DJ Taylor: How to spot a leftie – an idiot's guide

There's still one policy on which they all agree – selective education is wrong. Also, the night Joan Collins made me feel special

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How in these fraught and politically incoherent times do you identify a genuine left-winger? Thirty years ago there was a ready-made socialist's catechism to hand. Does the candidate believe in the virtues of nationalisation? Does he (or she) concede the advantages of a centralised, not to say command economy? Is he hostile to European political and economic integration? Does the spectacle of the rich at play fill him with puritanical horror? If you could answer yes to these four, then you were a socialist, and no further questions need be asked.

Three decades later, most of these elemental certainties have crumbled into dust. The billionaire and the New Labour cabinet minister walk arm in arm. The EU commissioner is valued for his ability to annoy Conservative MPs. The idea of a command economy has as much relevance to our modern predicament as a quill pen to a novelist, and a Labour front-bencher is as likely to utter the word "nationalisation" at the party's annual conference as he is to call for an impromptu rendition of "The Red Flag". In fact, about the only distinguishing mark of the bona fide leftie these days is a fanatical opposition to the idea of selective education.

After nearly 40 years of trying to ignore the fact that some children are cleverer than others, and that these children's ability to prosper is in certain cases impeded by a comprehensive education – you can see how carefully I am choosing my words here – we are at last in the very early stages of a proper debate about the advantages of selective schooling, and already the complaints have begun to stack up. Grammar schools, I learnt from last week's Independent, are an "obscenity", not to mention being "elitist" and throwing those not chosen to attend them on the scrap heap at the age of 11.

All this may well be true. But it is possible to agree that the 11-plus was (and is) cruelly divisive, while wondering why the generally accepted principle that if a child happens to be outstanding at football or music he (or she) should attend a school that encourages this talent doesn't apply to a mathematical whiz or a Latin prodigy. Ideally, state education should be able to stretch all children to the limit of their abilities. But if, as at least some evidence seems to suggest, some bright children are currently being failed by the state, then surely other arrangements have to be made? It is not their fault they weren't born with some of their classmates' disadvantages.

It is nice to know that bourgeois effrontery – defined as the middle-class habit of lecturing the less comfortably off on how they ought to spend their money – is still going strong. A splendid example could be observed in my local newspaper last week, in the wake of a report insisting that certain parts of Norfolk suffered unusually high levels of deprivation.

The original story had been illustrated by a photograph of Great Yarmouth's Nelson Ward, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK. It was too much for a correspondent from Watton, who lamented that of the 15 houses pictured, no fewer than nine had Sky satellite dishes costing £40 a month.

What perhaps escaped this vigilant dish-counter is the fact that such contradistinctions are an elemental response to poverty. Even at primary school I couldn't help noticing that whereas middle-class boys such as myself wore long-lasting Startrite sandals, the children from the council estates turned up in fashion shoes that fell to pieces before term-end. The working-classes, Richard Hoggart once pointed out, have been cheerful existentialists for centuries. As for the denizens of Nelson Ward, and their tiny toehold on the rock face of a consumer society that otherwise excludes them, it's a shame they haven't yet got round to keeping coal in their baths.

To discover, on Wednesday, that Joan Collins has just entered her 80th year was to be reminded of her starring role in Taylor family mythology. For almost 30 years Miss Collins featured on my father's "dinner list", the roster of female celebrities with whom he thought he might enjoy a convivial evening. In the early days the cast featured such notables as Anne Aston, Bob Monkhouse's side-kick on The Golden Shot. Margaret Thatcher ornamented it for almost a decade and a half, but it was Miss Collins who always constituted this ensemble's centrepiece.

Curiously enough, I was once on the receiving end of her paralysing charm myself. It happened at a Spectator party when, having dramatically descended a staircase, she stood surveying the crowd gathered at its foot, caught my eye and for some reason decided to wish me good night. Was this the moment to rush forward and assure her that my father had admired her ever since he first set eyes on her in Decameron Nights in 1953?

If prudence counselled silence, then subsequent research suggested that the come-hither look on which Miss Collins has built her career is almost as old as the great actress herself. Anthony Powell recalled how, in the 1940s, he and his wife were sitting in the garden of Regent's Park Square when the 11-year-old Joan emerged from the bushes. "That little girl", Lady Violet remarked, with her usual prescience, "will get off with man, woman or child."

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