Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The 'squeezed middle'

Not the least interesting element of the recent debate over tuition fees for university was the middle-class nature of many among the protesters. There were some quite respectable accents and hairdos among those rioters, you know.

Why? Because, of course, the half of society'll be paying will be those who are middle class or above. Children from households with very low incomes indeed won't pay a penny towards tuition (though there will only be a very few of these free places available anyway); graduates who struggle away at meaningful and socially productive jobs that aren't that well paid won't pay the whole amount they borrow, and after thirty years their debts will be written off.

This brings us, circuitously I have to admit, to the idea of 'the squeezed middle'. Ed Milliband got into something of a muddle about this on the Today programme on Radio 4 the other day, refusing to say what he meant by this phrase.

But actually it's fairly clear - Ed just didn't want to get trapped by a definition that came back to haunt him. He knows that mood music will do for now. John Healey, who came top of Labour's Shadow Cabinet election, has actually defined them very closely:

The one third of the population who manage with a household income either side of the UK's £22,000 median... more than 7 million families with an annual income between £14,500 and £33,800; 14 million people working hard for low and modest wages.

They're not rich; but they're not poor. And they're about to get even angrier than they are now. Tuition fees may be the least of their worries. Inflation is edging up, and many in the middle of the income distribution depend on fixed wages - pensions, for instance, that are often very modest even after paying into them for thirty or forty years. House prices are likely to stagnate for the foreseeable future, or indeed edge down - eating into the main capital pot of middling folk. Wages are unlikely to shoot up any time soon. After many, many years of reaping great economic returns - roughly from the mid-1990s to 2007 - the brakes are on.

The 'squeezed middle' face many, many years - perhaps nearly a decade when we measure this from the start of the banking crisis of 2007/2008 - of grim upward toil.

Will they revolt, electorally or otherwise? Who knows?

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