Magazine article The Spectator

The PM Is Going to Raise the Issue of Class, but This Is Not Inverted Snobbery. It's Inverted Socialism

Magazine article The Spectator

The PM Is Going to Raise the Issue of Class, but This Is Not Inverted Snobbery. It's Inverted Socialism

Article excerpt

The Prime Minister raised the issue of class last week for three reasons, which did not include inverted snobbery. In ascending order, his motives were: teasing, low politics and high social vision.

There is nothing wrong with a tease, as in John Major's `New Labour, old school tie'. While hardly in the class of Sir Alec Douglas-Home's `Come to think of it, he must be the fourteenth Mr Wilson', it raised a good laugh from the audience. But it was not just a tease.

Mr Major has the sharpest political instincts in the business. When he visited a council estate a few weeks ago, those instincts came into play. He sensed a growing disillusion on the part of traditional Labour supporters. The language of new Labour does not resonate with them, nor do the accents. So the teasing has a political purpose: to drive a wedge between new Labour and its traditional proletarian supporters. Mr Blair would like to take them for granted, leaving the working class lightly garrisoned while pouring his troops into the battle for middle-class votes. Mr Major intends to launch a flanking operation and a second front.

This is justified, politically and morally. For decades, the Tory Party has been trying to break into Labour's tribal territories. At election after election, Tory Party workers discovered that on social issues and on many economic ones, old-fashioned Labour supporters are right-wing. They are also stubborn. Their conversations with Tory canvassers always follow the same pattern: an enthusiastic endorsement of hard-line Tory policies, concluding in an immovably firm assurance: `No, no. We're Labour here.' John Major is better placed than any previous Tory leader to change all that. He also has moral weapons.

For a hundred years, the main aim of the Labour Party was to improve the lot of the working class. To Labour's intellectuals, this was part of a grand socialist project to liberate human potential. The trade-union wing saw it in more basic terms. The job of a Labour government was to redistribute wealth and ensure that the other lot coughed up a bit more to help our lot. But none of that is new Labour speak. Socialism has been replaced by ethical platitudes, and though Mr Blair has one intense redistributive ambition, it does not concern middle-class assets, but middle-class votes.

Old Labour's policies may have been flawed, but its feelings were genuine. New Labour seems to have neither policies nor feelings. With the exception of the high command of the Referendum Party, no group in British politics is so remote from ordinary people as Tony Blair's staffers are: there is infinitely more common touch in the Bishops' Bar in the House of Lords. Whatever brought these young Blair clones into politics, it had nothing to do with the working class. The Blairites regard their working-class supporters with a mixture of contempt and apprehension; there is a similar ambivalence towards their own Deputy Leader, John Prescott. They cannot patronise him to the extent that the Kennedy staffers patronised Vice-President Johnson, whom they nicknamed `Uncle Cornpone'. John Prescott is a far more pivotal figure than LBJ was - until Dallas - and the Blair youngsters fear his tongue and his temper. They do not want to annoy TB by snubbing his Deputy unnecessarily, so though they laugh at Mr Prescott, they do it behind their hands. New Labour knows exactly what role it wants John Prescott to perform: a similar one to Boxer's in Animal Farm. …

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