Janan Ganesh: Voters who shout loudest not always worst-off

UK Politics: There are worse things than just about managing. Try just about not managing

If only the left understood class as Alfred Kinsey understood sex. The American scientist posited a spectrum where others assumed binary states of gay or straight. On his eight-point scale, which glossed over the uncountable points he knew to exist, a person might be a 2 (predominantly heterosexual but more than incidentally homosexual) or a 4 (the opposite).

“The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats,” he said, and it is not to be divided into rich and poor. In between are social grades that bleed into each other like colours on a paint chart. In between are most of us.

Because the left sprung from Karl Marx, who reduced history to a duel between workers and owners, it never got the hang of this nuance.

It spent the 20th century waiting for a coherent entity called the working class to stir as Tories languidly picked off its more skilled and aspirational voters.

They are still doing it.

To judge by the hype preceding chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond’s autumn statement on Wednesday, the government intends to direct scarce fiscal resources to voters who are “just about managing” (Jams).

Jams are invisible in the old class taxonomy but everywhere in real life: a typical one might earn £20,000 a year in a clerical job and tend to a child and a mortgage.

They are predominantly secure but more than incidentally squeezed.

The political genius of the phrase is that most Britons, including those on many multiples of the average income, will assume the government is talking about them. There are millionaires who are just about managing once their third homes and other essentials are paid for.

Insidious genius

All the same, it is an insidious kind of genius. Something strange is happening to the way we think and talk about need.

Jams, even if they are defined tightly to exclude people who vent about school fees and what the drooping pound is doing to Barolo imports, are not poor.

Many of the voters who brought you a British exit from the EU and president-elect Donald Trump are not poor either, even if they are doing badly. The angriest are not always the worst-off.

The democratic shocks of 2016 have sparked an almost anthropological interest among politicians and journalists in people who are struggling but not in the lowest economic deciles.

There are elegiac prose portraits of communities in Britain and America that are poorer than they were in their industrial pomp, but often no poorer than the worst urban areas were then and are now.

Theirs is the rage of dispossession rather than the rage of unique hardship.

It is no less legitimate for that. But if the worst-off are losing out to the not-quite-comfortable in the struggle for finite political attention and public money, that matters.

In its terror of ending up on the wrong side of populist voters again, of not “getting it”, the politico-media world is going along with a reordering of moral priorities whose principal victims stand to be the quantifiably, unmistakably poor.

Scarcity’s role

The central fact of politics is scarcity. Had Jams known no help from the government in recent times, were politicians monomaniacal in the fight against outright poverty, their claim on limited funds in a country that has not balanced a budget for a decade and a half would be more compelling.

In fact, tax credits and other transfers have topped up household budgets some way up the income scale.

The increase in the tax threshold since 2010 has favoured middle-earners.

In word and deed, under Labour and Conservative direction, the state has shown a Kinsey-ian sensitivity to the shades of material wellbeing that exist between rich and poor.

It is hard to avoid the thought that a domestic version of machtpolitik – power politics – is at work, that the Jams' sheer weight of electoral numbers – six million households, according to the Resolution Foundation, a think tank – is, when multiplied by the force of their anger, not something the poor can equal or ministers can withstand.

The skewing of resources to large, assertive blocs of the population is democracy at work, but we are not obliged to embrace the outcome as the right one.

If ministers believe the Jams are the outstanding moral cause of the times, they should curb the one thing – Brexit – that will do more than anything else to inflate retail prices.

There are worse things than just about managing. Try just about not managing.

The person on £20,000 has a strong claim on Hammond’s marginal pound, if a chancellor with a deficit to close can be said to have such a thing.

The person who dreams of earning that much has a stronger one.

This goes beyond one fiscal event to the creeping redefinition of economic victimhood in western democracies.

Of all 2016’s weird spectacles, nothing beats middle-class envy of the poor for being spared the ordeal of tolerable affluence.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)