Brown was right to play the class card, but he must play it with integrity - on Labour List today.
Gordon Brown has faced near-universal disapprobation this week for daring to mention that the personal wealth and privilege of members of the shadow cabinet might have the tiniest bit of bearing on their inheritance tax plans. The phrase "dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton" was particularly unsporting, something that Mr Brown would doubtless have been able to grasp had he attended Eton himself.
That's the problem with talking about class in Westminster. It’s just not classy, is it? It's not the done thing, not since Mrs Thatcher swept it all neatly out of sight for us. As Shadow minister Eric Pickles put it after Brown’s salvo last week: “frankly we aren't that type of country anymore."
More pressingly, bringing up class makes everyone look bad: commentators have been quick to point out that, whilst no Labour MP has yet billed for moat-maintenance, the party in government has always boasted its fair share of wealthy hand-wringers – blogger Dizzy Thinks rightly pointed out that seven current cabinet ministers went to fee-paying private schools.
However, amidst all this pouting about cheap shots, reverse class prejudice and the fact that, apparently, nobody cares anymore about the inevitable inheritance of power by the rich and privileged, not much has been made of the fact that Brown actually has a point.
It may not be fashionable or comfortable to talk about wealth and privilege, but wealth and privilege matter. It matters that, sixty years after the advent of the welfare state, one’s chances in life are still largely predicated by one’s birth and background. It matters that, nearly a decade into the twenty-first century, it is possible to accurately predict from several months before birth the likelihood of a particular jellied ball of cells and pre-natal fluid growing up to be a business-leader or a benefit-scrounger, as demonstrated in Louise Bamfield’s brilliant Fabian pamphlet, Born Unequal. It matters that some of those more felicitous balls of cells, several decades down the line, are now expatiating on fantastically illiberal policy proposals that aim to shaft the poor in order to protect the interests of the property-owning rich; proposals that would, if someone made Hansard into a Hollywood blockbuster, inevitably be played by Alan Rickman.
Schoolyard obloquy aside, it’s hardly the Prime Minister’s fault if the mere mention of Eton playing-fields happens to make some 5.5% of Tory parliamentarians personally squirm like snotty schoolboys caught with their hands in Matron’s biscuit tin. Unfortunately, Brown’s ideological attack on Conservative policy has since been overwhelmed by faltering personal follow-up shots, such as John Prescott’s unfortunate ribbing of Eric Pickles on last week’s Today programme. The asinine practice of attacking Tory candidates as airy ‘toffs’ has not won Labour any by-election victories to date.
This type of strategy demeans what remains of the principles of the Labour Party. Attacking people on the basis of their class alone looks like a petty, desperate strategy for the simple reason that it is a petty, desperate strategy. More to the point, the last fifty years have amply proven that a minister’s class can have little or no bearing on their loyalties or their policy decisions: the inherited titles of many members of Attlee’s cabinet did not prevent them from masterminding the NHS, whilst three decades later Margaret Thatcher, a butcher’s daughter with a grammar-school education, set about breaking the power of the unions and draining the efficacy of the welfare state. But neither this, nor the fact that George Osborne and Harriet Harman went to the same private school means, as Ken Clarke argued in the Daily Mail, that "the class war is over". The class war is merely over in the hallowed halls of Westminster, chiefly because it was never begun.
In truth, any sitting parliamentarian, whatever his or her loyalties, is practically and financially divorced from the breadline. The real question here is about how political power is wielded: whether privileged politicians are committed to ensuring that they and those whose interests they represent retain a stranglehold on the wealth and enterprise of this country, or whether they feel, as Aneurin Bevan himself put it, that "the purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away".
For politicians more than anyone else, "the price of privilege is absolute integrity". Labour is right to raise the class card, and to question policy decisions reeking with an ideology of privilege and social stagnation that remains the philosophical foundation of the Conservative Party. But the choice to push the class issue will fail as long as it is propelled by petty spin-shystering: if unearned wealth and privilege are to become election issues for the first time in over twelve years, that change in direction must run like a course of antibiotics through the sickening heartsblood of Labour thinking. If Labour wants to play the class card again, it must play it with integrity, starting with a good, hard look at its own policy history.
Sadly, Brown, Duncan and Prescott could be entirely forgiven for lashing out at the hordes of chuntering poshos waiting in the wings had they themselves been slightly more successful, over the past 12 years of government, at increasing social mobility. A Labour government which has presided over an increase in the gap between rich and poor needs to do some serious self-scrutiny before it rightly and tardily takes on the issue of unearned privilege.
Brown’s attack on Tory tax policies that rob the poor to feed the rich was both morally sound and in keeping with the interests of Labour’s core voters: let’s hope that it represents a Damascene conversion.