The NRS social grade system is useful for economists, but confusing for everyone else
According to a YouGov/Sky/Times poll last week, the Conservatives had twice as much support as Labour among C2DEs. Shocking stuff — or at least it would be if more people knew what a C2DE actually is.
The terminology is derived from the National Readership Survey (NRS), which was established in 1956 to provide market research for the advertising industry. The NRS social grade system is a way of grouping the population by socio-economic class. There are six grades:
The A category refers to senior professionals and managers and B to not-so-senior professionals and managers. Then there are two C categories — the white collar C1s (i.e. junior managers, supervisory and admin stuff) and the blue collar C2s (skilled workers). D refers to semi-skilled and unskilled workers and finally there’s E, which is mostly non-workers and people dependent on state benefits.
It’s all a bit icky — calling to mind the ‘Alphas’ and ‘Epsilons’ of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. However, it does provide pollsters with a convenient way of grouping and ungrouping the electorate. For instance, if they want to talk about all managerial and professional types, then AB is the shorthand. This can be extended to ABC1 for all white collar workers. C2DE, therefore, refers to the rest of population — blue collar workers of whatever skill level plus the unemployed. So basically ABC1 and C2DE is a way of saying ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’ without actually having to use these heavily contested terms.
It’s not surprising that a system with roots in the 1950s seems old fashioned. Certainly, it struggles with the complexities of 21st century society. For instance, a lot of C2s earn more than a lot C1s. Indeed, a middle-aged plumber who’s also a homeowner may well be better-off than a thirty-something middle-ranking civil servant (and therefore a B) who pays half his or her salary in rent.
However, there’s one criticism made about the NRS social grade system that isn’t justified — which is that the C2DE grouping exaggerates working class support because it includes all pensioners. As Anthony Wells, YouGov’s director of research patiently explains, this is a false assumption:
So C2DE isn’t full of lots of retired lawyers, teachers and so on. They are all in ABC1 where they belong.”
So, if the Tory lead among C2DE voters really is double their lead with ABC1s, then that is a pretty big deal. Indeed, it would be a major realignment of our party system.