TONY BLAIR started the year with a startling vision of himself surrounded by millions of men from Woking. In a rousing address to the Institute for Public Policy Research, he explained how the old establishment was being swept away by a new, meritocratic "middle class that will include millions of people who see themselves as working-class but whose ambitions are far broader than their parents' and their grandparents'".
It was the pollsters, rather than Blair himself, who identified these millions as "Woking Man". This label, first coined by the New Labour guru Philip Gould, who grew up in the Surrey town, was attached to a notional character who was the first in his family to be college-educated, and had left his working-class roots behind. By such a definition, John Prescott is a Woking Man. But he is also living proof that it is not so easy to leave your working-class roots behind, or to declare yourself as having ambitions far broader than those of your parents and your grandparents.
A warmed-over story appeared on the front page of The Sun yesterday which sought to attack Prescott, not for his transport policy or his combative style - or anything else that is relevant to his work - but by stirring up class war between Prescott and his father.
It all began three years ago, during what appeared on the surface to be a fairly unremarkable exchange between Prescott and the presenter John Humphrys.
"Why are you so disparaging about the middle class?" Prescott asked Humphrys. "I'm middle-class' you're middle-class."
"I thought you were working-class."
"Well, I was once, but being a member of parliament, I can tell you, I'm pretty middle-class."
Prescott's claim to have achieved a shift in classes provoked a storm, with all kinds of commentators chipping in with their observations about class and social mobility, some defending Prescott's definition of himself, others mocking it. Nobody was more definite in his opinion, though, than Prescott's own parents.
His mother Phyllis declared that Prescott was "a working-class man at heart and always will be". She went on to offer a definition of what it meant to be working-class. "That means very strict, a good standard of living, and a good background."
His father Bert was unequivocal too. "Well, I was a little surprised that the words `middle-class' were used, because I had always assumed myself and my family have been working-class," he said. "When I see him, I shall ask him what he's playing at. He should be proud to be working- class."
According to yesterday's Sun, though, that conversation should never have been allowed to happen. Bert told The Sun that his remarks had resulted in a rift that has never been healed. "I don't understand what has happened to John. He never used to have a spiteful nature but, after all he's done to me, I don't want to see him any more. People say to me, `you must be so proud of him.' Well, I'm not. Proud is the last thing I am. He has wrecked the family life, the whole lot, all because of his sheer stupidity, and that's nothing to be proud of. It's a great tragedy. He has hurt us all. It's a really bad falling-out."
Bert, who is 89, should at least be proud of the fact that his son is not slagging his father off in public in return. All Prescott said to The Sun when it contacted him in connection with the story, was: "These are personal matters and this is only one side of a very sad story." This answer seems to me to be dignified and truthful and loving.
I certainly can't claim to know all the ins and outs of the very sad story, but I do recognise at least some aspects of it. Social mobility is always portrayed as wholly positive, but the truth is not as glib as Tony Blair makes out. Blair has no personal experience of shifting classes, so he cannot possibly know what a painful and alienating experience …