Socialists bathe in Cristal purchased with money wrestled from the taxman through avoidance schemes. They live in country mansions made out of left-wing hypocrisy, and have their copies of Das Kapital polished by poorly paid immigrant cleaners. Here’s the cliched “Do as I say, not as I do” left-winger much loved by a certain type of right-winger: the type who supposedly mourns the plight of poor people whom they choose to avoid by going to Islington wine bars.
There’s the other cliché, of course: the chippy class warrior consumed with envy. In truth, anyone who thinks there’s a tad too much wealth and power in too few hands cannot win. Too poor, and you’re envious; too rich, and you’re a hypocrite; too young, and you’re naive; too old, and you’re a dinosaur.
I’ve been mulling over this relentless attempt to use people’s personal characteristics, rather than their arguments, to discredit them. A slightly obsessive blogger for the Telegraph (which is increasingly evolving into the Trollograph) seemed to suggest I had been masquerading as some sort of working-class hero. No evidence was produced – because there isn’t any, and I’ve written about my background several times – but it seems to be the case that having the remnants of a northern lilt (which is considered posh where I grew up) because you, um, grew up in the North means you have proletarian pretences.
A few months ago, the BBC asked me to debate with Labour’s Simon Danczuk, who supported George Osborne’s proposal to make people thrown out of work wait an extra week for benefits. I say “debate”, because Mr Danczuk turned up with a few prepared personal attacks, finding me guilty of having lived in “the posh part of Stockport”. If it really matters, I grew up in the town’s second-most deprived ward: a more accurate ad hominem attack would have been that I grew up in a middle-class family, because my dad was a white-collar local authority worker and my mother was an IT lecturer at Salford University.
Bit of an odd line of attack, admittedly, given that Danczuk was there to back George Osborne, a man not noted for his working-class stock. Danczuk later argued that those on the left, such as myself, “should be viewed in the same way as we view the views of the BNP”. Those wanting a living wage, a housebuilding programme and a crackdown on tax avoidance are apparently like racist thugs who want to drive Muslims out of the country.
These sorts of attacks are based on the assumption that being on the left means contempt for people with privileged backgrounds. But it just isn’t. It should mean fighting against an indefensible distribution of wealth and power. None of us has any control over our upbringing; we are all prisoners of our background to a degree. There are plenty of examples of those who fought for social justice, however pampered their childhoods: like Tony Benn, who renounced his peerage; Clement Attlee, who came to socialism after witnessing the poverty of Stepney; Paul Foot, educated at Shrewsbury College and was convinced of socialism by Glaswegian workers; and that Old Etonian George Orwell. The issue is how society is structured, not which parents you are born to. Socialism is nothing personal.
That doesn’t mean the left shouldn’t urgently champion working-class representation. All parties have failed to be representative of society, and there is a desperate need for people who have worked in, say, supermarkets or call centres to break into a political elite that is increasingly a closed shop for the privileged. The fewer working-class people in the Westminster bubble, the less likely that issues experienced by millions are likely to be addressed. That doesn’t mean that people from privileged backgrounds are incapable of understanding these issues, any more than all men are incapable of wanting to tackle the gender pay gap. It is just self-evidently less likely to happen: there has to be space for those with lived experiences to articulate them themselves.
What, then, of the persistent talk of a “government of millionaires”? Inevitably, when politicians from a very narrow background impose policies that inflict hardship on those living in very different circumstances, it will become an issue – just as a government dominated by men which disproportionately impacts the lives of women is a cause for alarm. But if a prime minister from a Glaswegian council estate had imposed the bedroom tax, would it have been any less pernicious, unjust or cruel?
Tony Benn famously said it was about policies, not personalities. He knew that his critics made it about him because then they wouldn’t have to debate the issues. Discredit the person, and then you won’t have to debate the housing crisis, falling wages or the lack of secure work. These attacks will undoubtedly escalate in the run-up to the election, which is all the more reason to yell about the issues louder. As for the left: we have to ensure that those without a voice are heard. But whether you’re the son of a millionaire, or the daughter of a cleaner, all of us can have a place fighting for an equal and just society.
More from Owen Jones this week: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/plebgate-shows-the-police-need-reform-8927500.html