A toast to champagne socialists

Working class people are not embarrassed by having too much money; not having enough embarrasses them
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AS WELL as the more obvious splits on the British left, there is one enduring schism that has its origins in the English Civil War between Crown and Parliament. The identification of the puritans with the revolution has meant that throughout all succeeding generations of English radicals, there has always been a substantial chunk of the British left who have felt that conspicuous enjoyment of life may in itself be an indicator of closet right-wing leanings.

The destruction of great art and the prescriptions against alcohol, music and dancing created a left-wing puritan tradition that is still alive today.

This schism is not unique to the English left, as anyone who has seen the wonderful film Danton will confirm. Gerard Depardieu plays the great French revolutionary Danton locked into a life-and-death struggle with Robespierre for the heart and soul of the revolution. The film brilliantly captures the richness of Danton's life, with good food and wine and a series of relationships with women that we would today feel were rather politically incorrect.

In contrast, Robespierre is a dry, wizened husk sitting in his dilapidated garret endlessly pouring out revolutionary tracts while subsisting on the occasional bowl of miserable gruel. Of course, Robespierre managed to have Danton executed shortly before he went to the gallows himself, but as he was still a virgin at his own execution, it seems to me that Danton had much the best of their brief years on planet Earth.

In more recent times, the split was typified by the boring drones of the Militant Tendency - whose key demand was that MPs should "live on a worker's wage" - on the one hand, and Aneurin Bevan, who did more than anyone to improve the conditions of the working class, on the other. But Bevan had no qualms about enjoying life himself, with a fondness for expensive clothes, good food and champagne. The Tory press denounced him as a hypocrite because of his lifestyle. The truth is that working-class people are never embarrassed by having too much money - they are embarrassed by not having enough.

My own parents spent every Sunday afternoon of my childhood talking about how they would spend their winnings when they eventually won the pools. Certainly, I have no doubt that if I ever win the lottery - while I will use a lot of it for worthy political causes - I wouldn't have the slightest qualm in spending a considerable portion of it for my own personal benefit.

One of my favourite examples of this dichotomy on the left is between the teetotal Tony Benn and the larger-than-life American writer Gore Vidal. I recommend reading Vidal's first volume of autobiography, Palimpsest, back-to-back with Tony Benn's Diaries 1940-63. The men have remarkable similarities - Tony comes from two generations of MPs and Gore Vidal from two generations of US senators. Both were born in 1925, with Benn growing up in the little village of Westminster politics while Vidal did the same in Washington.

In Tony's diaries he describes his training for the Air Force in Africa at the age of 19 and recounts how their vicar led a discussion after dinner about whether sex outside marriage could ever be considered acceptable. The group concluded that it couldn't. At exactly the same time, Gore Vidal was captain of a small naval boat in the Pacific, writing in his diary: "I've realised that I can seduce any man on this boat once I put my mind to it."

I have often mused during dull committee meetings how different politics might have been if Tony had had a touch of Gore's indulgence and Gore had had a touch of Tony's diligence. I say all this by way of making absolutely clear that I think that how politicians choose to lead their private lives is nobody's business but their own. It's a completely different matter, however, when we consider public money.

In 1984, the GLC put together a roadshow for the seaside party conferences. I knew that we should open ourselves to attacks from the Tory press if we used expensive hotels. In fact, we went so downmarket that on one occasion we ended up in a B&B that was used extensively by local prostitutes, much to the embarrassment of the two well known newspaper journalists who wandered through our bar one night with their prostitutes of choice. In the following months these journalists seemed to avoid writing any strongly critical articles.

It seems to me that these principles should underpin the approach of the new mayor of London, which is why I have pledged that if elected I will use public transport rather than a chauffeur-driven limousine. But I will have the odd glass of wine.