WASHINGTON,DC - December, 14:J.P. Viernes performs the lead with the cast in the Kennedy Center's production of Billy Elliot Wednesday, December 14, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

People of class?

Enough with the inequalities Olympics

The British Psychological Society (BPS) has called for socioeconomic class to become a protected characteristic under equalities legislation.

In new research from a report, titled “Psychology of social class-based inequalities,” the society has argued that people from “lower” social classes suffer psychologically due to snobbery in their education, their careers, and in healthcare. 

For this and many other reasons, the report argues that classism should be banned under the Equality Act — in the same way that discrimination on the basis of gender, age, race, religious belief and other protected characteristics is prohibited.

As a middle-class former public schoolboy journalist with an RP accent formed through formative years spent almost entirely in the Home Counties, I felt well-placed to assess these proposals.

Among other claims about the damaging effects of classism on several vital aspects of life, the report’s lead author told the New Statesman that the addition to the Equality Act was needed because of “stereotype threat,” where children aged just six are supposedly worrying that their behaviour and effort in school will “confirm negative assumptions about ‘people like me’.”

Dr Bridgette Rickett, head of psychology at Leeds Beckett University, said in the report that the feeling of stereotype threat can be set off by “seemingly innocuous yet ubiquitous classroom practices like raising hands, ability testing, and the presence of books and furniture associated with affluence.” 

It continued: “As stereotype threat affects only individuals who are members of negatively stereotyped groups, it increases educational inequalities.”

As I ran through the claims in the BPS report, this argument about “stereotype threat” seemed fishy to me, so I put it to Dr. Stuart Ritchie, lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London. He told me: 

The BPS report references several studies about the impacts of socioeconomic status on educational attainment and other aspects of life. The overall picture here is very believable: if you lack resources, opportunities, contacts, and even a high-quality diet when you’re growing up, it’s no surprise that you’d do worse in school.

I am more sceptical, however, of the studies on ‘stereotype threat,’ the idea that merely making people aware of their social class has a detrimental effect on their learning. Unfortunately, the BPS report cites these studies with no attempt to evaluate their quality or even provide basic information such as the sample size.

I looked up a few of the studies they referenced, for instance on the effect of interventions to reduce stereotype threat, and on the idea that lower-social-class children have their grades undermined by seeing their peers raise their hands in the classroom. In general, I found extremely borderline results — results that were just on the boundary of what would normally be considered ‘statistically significant,’ which normally implies that they would need to be independently replicated by other scientists before we should take them seriously.

It is a missed opportunity for the BPS not to provide even a cursory evaluation of the quality of the studies they cite in their report; without an idea of study quality, we really have no idea whether or not to believe many of the headline claims in the report.

But it isn’t just the science that’s dodgy. Defining class is difficult to achieve, and the aim to include some definition of socioeconomic class in equalities legislation is mired by the uniquely British disease of pretending to have grown up poor. One-quarter of people earning over £100,000 a year claim to be working class. Plenty of them aren’t.

I encountered several of these wannabe salt of the earth grafters at university, often hailing from comfortable suburban dwellings owned by parents in the professional managerial classes. They would enjoy lashings of luxury but dress themselves in a ratty, dishevelled, near-homeless aesthetic. Holey blue sweatpants, charity shop sweaters, dusty and stained caps, smoking rolled cigarettes outside the library all day. But wait, what’s that? Aha, the giveaway: a thousand-pound goose-feathered coat designed perfectly to keep the damning Edinburgh chill at bay. The commitment to the class-shifting act wouldn’t stretch so far as to allow the horizontal rain to tear away at their tatty garms.

BPS is hoping to overcome this definitional crisis by offering a framework for socioeconomic status: economic capital, cultural capital and social capital, which Rickett, again speaking to the New Statesman, said was “financial resources, who you know and what you know.” But how much of these various forms of capital you’d actually need to have (or lack) to qualify as working class has been left to others to determine. 

Britain is obsessed with class, but Britons are inadequate at defining it. The BBC, perhaps sharing some of the perspectives of the British Psychological Society, has recently committed to setting a quota of having one-quarter of its staff from working-class backgrounds by 2027. It will likely rely on the Social Mobility Commission’s definition of working-class as the main earner in the family having a “low socio-economic or working-class occupation.”

But that only deals with the “economic capita” of Rickett’s framework. You could, like Keir Starmer, have a toolmaker father, but also have attended a grammar-turned-private school, headed the Crown Prosecution Service, and now live in Kentish Town, eat a vegetarian diet, support Arsenal, and have everyone call you “Sir Keir”. Sounds dead posh to me.

But even if the backers of a new socioeconomic equalities duty do manage to complete a consistent definition that negates all its minute, subtle signifiers, the proposal will still be unwanted. That’s because it would become part of a wider, troubling trend with equalities law where the umbrella of protected characteristics expands so far that it could shroud anyone who fancies being covered by it.

In 2020, nudists demanded protection from the Equality Act citing a rise in supposed “hate crimes,” which I imagine were mostly incidents of people shouting “please put your genitals away, this is a Sainsbury’s car park for goodness sake”. And then in January of that same godforsaken year, a tribunal ruled that “ethical veganism” was a philosophical belief worthy of protection under the “religion or belief” characteristic in equalities legislation. Adding socioeconomic class to the mix will only act as a catalyst for further fights over who wins in the protected characteristics top trumps. No thanks.

There is also a clear political agenda in the move to add class to equalities legislation. The original draft of the 2010 Equality Act included socioeconomic status, but it has only been included in legislation in Scotland. The devolved administration in Wales is also now planning to pass the same law. 

According to the Holyrood administration, “the Socio-Economic Duty,” as it is called in Scotland, means that “key public bodies – like local councils and the NHS – will have to think carefully about how they can reduce poverty and inequality whenever they make the big decisions that are important to all of us.” It is, in effect, another left-wing constraint on any activity that the government might wish to conduct. Want to rip up some red tape for bounties of wealth-creating development? Okay, sure, but first you have to prove to some piddling bureaucrat in Scotland’s capital that you will be reducing inequality. 

Angela Constance, who was the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities from 2014-18, said in 2017 that adding the socioeconomic duty to the Equality Act was “a great opportunity to shift up a gear and do even more to make Scotland a more equal and a fairer country.” Four years on, working-class Scottish school graduates struggle to find university spots more than students from similar in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But despite all this, there is a risk that several rightists will be tempted into supporting the British Psychological Society’s proposals due to a well-rehearsed argument that many conservatives deploy against social justice activists. When elements of the woke warrior legions call for reparations or quotas on the basis of race or sex, many conservatives — especially those clad in post-liberal stripes — will reply that the real differentiator between success and suffering is class. There are plenty of millionaire black Britons who don’t need handouts or special attention, they might argue, adding that diversity in socioeconomic status is more important than just having more rich women on a business’s board.

This perspective, which uses adapted versions of left-wing arguments about quotas and diversity, only reinforces the nefarious equity mindset that urges government, business, media and cultural institutions to think of individuals in a collectivist sense, placing us all into our appropriate boxes, allocating just the right amount of men here, and an adequate supply of whites there, and not too many posh people elsewhere. It’s got to go.

Class is interesting and it has an effect on life outcomes, but the rush to include it in the Equality Act should be rejected because of the pernicious effect of that law’s influence on our politics. Even if some genius were to finally dream up the perfect definition of socioeconomic status, including it in equalities legislation will do little more than embolden harmful left-wing interventions, in society and enhance the quota-filled collectivist claptrap we have sadly become all too accustomed to in the last decade.

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