rhetoric about the middle is sloppy

Under various guises, the politics of the post-economic downturn period are centred on standing up for middle England – those who consider themselves neither rich nor poor. When Ed Miliband talks about squeezing and Nick Clegg talks about alarm clocks and politicians of all stripes refer to (hard) working families (George Osborne’s presented his budget as being for this sort of group) they are targeting the same people: the regular British. Of course the obvious flaw in this is that most people see themselves as belonging in this group. As Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov, wrote in the Telegraph last year:

The Oxford English Dictionary has given the accolade of “word of the year” to a phrase coined by Miliband because of the way it defines our current state of existence. Some have attacked “the squeezed middle” for being too vague to be meaningful, but that is exactly what makes it work so brilliantly: nearly everyone feels they belong in Miliband’s hard-pressed group. When pushed to say who was and who was not in this worthy, harassed demographic, he answered: “Not those on benefits, not those on six-figure salaries, but the broad middle class who find themselves financially hard-pressed.” I can hear David Cameron chiming in: “We’re all in it together.” 

He pointed out why statistically it is a slightly meaningless definition:

A recent YouGov poll found 69 per cent of people agreeing with the statement: “I’m finding it tougher to get by than for many years.” Indeed, half of those with an income of more than £50,000 fall into this group. But even with a tight definition, restricting “middle” to a household income of between £20,000 and £50,000, more than a third of the population fall into Miliband’s category.

Furthermore, Neil O’Brien also displayed its looseness, also in the Telegraph:

According to Ed, this category consists of people who are not on benefits, but are “working hard” and “are not on six-figure salaries”.

The problem with this definition is that it makes for a pretty fat “middle”. In fact, if you define it like that, then 42 million people, or nine out of 10 adults in the UK, are in the squeezed middle.

As well as this he added:

Because most of us don’t know how our income compares to the rest of the nation, we assume we are probably in the middle. In fact, a recent YouGov poll for Policy Exchange found that eight out of 10 people believe they are in the middle 40 per cent of earners. Only 2 per cent of people believe they are in the top 30 per cent.

As well as its numerical size, this broad demographic is important to politicians as it is more likely to vote than those below it. The result of all of this is that it becomes easier for politicians to demonise those who don’t fit in this demographic. We are reminded about the feckless welfare sponges, the criminal chavs and the benefit cheats at the bottom; the tax-evasive banksters and city types who are selfish and greedy at the top; and the immigrants who take our jobs and money from outside. It is these groups which are easily made scapegoats for deficits, unemployment and the financial crash.

I am not trying to dismiss the complaints of the ‘average’ Briton. Their plight is explained by commentators as varied as Peter Oborne and the TUC. However, rhetoric about the middle is often sloppy (especially when politicians are answering questions in interviews or on Question Time) and can be used to justify an attack on anyone who doesn’t fit into its broad definition.

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