‘I’m not really a joiner’: High earners’ patterns of political participation in the UK

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Wed. 10.04.'24 17:45

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Abstract :

This paper examines the political participation of the top 10% of income earners in the UK, based on survey data analysis (EU-SILC, ESS) and semi-structured interviews conducted with 29 individuals between 2018 and 2019, plus follow-up interviews in 2022. In the UK, the relationship between the top income decile (roughly +£60,000 per year before tax) and the political system has been relatively overlooked. However, it is critical, as they have disproportionate political influence. They are more likely to vote and make up many of the more senior levels of the professions and institutions that dominate our society and public conversation, including Parliament, the media, the legal system, academia and the health sector. Indeed, in recent years the ‘blue wall’ (affluent constituencies in the south-east of the UK) have become a focal point of political analysis.

We asked interviewees if they vote or protest, if they are members of a political party or union, if any party best represents their views, which party they last voted for, and who they would vote for in the future (and why). They were also asked two questions on the future – are there any societal tendencies that make them worry about their futures in the UK, and are they mostly optimistic or pessimistic about the country and their own future in it.

We found that although they were interested in politics, respondents expressed disaffection with politicians and political parties. They almost all voted regularly, but few wanted to become more actively involved, with little reference to participating in local political or civic groups. Very few were party or trade union members. No one was actively involved in campaigning. Nostalgic for a lost centre ground, they overwhelmingly rejected what they saw as populist politics. They were aware of anti-elitist sentiments, but did not understand public resentment against what they see as commonsense and meritocracy. They also drew status from their formal employment networks and associated benefits, including use of private health services and company pension schemes. At the same time, they underplayed their need for and relationship with the state.

As such there is a paradox in the relationship between high earners and political participation. On the one hand, they are the ones who design, manage and regulate the apparatus of the state and yet they implicitly maintain a distance from it (as a rule they do not see themselves as beneficiaries of public policy).