Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Class is an issue - and a valid one.

A little while back, I wrote that the 'class war' tactics derided by the Conservatives were valid. If, as the rumours report, Gordon has been persuaded to put that weapon down, then he's been pushed into making a massive mistake, because it is an area where Labour polls well and one that appeals to many voters on a visceral level. It is also an effective weapon against the Tories - hence their disarray when it was used. It also speaks to an older truth that has driven Labour politics for generations - an attack on privilege and there is a simple message behind it about fairness. That is something that we instinctively understand - children have an over-developed sense of what is and what is not fair.

It seems that I am not alone - better writers think the same. Alastair Campbell wrote
At a time Labour were drawing blood on inheritance tax, and Zac Goldsmith was causing his party trouble over his non-dom status, GB suggested to Cameron
at PMQs that his tax policies were drawn up on the playing fields of Eton. It was evident from Cameron's face that he hated it. It was clear from the faces behind that they shared the hurt. Inflicting political pain on your opponents is part of the job of politicians. Deflecting it is another part. The Tories went immediately into 'this is class war' as a tactic in that perfectly legitimate act of deflection. Most in the media chimed along, partly because they realised it was a story, but also because as Will Hutton points out, most senior journalists send their kids to private schools, and do not want a real debate about the consequences of their choices. Far easier then to say it is a misguided political tactic by a flailing political leader.
Campbell is exactly right when he says this,

Nobody is saying Cameron is unfit to be PM because he went to Eton. But when his background dictates his policy agenda - and on the table at the time were two policy positions absolutely rooted in privilege - it is a perfectly legitimate attack to mount. And when Cameron tries to portray himself as having a real understanding of how people live their lives, his background and lifestyle are relevant to that debate too.
And that has always been my argument. There is nothing wrong in asking how Cameron can relate to the disadvantaged in our society. Does he understand the hand that fate has dealt them or does he think that they are deserving of their status because they haven't bettered themselves. Can he even see the massive barriers to mobility, starting with your parents? Will Hutton writes

The dice are loaded against the child born into a disadvantaged family. It is the language used in the home, diet, the capacity to borrow, clothes, housing, quality of schools and the availability of work, especially outside Britain's gilded regions. You can work like a Trojan to get out of these traps, but still be stuck. And the old corrective institutions – trade unions, co-operatives, factories – are much feebler. The gleeful condemnation of the poor as sponging chavs and the delight with which Little Britain's brilliant creation Vicky Pollard is seen as accurately representing today's poor – deserving of being there – masks the brute reality. This is bad luck
superimposed upon bad luck, which Britain has been singularly poor at redressing.
The irony is that those who have the luck don't recognise it.

...the rich believe they deserve their status. They're not lucky; they've worked hard and owe nothing to any public institution or society. Wealth is seen as a sign of worth in itself and to be so deserved that if menaced with taxation you threaten to leave the country. Philanthropic giving is actually down
The flipside of this is that those who are poor clearly haven't worked hard and are just part of the client state, feeding off the working rich. Class matters in this country, no matter how we try to deceive ourselves that this is a meritocracy and no matter how much the Tories whinge about it. Funny how it is always unfair when directed against them, as Campbell reminds us

I don't remember any charges of class war when all the Tory toffs were calling former Speaker Michael Martin 'Gorbals Mick.'

As I think I've written before. If there is a class war, then we didn't start it. I want people to aspire to do better, but to do that, there has to be opportunity. It is rather like coming out onto the athletics track and lining up for the race, only to see that there's a smaller group on the other side of the track just a few steps from the winning post and knowing that when the gun is fired, they have only to step across the line to receive plaudits, garlands and the winners medal, while you face derision for coming in last. 7% of children are educated privately, but that 7% go on to make up 75% of the judges, 70% of the nation's finance directors, 45% of the top ranks of the civil service and 32% of the members of parliament - quite apart from the numbers populating the media.

I don't expect equality of outcome, but I do believe we should stand for equality of opportunity. So Gordon, don't let the Tories off the hook on this one. Challenge them on fairness - a simple concept that we all understand and may yet provide a way into this fight for Labour.

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