Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Addressing the problems of middle income Britain

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The TUC has published a new pamphlet in its ‘Touchstones’ series looking at the fortunes over the last thirty years of what it refers to as ‘middle income Britain’ (a concept quite distinct from that of ‘middle Britain’).

The pamphlet, Life in the Middle: The Untold Story of Britain’s Average Earners, can be accessed via the TUC’s Touchstone blog, where you can also assess where your own income lies in relation to middle income Britain, via the middleBritainometer (hint: the central measure is gross earnings for all jobs!).

Research for the pamphlet, written for the TUC by Stewart Lansley,  is based on the results of a survey of 1,195 adults conducted by YouGov for the TUC.

Charting the progress of Britain from a ‘pyramid’ society (in the immediate post-war years) firstly to a ‘diamond’ one (by the end of the 1970s) and now to an ‘onion’ one, marked by the rise of a small group of the super-rich and a much greater concentration of the population by income in the bottom half of the distribution, the pamphlet argues that there are two changes which responsible for this economic re-positioning:

– a steady rise over the last thirty years in the gap in earnings between the top and the bottom. At the same time, there has been a steady fall in the share of national output taken by wages, especially in the bottom half of the distribution.

– a decline in relative social mobility in this period even although all households enjoy greater absolute opportunities.

These changes took place largely in the part of this period before 1997, but successive Labour governments have been unable to reverse them.

Pointing out that middle income Britain is likely to include a generous proportion of swing voters, as well as being more pro-state and strongly supportive of government action to tackle inequality, Lansley argues that there is a need for a new set of government goals and policies, based on five areas of action:

– setting a clear series of time-bound targets for reducing income and wealth inequalities, alongside poverty reduction targets

– tackling the ‘cycle of privilege’ via the setting of targets in universities and in key professions for the proportion of entrants with a comprehensive education and/or a low income/middle income background

– establishing an Inequality Commission to determine, monitor and control pay relativities and wider inequalities

– reinstating a commitment to the principle of progressive taxation and raising a higher proportion of tax revenue from a reformed system of capital taxation

– using the proceeds of this to build the asset base of those in the bottom half of the distribution, for example by providing more bursaries at top universities and companies.

Lansley also argues that a higher proportion of the workforce needs to be unionised, on the basis that strong trade unions and strengthened bargaining power provide the most effective defence against wage slippage. Such a conclusion is no doubt right, albeit somewhat unfortunately timed – but it is one that is much easier to say than to achieve, as experience of trade union recruitment and retention since 1997 shows, despite the shifts in the atmosphere, or in the ‘mood music’, that accompanied the efforts of the first Labour government in this direction.

Lansley’s list is clearly aimed at achieving long-term social change and it is a welcome contribution. Most Connect members are likely to find themselves with earnings levels above those of middle income Britain, but that doesn’t detract from its importance. It is not intended as a manifesto for the next election but it is one around which a reformist government committed to achieving social justice – and, indeed, to getting back to politics in these times – might well seek to orient itself.


Written by Calvin

28/05/2009 at 12:37 pm

One Response

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  1. Hi Calvin,

    Can I ask a favour please? I’d like to add mention of your new posts to the blog aggregator for unions’ and union activists’ blogs at

    It’s aimed at building community and traffic for union blogs, and hopefully getting more union people out of the woodwork and blogging. Around 105 union blogs so far, including a few other Connect-related blogs.

    Would you mind if I include your blog? It will scan it every hour or so for new posts and then add the title, opening sentence and link to a list which people can subscribe to by RSS, letting them directly into your blog’s latest story.

    If you’re happy with this idea, could you please let me know (and any other comments) here or at ?

    Cheers, John


    28/05/2009 at 4:31 pm

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