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Class politics, Miliband-style

44-takingtrain-gt(1)If I was asked to name one single issue as ‘the greatest challenge’ facing our generation, then restoring the privileges of Crouch End yummy mummies and all those financial services blokes jam packed into the 08:12 from St Albans probably wouldn’t be it. But such is the contention of Ed Miliband, who told the Daily Telegraph in all apparent seriousness earlier this week that ‘rebuilding the middle class’ is a task of signally more gravity than such trifles as global warming or the odd spot of genocide here or there.

What is at stake, he tells us, is nothing less than ‘the Promise of Britain’, a pretentious turn of phrase designed to evoke comparison to the American Dream itself. Not sure where the grammatically unnecessary capital P came from, but I’m guessing that the concept is unlikely to find itself eulogised in a Springsteen song anytime soon, if only because it is quite tricky to pen an epic road trip ballad celebrating a quick schlep up the M11.

But I digress. The article is intended as a curtain raiser for a co-ordinated series of speeches and policy announcements in the coming days, underlining that One Nation Labour has much love for the Home Counties and the leafier bits of Cheshire.

Of course, the question of Labour’s class orientation is nothing new in the history of its political thought; half a century ago and more, the Croslandite right was explicitly urging that Labour broaden its appeal beyond its traditional base. This reached its apogee under Blairism, with explicit distain for what was euphemistically dubbed the ‘heartland vote’, openly encapsulated in assertion that the bog standard comprehensive crowd had nowhere else to go.

As it turned out, such arrogance was pretty much on the money. Abstention rates among the lower orders rocketed, but so long as they didn’t switch to any other party, Peter Mandelson was home and dry in Hartlepool. What was not to like?

The same logic pretty much holds for 2015. If Labour’s core support faces any encroachment at all, the threat comes from the UK Independence Party rather than any formation to its left.

The parallel truth is that the middle class proper – affluent managers, the owners of substantial businesses and the independently wealthy – will never be coming our way in any numbers. Let’s not forget that the Tories have a heartland vote too.

That leaves the people who think they are middle class but aren’t really, who may well be the real target of Ed’s overtures.

The temptation here is to point out that all wage earners are ‘objectively proletarian’, and leave it at that. From a Marxist point of view, the proposition cannot be faulted. But from the point of view of a centre left party seeking to secure an electoral majority, it is not particularly helpful.

The job is to maximise electoral support, and that means winning over millions who on the one hand make up the Daily Mail demographic, but on the other hand find themselves at the sharp end of the problems Miliband identifies.

Surely the old stock formulation of ‘working people and their families’ is just about broad enough to encompass, say, an insurance admin worker on 40k, even if she does have ideas above her station?

The Labour leader is entirely correct to highlight the need for hugely improved ‘access to higher education and training, good quality jobs with reliable incomes, affordable housing, stable savings, secure pensions’. But why bracket these things off as exclusively middle class issues? What about the workers, as the question used to run?

If Miliband had simply said that he wanted them for everybody, than the statement would probably have qualified as the most radical statement of the democratic socialist case by any Labour leader in my adult lifetime, and would have been hailed by the left as inspirational.

If Ed is implicitly pledging to restore the minimum standards set by the postwar consensus, I’ll happily avert my eyes from the slightly cringeworthy attempt to charm the pants off the petit bourgeoisie and overlook whatever rhetoric he feels compelled to resort to in order to get into Number Ten.

But if he is remotely serious about any of this Promise of Britain stuff, he will have to face up to the unreformed power of the one class that has not been mentioned in this blog post so far.

2 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    But of course a good old smack in the chops today for labour when the Tories stated they did not mind a min wage of £7.

    Not a lot left in labour these days, Miliband and the Unions have had a meeting to discuss the March conference and it broke up we are told with the labour party storming out as the Union seems to say no deal on the block vote.

    Which means labour now has a choice go it alone kill off the Union link and become the Progress party, not that labour or Miliband would mind that so long as the levy could be forced from the Unions.

    And we are hearing that labour and the Liberals have fallen out again over something.

    happy days are here again.

  2. James Martin says:

    Which just goes to show yet again how daft his version of socialism is when, I assume, it acts to protect class society and inequality not end it.

    If I was being generous then he may have been overly swayed by the US experience where ‘middle class’ is used to describe workers in all but name in a (often successful) bid to con them that they are more than just proletarians with nothing to sell but their labour power. And there has been a blurring of class in this country in terms of perceptions (rather than reality) where some people believe a car on HP, a house with a mortgage and a job above minimum wage gives them a right to be deemed ‘middle class’.

    But then the ruling class will always try and disguise the real facts that the overwhelming majority of the population actually have very little wealth or power in society by these games.

    Miliband may think he is being clever in trying to gain the ‘middle ground’. Personally I just think he is yet again showing that he has not developed and matured beyond a university debating society conception of the world, but then when you have never had a proper job in your life the materialist impact of that deficit will invariably have a detrimental impact…

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