is simply about who can appeal to the rich. For those on even £40,000 a year are comfortably in the top fifth of the income scale. And as Don Paskini said yesterday, if politicians only appeal to the better-off then the real middle and those below them will stop voting.

The real middle Britain has not been well rewarded for its electoral allegiance. They were important to the Conservative victory of 1979. Mrs Thatcher spoke to their aspirations. While council house sales delivered a real step up for some, this was the exception.

This is because they are just as much victims as the real poor from the UK’s change from being one of the most equal advanced economies to one of the least. It might be thought that the middle would be relatively unaffected by a growing gap between rich and poor, but the real story is that the rich – and in particular the super-rich – have pulled away from everyone else.

The changes were most marked under the Conservatives, but Labour has done nothing to reverse them. This is what comes from having an anti-poverty strategy rather than an equality strategy.

Not only has Britain become more unequal, but is has become less socially mobile.


BBC News: How has Middle Britain fared?

Some politicians find it hard to understand why the public is so angry with them at the moment. But the expenses scandal has come on top of a recession that may have been caused primarily by very rich people behaving selfishly but is mostly felt by those much lower down the income scale. As the pamphlet shows, a lot of people can quite justifiably say that politicians have never done much for them.

And doing something about that is perhaps needed just as the constitutional and parliamentary reforms dominating the debate about the route to democratic renewal.

* Median income – that is the income that splits the population in two with half getting more and half less – is a shade under £20,000 a year.

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About the author
Nigel Stanley is an occasional contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the TUC’s Head of Campaigns and Communications. He's also at the ToUCstone blog.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Trade Unions ,Westminster

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Reader comments


Good stuff. It’s important for people to know all this – including the difference between medians for men and women, full-time and part-time etc. I love the meter device (I was 1% off my estimation of where I would fall).

I get because I’m disabled and can only work part time £127 a week, thats all I get, I’m getting the lowest band and live in poverty hell tell me something I dod not know. I was guess spot on.

Interesting post, but I’m not sure where the image of the Sealed Knot-types comes into this. Is dressing up in Civil War stuff a quintessentially Middle Britain activity?

4. Shatterface

Middle Britain is where the Orcs come from.

Actually, I took it to have a social meaning beyond just income, such a geography (e.g. the sub-urban South East and very much NOT the regions) and goldem mean (median?) social attitudes (e.g. largely pro-law and order but also pro-NHS).

You’re missing the point: ‘Middle Britain’ is an ‘imagined community’ which doesn’t actually exist demographically, geographically or economically – it’s an ideological construct whose composition varies – but only slightly – according to whether you are Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail, David Cameron, or Tony Blair.

In blunter language: It’s something made up in order to win votes/sell advertising space.

If it’s made up how does selling advertising space on this basis work? Because surely the advertising wouldn’t lead to sales? Nor would Blair have won elections on that basis.

7. Shatterface

Is it where Selsdon Man used to live in the 70’s?

8. Richard (the original)

I find that when people refer to the middle classes what they really mean are the upper middle classes.

As a part-time resident of Surrey I can confirm that the Middle Britain often spoken of does exist in at least some places.

James – in the same way that people on £60K a year think they’re not ‘rich’, or that wearing Levi’s makes you ‘cool’, or believing that you are part of (to use Nixon’s phrase) the ‘silent majority’ (rather than on of those objectionable political types). Cameron’s idea that he is somehow against ‘political elites’ (while being implicated as one up to his eyeballs) just like ‘ordinary people’ (itself another loaded term) is part of the same trend. Put it another way: How many ‘Mondeo Men’ drove Mondeos? How many ‘Worcester Women’ live in Worcester? If Stanley’s post indicates anything, it’s the gap between the rhetoric/ideology and the economic reality – but the ideology needs exposing and challenging as much as the economics.

Well you have merged a few things there.

The phrase “silent majority” clearly only works if a large number of peole actually relate to the values expressed? In contrast Mondeo Man is clearly a metaphor, and yes advertising, like the rest of the world, uses models and simplifications to make sense of things.

As regards the question, and the implication that the majority of people oppose more state intevention because they falsely think they will end up paying for it, I think this underestimates people to a surprising degree.

11. redpesto

James, maybe you’re right, and I have merged a few things, but then ‘Middle Britain’ could be a metaphor (like ‘Mondeo Man’) or an ideological construct that people choose or feel they can identify with (it enables an ‘Us’, so to speak, even if it’s based on an error, e.g. how advertising ‘sells’ on the idea that ‘you’ have ‘taste’ if you by Brand New and not Brand X)

12. Shatterface

Middle Britain is the point of intersection when you ‘triangulate’ a ‘map’ of the UK in which voters appear as points arranged psephologically rather than geographically.

Well, I guessed that I would be 20% and was in fact 19, so I am not that deluded.

Great article, thanks.

Of course, the whole game about how parties have to appeal to “Middle Britain” – which as the article accurately points out, in terms of policy apparently means appealing to the wealthiest 10% – is a method of masking an unfortunate reality in the UK’s political system.

By pretending this group represent the average ‘man-in-the-street’, it makes it possible for politicians to target the real constituency that determines the outcome of elections – which are not average voters but the wealthy donors who determine who can afford to run a big campaign, and the newspaper editors who can praise or smear at will – while still appearing to have the average ‘man-in-the-street’ in mind.

That’s what Tony Blair realised. He saw Labour could win much more easily if they tailored their policies to fit the big industrial and media interests. That, more than MP’s individual expenses, is why reform of the political system in the UK is desperately needed.

I’d guess most people – rich and poor – would be amazed at the average household income in the UK. From just looking at the papers you would indeed imagine it was between £40-£60,000.

16. Charlieman

How many people started to use TUC’s middlebritainometer and gave up?

On the first page I am asked to guess my income position on a scale. The text reads “Someone on 50% would be bang in the middle with half the working population earning more and half less, so click where you think you are on the scale between 0% and 100%.”

I reckon that I am in the top ten percentile of wage earners, but do I select 10 or 90? Using 45% as an example would be a lot clearer.

On the next page, I am invited to enter my pay before tax and deductions. Without consulting my pay stub (helpfully delivered last Friday), I only know my net income. You know, the money that is put in my bank account by my employer. So I look up my gross wage.

And the magic meter confirmed my guess. It didn’t ask me any questions about marital status, size of family, disabilities etc. And it didn’t tell me anything about where I am positioned on the Middle Britain Scale. It’s just a wage distribution scale that takes no account of need.

Unsurprisingly, if I wanted to find a definition of “Middle Britain”, the Daily Mail is a fine resource. Here is where “Middle Britain” allegedly lives:
http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2009/05/28/article-1189349-0520793B000005DC-298_468x274.jpg

The caption reads: “Middle Class Close: Those neither rich nor poor have been squeezed by taxes and miss out on benefits under New Labour”

Source article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1189349/PETER-OBORNE-New-Labours-victims-Middle-Britons-obey-law-work-long-hours-taxed-extinction-This-plain-wrong.html

I suggest that the TUC gets some photos of where “Middle Britain” really lives and posts them to the Daily Mail.

17. Charlieman

How many people started to use TUC’s middlebritainometer and gave up?

On the first page I am asked to guess my income position on a scale. The text reads “Someone on 50% would be bang in the middle with half the working population earning more and half less, so click where you think you are on the scale between 0% and 100%.”

I reckon that I am in the top ten percentile of wage earners, but do I select 10 or 90? Using 45% as an example would be a lot clearer.

On the next page, I am invited to enter my pay before tax and deductions. Without consulting my pay stub (helpfully delivered last Friday), I only know my net income. You know, the money that is put in my bank account by my employer. So I look up my gross wage.

And the magic meter confirmed my guess. It didn’t ask me any questions about marital status, size of family, disabilities etc. And it didn’t tell me anything about where I am positioned on the Middle Britain Scale. It’s just a wage distribution scale that takes no account of need.

Unsurprisingly, if I wanted to find a definition of “Middle Britain”, the Daily Mail is a fine resource. Here is where “Middle Britain” allegedly lives:
http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2009/05/28/article-1189349-0520793B000005DC-298_468x274.jpg

The caption reads: “Middle Class Close: Those neither rich nor poor have been squeezed by taxes and miss out on benefits under New Labour”

Source article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1189349/PETER-OBORNE-New-Labours-victims-Middle-Britons-obey-law-work-long-hours-taxed-extinction-This-plain-wrong.html

I suggest that the TUC gets some photos of where “Middle Britain” really lives and posts them to the Daily Mail.

Thanks Charlie. Yes – My bad for not doing enough user testing on the widget sorry. We should have overtly marked highest & lowest on the 100% scale to be clearer.
You’re right it’s a pretty crude tool – but it’s designed more to give a lot of people a little jolt for 30 secs interaction rather than to inform in any depth. If you’d like to try a slightly more thorough version on the same theme, try the IFS’ one at http://www.ifs.org.uk/wheredoyoufitin/


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Where is Middle Britain? http://bit.ly/n8Gee

  2. ToUChstone blog

    Nigel has a guest post at Liberal Conspiracy: Where is Middle Britain? http://ow.ly/9GjY

  3. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Where is Middle Britain? http://bit.ly/n8Gee

  4. Middle Income Britain: time for a new agenda | ToUChstone blog: A public policy blog from the TUC

    […] while the pamphlet was also mentioned on a wide number of other blogs including comment pieces on Liberal Conspiracy and Comment is […]





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