The Institute of Fiscal Studies might have told Humprhys that this was indeed the band in the middle of British society, and that only the richest 15 per cent or so of people pay the 40 percent tax rate. When I last spoke to the IFS, it told me that it makes as much sense to look household income as individual salaries. By this measure, families bringing in £30-£50,000 a year make up the broad middle class, which fills so much of Britain. Exactly the people Miliband was talking about, in other words.
The financial crisis is hammering them. Their services are being cut – and they cannot afford to go private. Their taxes are about to go up, their benefits are about to be withdrawn and ministers are about to tell their children they must take on vast debts if they want to go to university.
Humphrys did not seem to know it. Miliband’s definition of the middle class exasperated him. “It’s about as vague as it gets” he cried. “The squeezed middle is what? I don’t know… I’ve no idea what you mean.”
I thought Miliband made perfect sense, but Humphrys illustrated the problem that Labour faces now and the Coalition faced when it announced the abolition of child benefits for higher rate taxpayers. Star journalists – the presenters, columnists, editors and political correspondents, who set the agenda – are rich men and women. (The hacks below them are anything but as this wonderful post from Chris Dillow shows.)
Their success, however, depends on them believing that they are the voice of ordinary folk when they address their audience. They are elitists who must play at being populists. They must convince themselves they are middle class, even when their earnings put them among the richest 2 percent of people in the country.
They will hammer politicians from all parties who point out that the British middle class is not like them because they undermine the illusion on which their careers are built by
Take the case of John Humphrys. If he told me he earns less than £150,000 I would eat my hat. If he told me, he makes less than £200,000, I would ask for a recount. In 2000 when I was young and foolish, I phoned his agents posing as the representative of Pelf.com, an exciting, if fictitious dot.com startup, and asked how much it would cost to hire him as an after dinner speaker. The going rate was £8,000 for an hour’s talk, I was told, about 2,000 times the minimum wage rate.
I don’t want to sneer at Humprhys, the way he sneered at Miliband. He is a fine broadcaster, who deserves every penny he earns. I only want to say that journalists will never understand Middle England until they realise that it is nowhere near as affluent and nowhere near as secure as they imagine, and that is about to become a bleaker and more frightened place.