On "Class War"
There's a rather false debate going on in the media and parts of the blogosphere about whether Labour is or should be adopting a "Class War" strategy. My take is:
- The main proponents of class warfare in British politics are actually the Tories. They are suggesting a Thatcherite response to the recession which is a direct attack on the social and economic interests of working class and middle class people because it would involve higher unemployment and cuts to public services which are both used by and provided by ordinary people, not people from David Cameron and George Osborne's background. If they are so disinterested in class why don't they propose putting some of the burden of cutting the deficit on the best off through taxation? Er... because that's the class their party exists to represent.
- It isn't Cameron and Osborne's background per se that is being attacked - it's their lack of empathy for or political prioritisation of the interests of people who aren't as privileged as them. Clement Attlee went to Haileybury, Hugh Dalton went to Eton and was the son of Queen Victoria's Chaplain, Hugh Gaitskell went to Winchester. But they dedicated their lives to trying to create a more equal society and to combating both poverty and the entrenched privilege that they themselves had benefited from. You have to ask why Hugh Dalton was able to emerge from Eton and become a redistributionist Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, but the impact of the same high quality education on Cameron has been to produce an man so unimaginative he defaults to being a Tory and protecting the economic interests of people like himself.
- If Labour chose to set up a "Class War" electoral strategy that put our core vote (assuming this consists of blue collar and public sector workers, people on welfare and BME communities) on one side and "Middle England" on the other side we would be pretty suicidal. We couldn't win elections just on our core vote fifty years ago - even less so now after decades of declining class identification, de-industrialisation and embourgeoisement (i.e. working class people starting to have middle class lifestyles with home-ownership and overseas holidays) which have reduced our core vote to about 25% of the electorate, and population movement from urban to suburban areas means that 25% of the vote will deliver far fewer seats than it used to in, say, 1983.
- However, if the strategy is to fire up our core vote and increase its turnout without alienating Middle England that's a good plan. A winning coalition for Labour has to include both the core vote and what Australians call the "Battlers" and the Americans described as "Reagan Democrats" - people whose parents identified as working class but who themselves are homeowners with white collar or skilled blue collar jobs, people who have comfortable lifestyles when the economy is going well but have to work really hard to get and sustain those lifestyles and struggle or feel threatened when things are bad. These people will be alienated by any perceived attack on aspiration but my hunch is they are just as likely to be resentful of the kind of privilege represented by Eton, the Bullingdon Club, inheritance tax cuts and support for fox hunting as Labour's core vote is.
- We may be able to drive a wedge between the Tories and one of the key segments of voters that provide them with winning coalitions by exposing how privileged their leadership are - the kind of Sun-reading blue collar sometimes-Tory voters who liked right-to-buy and respected self-made Tories like Tebbit or Thatcher are unlikely to feel much in common culturally with Cameron or Osborne.
- We need to be a bit careful because from where the vast majority of the population are sat economically and socially it isn't just Old Etonians who are privileged and "different" - our own frontbench with its sons of the Manse (Brown) and sons of academics (Balls and both Milibands) and profusion of Oxford PPE graduates looks pretty posh and privileged to most voters. We need to remember that in most communities MPs, GPs, Teachers, Vicars and indeed anyone who reads a non-tabloid newspaper are a tiny elite, not the "middle" class. Basically Alan Johnson and Derek Simpson can get away with battering the Tories on class privilege, most of the rest of our people need to be a bit more circumspect.