Will Hutton on class.

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Will Hutton had an eminently sensible article in yesterday’s Observer entitled ‘Of course class still matters – it influences everything that we do’.

For the distribution of reward and positions in today’s Britain does not mainly correspond to proportional talent, effort and virtue. It has been largely predetermined by the good luck of to whom and where you were born. There are 10 million men and women in work earning less than £15,000 a year; nearly all their parents were in the same position, as will be their children. There are nearly 3 million people of working age who do not even make themselves available for work, again reproducing itself through the generations.

Meanwhile, the middle and upper classes are becoming increasingly effective at ensuring that their children have the capabilities and qualifications to populate the upper echelons of the economy and society, what the great sociologist Charles Tilly called opportunity hoarding.

The good luck of being born into the right family is profound. Two American researchers, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, show how children from professional families hear on average 2,153 words per hour compared with 616 words per hour for kids in welfare families, so that by the age of three, there is a 30 million word gap between the vocabularies of children of families on welfare and those of professional families. On top, welfare children hear words of discouragement twice as often as they hear words of encouragement; children of professional families are encouraged more than 10 times more than they are discouraged. Don’t get born into a family on welfare in a council house.

The fact that our society remains so class-ridden after more than a decade of Labour being in power points to a fundamental failure of government policies. Even if discussions around class do form a central part of the general election campaign and Labour feel confident in the legitimacy of pointing out the connections between Cameron and Co’s wealthy backgrounds, their policy programme, and the Conservative Party’s historic role as the defenders of privilege, members of the government will have a hard time explaining why such little progress towards tackling inequality has been made over the years under their own watch.

It would have been interesting to find out what Hutton thinks should be done. He seems to be suggesting that private education plays a central role in perpetuating class divisions (I agree) but doesn’t come up with a strategy to actually address this problem. Likewise, whilst Hutton is speaking great sense when he points out how the opinion-shaping profession of journalism is dominated by the inequality-ignoring middle-class, he does not propose any sort of solution beyond “the media effort to close the conversation down as irrelevant should be resisted”.

Of course, Hutton had limited word space and he seems to think that simply starting a discussion is worthy in itself. But it’s not as if no one has ever written anything like this before. The columns of the Guardian and Observer have been graced with some eminently sensible articles about class for many years now. The mostly middle-class, left-leaning readers will nod their heads in agreement and will use the columnists’ arguments as another excuse to complain about New Labour (yes, something I’m guilty of as well!).

When will this awareness about class divisions and inequality actually get more people motivated to find out about what needs to be done, what sorts of policies could be implemented, and how they can try to force politicians to prioritise this as an issue? More attention needs to be given to concrete policy proposals to address inequalities and then people rallied behind them in support.

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