Sunday, May 25, 2008

The class card

This article by Nick Cohen has an interesting explanation of why Labour's attempt to play the class card backfired so badly in Crewe & Nantwich.

Of course, in some sense it is easy to explain why the "toff bashing" went poorly. It was done badly. They didn't have enough else to say, Edward Timpson isn't a "toff" in any meaningful sense and Tamsin Dunwoody is part of a political dynasty. However, it does seem to have been particularly ineffective and it might be worth thinking about whether there is a broader weakness in appeals to class.

My normal thesis is that the British people never respond the way class warriors expect them to and just don't think in classes. Ever since the First World War nationalism has proved itself just one group loyalty among many more potent than class. When Prescott said that Labour are "always better fighting class" he was clearly wrong. They got hammered by Thatcher when it was socialists versus capitalists in the eighties, the supposedly post-class Blair did far better. Marx was just wrong, at least in Britain and probably elsewhere, and class really isn't a good way of understanding political struggle.

However, Cohen might have a better explanation. He essentially posits a subtler understanding of class - i.e. class can have a significant effect on politics but it isn't just some lever a left-wing party can pull at will. The contemporary Labour party has no credibility attacking the ex-Bullingdon Club types as they are themselves just another tribe within the same elite:

"You will find part of the explanation the next time you read one of the 'when I was at Oxford I hated the Bullingdon Club' articles, which have taken permanent residence in the pages of the liberal press. You can guarantee that the outraged journalist or Labour politician was not at Oxford because they were working on the assembly line at Cowley. When they say 'I was at Oxford', they mean they were living in the same colleges and listening to the same tutors as Boris Johnson and David Cameron. They just moved in different social circles.

Freud's narcissism of small differences can power great hatreds and I have no doubt that the rage at the return of the Etonians is sincere. I feel it myself, while realising that these are tensions within a tiny and privileged part of British society.


Indeed not. Labour has been marching through the institutions for 11 years. With the exception of the armed forces, it has not allowed one state body to stay in the hands of natural conservatives. The Church of England, the BBC, the judiciary, the senior Civil Service, the trusts, agencies and quangos all have a pinkish hue. Even chief constables sound like Harriet Harman.

You can't run as an anti-elitist when you are part of the elite. You can only argue that you and your kind are best qualified to govern the country. Labour could make their case when Mrs Blair was gloating and Britain was booming. When hard times come, voters blame the people in power for their troubles, not 'the people on the grouse moor'. The old ruling class has been out for so long it no longer frightens voters, while Labour's jeers strike them as a cynical distraction from the enveloping economic crisis."

His casting of Thatcherism and the right-wingers who reacted with fury at attacks on grammar schools as representing a middle class, meritocratic (for better and for worse) anti-elitism within Britain's conservatives suggests that class distinctions are complex on both sides of the partisan divide. The most obvious expression of anti-elitism within the contemporary Conservative Party is, perhaps, Direct Democracy. That movement could be understood as an attempt to make elites more accountable to the popular will.

It seems plausible that the fate of the 'pink hued' elite, with values that might best be described as 'tranzi', that Cohen describes could come to dominate our politics in the coming decades.

Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com.

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