Dominic Lawson: Class war is meaningless when all politicians belong to an elite

Outside Westminster, Balls would seem indistinguishable from the leader of the Tories
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No political system is perfect; but many Americans will tell you that if there's one thing they envy about our one, it's that the traditional three-week long British general election campaign is merciful in its brevity – merciful not just to the electorate but also to the politicians themselves: they contrast it unfavourably to the immense attritional battle of months over which the quadrennial Presidential election is fought.

Yet now our political parties seem to have decided to imitate the cruelly prolonged trench warfare of the American model: both the Conservatives and Labour have launched their campaigns in the almost certain knowledge that there are going to be several more months of this, until Gordon Brown has no choice but to inform the Queen of his intention to dissolve Parliament.

David Cameron has launched the Tory campaign with the slogan "We can't go on like this"; by April this will be exactly what the public will feel about the whole electioneering process. Please just govern well, and stop pestering us about your trivially marginal policy differences, will be the man in the street's manifesto. Perhaps we are a nation that takes the democratic process too much for granted, after so many years of free and universal franchise, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of people simply don't see the relevance to their own lives in the endless strategy announcements that this government churns out – assuming that they are even aware of them at all.

Mr Brown's latest one came only last weekend at the Fabian New Year Conference. His newest "new" strategy is to "unleash a wave of social mobility not seen in this country since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War". The more impotent this government becomes, in its gruesome death throes, the more ambitious its sloganising becomes. As an anonymous "former government figure" told Lord Sainsbury's Institute for Government, which this week publishes a report on the way the country is run, "The worst policy making comes from ... these people who think you change the world by publishing a strategy. You don't change a thing by publishing a strategy."

With Gordon Brown, however, every grand strategy carries with it a narrowly party political objective, to create a so-called dividing line between Labour ("with the people") and the Tories ("against the people"). Thus his grand vision of "unleashing a wave of social mobility not seen since the end of the Second World War" is actually just another tactical way to tell the electorate that the Tory leader is an inbred toff whose only motive in life is to entrench the privileges of his own class.

This has had some success in unsettling David Cameron and George Osborne; last week the Shadow Chancellor declared that, should the Conservatives form the next government, they will take away so-called Child Trust Funds, worth £250 per baby, from the best-off two-thirds of the nation's families. This is not the sort of announcement that oppositions would normally make with a great fanfare – and I'm not sure it is wise for the Tories to make policies purely designed to respond to Brown's baiting – but clearly class is going to be part of the battlefield of the election, however unedifying it might be to Lord Mandelson of Foy.

My old university politics tutor Peter Pulzer once remarked, with famous clarity, that "Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail". On the other hand, Professor Pulzer wrote those words back in 1967, when the Labour Party was still willing to portray itself as the handmaiden of the trade unions – and indeed, when the national broadcasting service would not countenance the idea of a presenter with a strong regional accent.

There is, in British public life, still a sense of "them and us", but Mr Brown is deluding himself if he believes that the so-called "ordinary people" of the country will see him as part of the "us". While it is true that David Cameron – the scion of a long line of Home Counties stockbrokers – comes from a very different milieu than that of the son of the Manse Gordon Brown, the truth is that for the vast majority of the public there will be very little social distinction drawn between the two. Gordon Brown's background – and indeed his manner and appearance – will seem as remote as David Cameron's to someone sitting anywhere near the bottom of the social heap.

Similarly, Ed Balls might imagine that if he were Labour leader (which he probably does every other second, whether awake or asleep), he could happily distinguish himself from "the toff" Cameron. Yet, outside the Palace of Westminster, Mr Balls – educated at the private Nottingham Boys' School and then (like Cameron) Oxford University – would seem all but socially indistinguishable from the Tory leader.

Both men are members of the political class, a new class readily identifiable by the public, and not one which – how do we put this politely? – commands their universal respect. This truth became embarrassingly evident during the Crewe and Nantwich by election in 2008, when the Labour Party decided to campaign specifically on class grounds. Apparently provoked by the fact that the Tory candidate, Edward Timpson, was the heir to a shoe-repair and key-cutting business, Labour pursued him around the constituency with party activists dressed up in top hat and tails. The voters of Crewe (and indeed of Nantwich also) were not in the least impressed by this, struggling to see quite how this was relevant to their own day-to-day concerns.

What made the "class" attack truly farcical, however, was the fact that Labour's candidate for the same seat was Tamsin Dunwoody. She was – is – not just the daughter of the previous Crewe and Nantwich MP, Gwyneth Dunwoody, but the grand-daughter of the former general secretary of the Labour Party, Morgan Phillips. In terms of political lineage, you might say that Tamsin Dunwoody was from the aristocracy and her Tory rival a man of no breeding whatever.

One of the characteristics of the modern political class – though one must concede that the late Gwyneth Dunwoody was a woman of formidable frankness – is that they tend to talk in a language which for the ordinary public is about as impenetrable as the Elizabethan court's would have been to the 16th-century English yeomanry.

Gordon Brown is a master of the language of composite motions and of Fabian pamphlets, but struggles painfully on television, when most members of the public would welcome a simultaneous translation into the sentence construction of common discourse. More unfortunately for Mr Brown, David "Bullingdon" Cameron has a distinct skill at getting across his arguments in a manner which closely resembles a normal conversation. His accent might be unmistakably posh, but the general sentiments he expresses in it (and generalised sentiment is very much his speciality) seem to bear a reassuring resemblance to real life.

Doubtless the Brownites will continue to assert that Mr Cameron is too upper-class to be "in touch with ordinary people"; but if they were themselves more in touch, surely they would understand that "ordinary people" see the whole political class as "out of touch" – and, ruinously for Labour, they will hold the governing party largely responsible for this.

The next five months of campaigning – God help us all – will do little to shift that mood of public disillusionment. In fact, the political parties' interminable haranguing of the electorate about the incompetence of their rivals will probably make it even worse.