Diane Abbott: The myth of the forgotten middle class

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There was a ubiquitous television advert for sweets in the 1980s where the catch line featured an endearing moppet saying "Don't forget the fruit gums mum!" You no longer see this ad. But the right of the Labour Party has it's own ubiquitous recurring theme where someone pops up and says "Don't forget the middle classes!" The latest tribune of the right to utter this sentiment is my leadership rival David Miliband.

At first hearing this appeal sounds like simple common sense. But it is not the pragmatic statement of the obvious that it purports to be and actually masks a different purpose. For one thing it is unlikely that anyone, in any political party, is going to forget middle classes any time soon. They largely dominate the discourse and personnel of modern politics. Most newspapers are written by the middle class, for the middle class. Even when they deal with issues of concern to the poor, the writer is almost always a middle class commentator. Most metropolitan think tanks are peopled by the children of the middle class. And the number of working-class MP's in the Labour Party has sunk to an all-time low.

There are many examples of the failure of the Labour Party to reflect the concerns of the working class in its policy making. The obvious one is the way that Gordon Brown (supported by Ed Balls) scrapped the 10p tax rate solely to fund a cut in the basic rate for Middle England. This despite the fact that his own Treasury officials warned him of the consequences for the low paid.

Another example is the narrative that has emerged during this leadership contest about tuition fees. I voted against them. I am the daughter of a sheet metal worker, who himself left school at 14. It was easy to imagine his response to the idea that, not only was I going to stay on at school past 16 but I was going to rack up thousands of pounds of debt to go to university. I would have been packed off to become a nurse like my mother. My leadership rivals, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, supported tuition fees at the time. Seven years later they have come out against them, claiming they have been persuaded by talking to working-class constituents on the doorstep. What a shame they did not talk to working-class people about the policy at the time.

So the danger that the concerns of the middle class will be forgotten in modern politics is illusory. But "Don't forget the middle classes!" is a slogan that is more often than not a coded appeal against shifting Labour policy left of centre. The underlying assumption is that right-wing policies are the only way to appeal to the middle classes.

Somehow I suspect David Miliband is not suggesting a leftward shift on these issues. It does not seem to occur to him that if voters (including middle-class voters) are disillusioned with politicians, it might have something to do with the notion that we do not believe in anything anymore.

Of course Labour needs the middle classes. It always has done. It's most radical prime minister was the impeccably middle-class Clement Attlee. Nor is anyone suggesting that we go from chasing after the votes of Middle England to just chasing after votes in our urban heartlands.

Yet a statement of the obvious should not be used to mask a wish to keep Labour trapped in "New Labour" thinking. All the evidence is that Middle England is as heartily sick of "New Labour" as anyone else. It is a marketing brand that has outstayed its welcome. If we took a pragmatic view on policy, rather than running like scared rabbits from anything that might be tagged "left wing", we might be surprised what Middle England might support. For instance, polls show 70 per cent of the public support bringing the railways into public ownership. And it is military chiefs who are increasingly calling for the scrapping of Trident.

We do not have to choose between appealing to middle-class and working-class voters. It is bogus to pretend that anybody is suggesting this. But only when we leave the "New Labour" era behind will voters of all classes be willing to trust us again.

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