A different class

Uni fees debate going on in the Chamber at the moment. I’ve popped upstairs to the office, but watching it on television and will go back down soon. There are so many people waiting to speak, and I’m almost certain not to get called… Well, definitely not going to. Might do one or two interventions if someone lets me. Backbenchers are on a six minute time limit. They get an extra minute for each of the first two interventions they accept, but after that they’re using up their own time.

David Blunkett was the first Labour backbencher to speak (obviously first in the pecking order, being a former Sec of State for Education) and was greeted with howls of rage from Tory backbenchers when he made what could be described as a ‘class war’ point. I cant remember exactly what he said, but at one point it could have been construed as him saying MPs on the benches opposite wouldn’t understand how cleaners felt, because they didn’t have as many in their constituencies and didn’t meet them at their surgeries…

There are two types of Tory responses to ‘class war’ from the Labour benches. One is the Toff Response, who basically try to portray as all as flat-capped commies fighting the battles of yesteryear; they think class doesn’t matter anymore, that it’s a non-issue in British politics. I say “they think” – perhaps they are so out-of-touch and ivory-towered that they do think that. Or perhaps it’s because it challenges their privileged position, and the best response to a threat is to ridicule and dismiss it.

The second type of Tory response – and it’s a more recent phenomenon – comes from the genuine working-class Tories. (Who is it that Cameron refers to as his “bit of rough?” Can’t remember.) Some of them do come from poor backgrounds, or, more commonly the sort of background I suppose I had; working class parents who went on to make a bit of money, usually self-employed or in small businesses. and whose children were then given a stepping stone up to being a bit more middle class, or at least financially better off. The “first in my family to go to university” generation. (Actually I just flicked back to televised coverage of the Chamber, having been checking out Sky coverage of protests outside, and caught a Tory mid-sentence saying exactly that!) And I think they are genuinely aggrieved when we portray them all as toffs.

But class is of course still hugely important… The feelings so brilliantly captured by Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics, on “A Different Class”, although there’s an element of outsider-ness there too, it’s not just about being working-class, it’s about being different. And the Libertines “and we’ll die in the class we were born; that’s a class of all our own”.  But that’s a topic for another time. Teabreak over, I’m going to try to see what’s happening in Parliament Square and then go back into the Chamber.

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  • Hayden Jones  On December 9, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    As ever, interesting points.

    Today is without doubt a sad for for students, but I really don’t see how the issue of class and outsiderness has anything to do with what happened today. To say it does puts aside the recent development of the Labour party over the last 13-16 years, the striking similarites between what the parties propose on a normative and practical level and how the issue of class seems only to have risen again since Cameron became PM. A feeling of Outsiderness has nothing to do with any of these things.

    New Labour, Tony Blair and the removal of Clause IV was a direct attempt to win the same votes that Cameron went for this year. Labour became allied with the City, became economically a party of capitalism and directly targeted the same middle class voters, who had also previously voted for Thatcher. In a normative sense, on those issues New Labour and Cameron are pretty close.

    Both Cameron and Blair are sons of Tories, educated at prestigious public schools out of the reach of middle class voters and both sought or seek private funding of public services. Why did class, or a feeling of outsiderness, not seem to matter when Blair was doing incredibly similar things to Cameron?

    Also, Benn/Clegg went to the same school, as did Harman/Osborne – do their similar backgrounds but different politics not infer that their respective viewpoints have more to do with them as individuals than the economic background they were born into? On the issue of outsiderness, I think you have to say Clegg joining a Liberal Party whose poll ratings were in the margin of error is a pretty much an outsider thing to do!

    I appreciate Blair is in Labour’s past, but there is no doubt the Labour Party of today is substantially the party he moulded and is in stark contrast to Labour of 25 years ago. For example, it is a real stretch to think that Bevan would have much to do with the modern Labour party. Given that he resigned over prescription charges and later had the whip removed, would he really be in a party which promoted Foundation Hospitials? Labour, LibDem and Conservative are all (on the whole!) capitalists, believe in private/public financing, believe in being part of the EU and are exponents of global markets – the great old divisions are no longer there, but the rhetoric of the past still lingers on.

    That is where, I think, the aggrievement arises on the Government benches; it is the perception that there is this enormous gulf between Labout/Conservative/LibDem on a normative, philisophical level. It is only in detail, not philosophy, where the divisions now lie.

    The difference is purely on that practical level; £3000 vs. £9000. The method of paying and principle is the same, the MPs voting for and against are from similar backgrounds (as you infer with the existence of middle class Tories and my point there are upper/upper-middle class Labour MPs) and all try and get the votes from the same block of voters who shift parties with the times.

    Of course, £3000 compared to £9000 is a major shift and, as I said at the start, not to be welcomed. But, it is a far smaller shift in a poltical sense from a belief in free higher education to £3000 fees (especially when Labour campaigned saying they wouldn’t! – you have to admit, it’s a bit cheeky for Labour to slam the LibDems for doing the same thing in breaking a manifesto pledge).

    2010 is not 1926, nor is it even 1983-5. The political outsiderness simply does not exist in the same way.

    Outsiderness still exists, but it exists with the same people it always has. As you infer, it exists in those who have a romantic/artistic bone in their body, a tendency which has never depended on class or economic background; as shown by you referencing the lyrics of someone who’s father was a British Army Major.

    So yes, let us take this time to celebrate those outsiders who have long kept the flame of outsiderness alive in the hearts of people regardless of background:

    George Orwell! John Peel! Peter Cook! Joe Strummer! Tony Benn! Champions of Outsiderness!

    People of all lands unite to salute them! (whilst not caring that they all went to public schools, including Eton, because frankly it is not that important what their background was and do we actually care what their class given the great things they did?)

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