Protecting the services of the middle classes

Annette Hastings and Peter Matthews
Annette Hastings and Peter Matthews

May 2015 saw another election victory for the Conservative party in a UK general election, as they formed a majority government at Westminster. Many are concerned about the social equity issues arising from some of the policy decisions already announced, not least the £12 billion in welfare cuts announced in the July budget. However, as we suggest in our paper past research shows we should not be surprised about the direction policy is taking – Julian LeGrand’s work analysing the spending priorities implicit in the cuts meted out by the Thatcher government between 1979 and 1983 showed not only that they were focused on welfare, but that they protected “middle class” services such as education and health. These are also the services that Conservative voters were most likely to use.

A good recent example of the protection of services used by the middle classes in times of austerity is relates to the budget cuts for further education colleges in England recently reported in the Guardian. While the budget for schools in England has been protected from cuts, the budget for FE colleges, which predominantly deliver vocational and non-vocational education to young people from the most deprived neighbourhoods and less affluent households have had their budgets slashed. A similar political debate has occurred in Scotland, with the decision by the Scottish Government to support free higher education, predominantly enjoyed by more affluent people, while cutting the budget to further education colleges substantially.

This bias in service provision due to activism by middle-class people was an area covered in a previous paper we produced for Social Policy and Administration. However, with devolution to city-regions and, continuing cuts to local authority budgets a continued theme from the previous coalition government is the devolution of responsibility down to lowest level, ultimately the individual. As we suggested in our previous post introducing this paper, the inequitable distribution of economic, social and cultural capital between different communities and individuals poses a real risk that inequalities will widen yet further. With Liverpool Council the latest to announce it wishes to transfer some libraries to community ownership, necessity is driving the creation of the “Big Society” as local authorities struggle to maintain services.

The Scottish Parliament also recently passed its own Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act to increase the opportunities for communities to get involved in service provision and policy. However, in Scotland much of the debate surrounding the development of the Bill focused on the potential of the introduction of a new right to participate to empower those who are already advantaged. The Act now clearly states that such requests should only be granted if they are likely to reduce socio-economic inequalities.

The consultation process surrounding the Scottish Community Empowerment Act suggests that there concern beyond academia to ensure that inequalities are not exacerbated by community activism in ways predicted by our research. Helen Sullivan argued in 2012 that the “Big Society” needed a big state to invest in and support communities and individuals to collaborate with the state and third sector in delivering policy in a pluralist landscape. We would concur with this view and suggest that this investment could go a long way to alleviating some of the worst outcomes.

However, as Professor Vincent Dubois, University of Strasbourg, highlighted in a plenary speech at a recent international conference, while many theorists have been used in critical policy analysis, Bourdieu’s influence has not been as great as it has been in other social science disciplines. Indeed, much of the work we might suggest is policy-oriented continues Bourdieu’s work itself, focusing on class distinction and education, and cultural distinction, class and cultural policy. Our paper highlights the further insights using Bourdieu’s work can offer policy analysis.

As suggested in our earlier post, one aspect of this is the reflexive turn that, while critical policy analysis has often focused on the deficiencies of services for deprived individuals and communities, it has rarely focused on why it seems to be so suited to people who are less deprived. Perhaps this is an example of doxa, an unquestioned silence about the advantages that more affluent people gain from the ways in which services are delivered. To return to the example of colleges mentioned above, it is this doxa which means colleges have to be described as a “Cinderella service” to get attention paid to them, rather than mainstream recognition that they are a vital education service that must be protected.

It also provides us with a useful set of theoretical tools and a rich repertoire to unpick the myriad social and cultural ways in which this advantage, rather than disadvantage, comes about. So, as well as supporting the activism of individuals and communities that are less well advantaged, there is also a need for us, as policy scholars and social scientists, to focus on the experiences of the advantaged and fully understand how that advantage comes about so it can be challenged if it is unfair or leads to detrimental outcomes.

About the Authors

Annette Hastings is Professor of Urban Studies at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on the causes and consequences of urban inequality, the impacts of austerity and on how public service provision can sustain as well as tackle inequality.

Peter Matthews is Lecturer in Social Policy at the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Stirling. His research focuses on urban inequality, urban policy, policy analysis and co-produced research methodologies.

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you may be interested in a similar article such as Contracting for social cohesion: can local area agreements make a difference? by Rhys Andrews, James Downe & Valeria Guarneros-Meza

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