Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Class does matter in modern Britain

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer – ‘no sh*t Sherlock’, as my eldest daughter might say!

Apparently over a third of voters see the Conservatives as the party of the upper classes. So what? Does class really matter anymore? Can it really influence the way people vote? The simple answer to both questions is yes. Whether we like it or not, class still matters in this country and could well influence the outcome of the 2020 election.

Back in 2008 Labour's shambolic "Tory toff" campaign prompted a plethora of articles and comment about whether class was still a major issue in British politics. The truth is that Britain remains a nation that is still dominated by class division. In 2013 in an ICM poll for the Guardian, 89% of those surveyed thought that people are still judged by their class – with almost half saying that it still counts for "a lot". Over 50% of people said that class, not ability, greatly affects the way they are seen.

The very, very sad truth about modern Britain is that social mobility has decreased in the past 30 years; in fact the modern British middle classes are operating what is, in effect, a closed shop. For example our top universities are still, in the main, the preserve of a rich, well-connected elite. You may well remember the furore a few years ago when Bristol University was accused of gross discrimination and unfairness — spurred on by several influential columnists and leader writers — for introducing a "fairer" criterion for admissions that would benefit pupils from poorer backgrounds.

Often the real reasons why many left-leaning journalists and politicians end up sending their sons and daughters to fee-paying schools are based not on the raw results of the local state schools, but on a desire to ensure that their children have access to what the local comprehensive cannot provide: privilege, advantage and the opportunity to network. British public schools have always been a production line of the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, can raise their fees steadily, select their pupils, enjoy a growing endowment income from their benefactors, and offer some of the most impressive sporting and extracurricular activities in the country.

What's more, they now recruit from a middle class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage: parents who become part of the problem, rather than seek to be part of the solution. I often hear some of my friends and "comrades" attempting to ease their consciences by announcing that the local comprehensive is simply not good enough and they have to go private in the name of parental responsibility.

Sometimes I cannot help but feel that the perpetuation of class divisions in Britain really is part of a liberal conspiracy. It seems clear to me that those who do have influence in our society have such a high stake in the current order that they will seek to mobilise and organise in order to protect it. It must surely be true, for example, that when middle-class parents abandon the state sector in favour of the private, it is conservative and not progressive politics that triumphs.

Suspicion of the wealthy, the privileged and of the upper classes is hardwired into the DNA of those who espouse left-leaning ideas and policies. Why? Because most believe that the inevitable consequence of a politics that espouses equity and fairness is that it will give comfort to the afflicted and end up afflicting the comfortable. For example the majority of ordinary people watch in disbelief when bankers attempt to paint themselves as noble and public spirited by limiting their annual bonus to "only" a million pounds. What people want, demand almost, is that the super-rich should pay more, and that those that got us into this mess should shoulder the responsibility for getting us out of it.

A concerted Labour-led campaign that seeks to portray the Tories as the party of the elite, a party out of touch with the needs and aspirations of ordinary families on low or moderate incomes could well resonate with the wider electorate.

If Labour is to make any breakthrough in the next few years its best prospects lie not in appealing to what it has done, not in defending the status quo but rather in campaigning against the ugly realities of health and education inequalities and showing why these warrant further state action.

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