Who are “the elite” in Britain?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
November 01, 2019, 1:55 PM GMT+0

The British public believe MPs, CEOs and bankers to be members of the ruling class, but not journalists

Just days into the general election campaign a clear narrative has already emerged from the Labour camp. They intend to frame the vote as one between Labour and “the establishment elite”.

But who are “the elite”? A new YouGov study has looked at whether people in various occupations are members of “the ruling class in Britain”.*

Topping the list are MPs, with 69% of Britons saying they are part of the elite. Just 13% say they’re not.

A majority of Britons also see CEOs as members of the ruling class (56%), while 52% say the same of bankers.

The public are split on whether newspaper editors are part of the ruling class: 40% believe they are while 39% believe they are not. Curiously, people are substantially less likely to see journalists as members of the ruling class than their bosses, at 18%.

Only a third of Britons (32%) see civil servants as members of the ruling class, while 20% say the same of doctors, 19% of TV personalities, 17% police officers and 11% teachers.

At the very bottom of the list are supermarket workers, whom only 3% of Brits say are ruling the country from their tills.

There are some noticeable partisan differences in opinion. Leave voters are more likely to think civil servants are part of the ruling class (38% of Leave voters versus 30% of Remain voters), while Remain voters are more likely to see MPs, CEOS, bankers and newspaper editors are part of the ruling class. These differences are similarly reflected among Conservative voters versus Labour and Lib Dem voters.

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Half of Britons think Jeremy Corbyn is a member of Britain’s ruling class (so long as you don’t use his name)

Our study also looked at whether or not people believe several specific senior politicians to be members of the ruling class. Because politicians often attempt to cultivate ‘man of the people’ personas, we ran a split test question: half of respondents were given the names of politicians and asked whether they are part of the ruling class, while the other half were given only a description of their education and career and asked the same.

The results found that Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage, both figures who have railed against ‘the elite’, are actually seen as members themselves – but only so long as you don’t use their name.

When asked about Jeremy Corbyn by name only, 31% of Britons say he’s a member of the ruling class. When asked based on a description of his education and career only (see chart for description), this figure rose to 52%.

Likewise, only 35% of people put Nigel Farage in the ruling class when his name is used, but fully 60% do when his education and career are all they know about him.

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Boris Johnson, by contrast, is seen as a member of the ruling class by 68% of Britons regardless of whether they saw only his name or description.

David Cameron and Theresa May were also more likely to be seen as members of the ruling class when their descriptions are seen rather than their names. However, the fact that they are noticeably less likely to be seen as ruling class when their names are used than Boris Johnson, (50% and 47% respectively to Johnson’s 68%) suggests that being the current occupant of the post of Prime Minister could understandably boost the number of people who view you as ruling class.

If we were to take the ~30 percentage point difference between the former Conservative PMs and the current one and apply it to Farage and Corbyn as a guide to what might happen should they themselves become PM, then their name recognition as ruling class would actually outweigh that of their description.

Another curiosity is the fact that on name recognition all five of the senior politicians shown are less likely to be seen as ruling class than “MPs”, despite the fact that several are also/have also been MPs and held obviously more senior positions than that.

Ruling class, Establishment or Elite, it is clear that the way Britons see the top tier of British society is complicated indeed.

*A note on language. YouGov made a specific decision to ask about “the ruling class” rather than “the Establishment” or “the elite” on the basis that we believe people have a much better idea of what the term means.

A preliminary version of the YouGov study using “the British Establishment” (and erroneously failing to include a description of what that means) found fully 19% of Britons saying they think supermarket workers are members of the British Establishment! Shifting the term used to “ruling class in Britain” saw that figure reduced to 3%.

Photo: Getty

See the full results here