Tuesday 8 December 2009

Is Brown playing the class card under the table?

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.


  1. What is it that the rich have that you want?

  2. Laurie,

    love the blog, love the writing, sorry to say I'm an evil Tory and file you under the George Monbiot category of "usually diametrically opposed to the views presented, but enjoy reading them so well put" (except on feminism - we're on the same page there).

    I hope you take the Monbiot comparison as the compliment it's intended as.

    Anyway, I just read your (very moderate view) on the Labour class war strategy that's going on at the moment.

    I'm comfortable describing myself as upper class by birth; I had no control over that, or over what school I was sent to.

    While I have no problem with attacks on Tory policy (indeed, I had a friendly argument over the rights and wrongs of inheritance tax with a Labour supporting chum over lunch), I do find lots of the attacks on "Toffs" quite literally bigoted.

    Every time I hear the word "Toff" used scathingly, I can't help equating it with a baseless homophobic slur, or racist chant. Every time I hear "Well, he learned that at Eton", I can't help but substitute "Eton" for " the Synagogue", or "the Gurdwara" and imagine how I would feel about a politician who used those phrases.

    It's genuinely hurtful and difficult to deal with. I'm not trying to play the ridiculous "white men are the REAL minority" card, but what's the real significance of discounting someone's entire views based on the class they were born into; is it different from Race, or Sexual Orientation? Did I have any choice over being born a toff? Should I be ashamed of it?

    Do I have to totally forswear my background and culture to participate in any sort of discussion without someone sneering at me and shouting "Where's your tophat, toff?" Do I have a right to self-identify with my parents and grandparents without state-sponsored ridicule?

    Maybe this is just me experiencing discrimination based on something I have no control over for the first time, but that doesn't mean it's right. An equal society can't be based on equal slurs for all, can it?

    Again, thanks for the excellent, thought provoking blog,


  3. Mark - the rich have nothing *I* want, because whilst I'm not materially well off at the moment, I'm lucky to have enjoyed a great deal of privilege in my life - private school, Oxford, help at every step of the way, and parental support after university, meaning that I'm earning in a recession whilst many friends of mine are not.

    What I want from the rich is for them to acknowledge, as I do, that the fact that so few people have opportunities like mine, and that it's important that we do something about that. It's not hard; it's been done before.

  4. Willard, thanks for the compliment :)

    'Do I have to totally forswear my background and culture to participate in any sort of discussion without someone sneering at me and shouting "Where's your tophat, toff?"'

    No - see my answer to Mark, above. But I genuinely do believe that the price of privilege is absolute integrity - people like you and me have a duty to look hard at our own lives and how they might be influencing us before talking about issues like these. Once we've done that, any ridicule will fall short.

  5. Thank you so much for this - another wonderful article. :-)

    I have to say I'm deeply sceptical that this was anything other than a cynical move on Gordon Brown's behalf. But having the issue of power and undeserved privilege raised at all strikes me as at least potentially promising.

  6. Willard: Important to realise that the kind of discrimination you get is different to the kind that people of colour, women, trans people etc. get.

    In that the state is made up of people like you, not out of black transgendered women.

    So, yes, Penny has it right about how you can participate in this kind of discussion. But don't compare your situation to discrimination against Muslims because it's totally different.

  7. I grew up in Scandinavia, which is reasonably close to a class-less society. (Yes, there's are some snobs - but they're less representative than the millionaires living in 1 bedroom apartments and cycling everywhere.) And what's really noticeable in the UK is the casual assumption of inferiority when looking down.

    The UK has an attitude of "improving the poor", whereas the Dutch/Scandie attitude is to just treat inherited inequality as an undesirable social inefficiency.

    I think New Labour has gentrified too much to bring about that sort of change. Privileged people discussing reforms will never contemplate changes that seriously impact their own lives. I can't see Penny giving up her tax-payer funded indirect grants, or bankers wanting to balance their books honestly, any time soon.

    Anon of Not Searched

  8. Thatcher was also the daughter of a seamstress.

  9. Hi Penny, good post.

    Obviously class still matters massively. It was our generation who pretty much invented the word 'chav' wasn't it? Which is basically just a new, trendier, more socially-acceptable way of saying 'hoi polloi' or 'oiks' or whatever.

    Brown's comment rings a little hollow though. I don't look at the Labour cabinet and see the man, or the woman on the Clapham omnibus anymore than I do with Cameron. Brown has to be careful there, I think.

    But anyway, politics is basically the representation of class interests (not that I'm saying that 'the workers' have any parliamentary representation really, at the moment) - even my dad says so; and he's a Tory...

    Willard - good comment: I think that 'toff' is pretty much always pejorative (although sometimes it can be used lovingly - eg Stephen Fry) - but I don't think that being a toff is applicable to all public-school educated, upper-class people. I suppose it's a certain attitude of snobbery that is resented; not necessarily the class position itself (well, that may be resented, but not in an ad hominem way, I think).

    After all, nobody minded that Marx, Engels, Lenin... even Tony Benn, were all bourgeois by extraction! [And not that I mean to imply by that that the only good toff is a red toff].

  10. Well, I'm proletarian and have the strangulated Belfast vowels to prove it. Didn't ever stop me admiring Tony Benn, Paul Foot or Decca Mitford - all of them, I'd guess, much posher than our esteemed host. It's not where you've come from but what you stand for. God alone knows what New Labour stands for these days.

    Anyway, I was reading a nice little broadside on this theme from Peter Hitchens (a proper ideological conservative) asking, as Peter regularly does, what Cameron actually represents. Peter concluded that the charge against Cameron has substance in that Cameron doesn't have many definite beliefs beyond a conviction that he and his friends should be running the country, and an annoyance that they aren't. I think there's something to that - but I equally think it's a theme to deploy carefully if at all.

    But then, look at the master strategists you're talking about.

  11. Yes, there are areas where a cabal of managers hold us (or rather the owners) to ransom by deciding their own pay - big business, banking etc.
    Unfortunately, we have exactly the same problem with government - a cabal of managers (politians, buerocrats and quangos) holding us to ransom, paying themselves obscene amounts and wasting our money.
    This is why I am rather doubtful that direct government regulation of business is actually going to achieve anything - because both government and business are run by exactly the same class of manager.
    In both cases the people already hold the power to bring these managers to account - through consumer or shareholder power on the one hand and the ballot box on the other. As an individual my ability to stop these abuses is limited and people in general seem to be entirely unwilling to use their power to affect a change.
    So, rather than structural change what we need is a change in the attitude of the people who trust (general class based) management to decide important matters. We need to have more effective markets so that people can make direct choices and we need more direct democracy.
    Most of all we need people to take responsibility for themselves - which I don`t believe can be achieved by entrusting more power to government - which is why I must disagree with you (always).

    As for your privilege... Oxford is only Oxford because the people who go there are an elite. You`re certainly in a better position than me to confirm or deny this, but I`d suspect that in higher education it is the study which the student does rather than the tuition that they recieve which is important. Given that everyones ability to access information has improved massively in recent years (it`s very unlikely I actually have to go anywhere to get any particular piece of information), if we all went to Oxford all that would happen is it`d be a little more difficult to identify who the best students were.
    I think the key difference here is the parental background and the attitudes which you grow up with. This is something which we can`t duplicate by taking money from the middle classes/rich and giving it to the poor. Again, the best we can hope for (other than taking all children and placing them in identi-kit care homes) is that the policies of government encourage people to take responsibility for themselves and demonstrate to them the value of education.

    Which is why a larger gap between rich and poor (if it is not the result of systematic exploitation) is a good thing.

  12. I remember two (15 & 16 yr old) girls at my old school discussing black/white relationships for 1/2 an hour. Which ended them agreeing it wasn't wrong, but just too awkward with their families to ever work. (This was a hicksville small town comp. We had 4 black people at our school, and I don't think any of the guys were interested in those two.)

    Then they turned to 'townies' and just dismissed the idea of seeing one with a shudder inside of a minute :-)

    Anon of Not Searched

  13. earwicga: I think that's the first time I have ever heard or seen anyone mention Mrs Thatcher's mother! The poor woman seems to have been airbrushed.

  14. @ Vanilla Rose - I guess I would wish for anonymity if I had spawned something like Margaret Thatcher. But she wasn't just a grocers daughter like it's always said.

  15. I will surely agree with the comments of Vanilla Rose. Its really amazing to listen about Mrs Hatcher's Mother...

  16. "... let’s hope that it represents a Damascene conversion."

    Amen. Though it would be something of a Second Damascene Conversion.

    This is the same man who in the 70s used his Editor's introduction to the Red Paper On Scotland to passionately and eloquently advocate not just greater community empowerment but greater national control of resources such as gas and oil.

    His biography of Maxton is likewise excellent and you can feel that there's a real affection for him and his principles. Maybe seeing the outcome of Maxton's way of doing things is a lot to do with his own approach.

  17. Sadly I'm poor under a labour government for which I've held a card for 40 odd years until 2005 when I had enough.

    fact's not fiction being classed as paraplegic I was better off under a Tory government then labour. Not once did my benefits rise not cover my council tax electric or gas rises, now under labour they removed the council tax, so since new labour has come to power not once has a rise in my benefits covered the rise in my council tax. This year was the biggest rise of £1.25 my rent went up £2.86 and my council tax went up by £2.98 so in fact i was hit twice.

    I think I take Thatcher to Blair any day or brown boy.


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