Why do so many critics of those of us on the left assume we are consumed by class envy?

I’m not making personal attacks when I campaign for a fairer society

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

HLTA - Higher Level Teaching Assistant

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Science Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teacher requi...

Deputy Head of Science

£36000 - £60000 per annum: Randstad Education Southampton: Our client are a we...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The reactions to Renee Zellweger's face say more about us than about her

Emma Gannon
US Secretary of State John Kerry  

When only 4 per cent of those killed by US drone strikes are named members of al-Qaeda, it's hard to trust American foreign policy

Abigail Fielding-Smith
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London