Does Labour still have enough to offer the new middle class it helped to create?

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In all the feverish pre-election skirmishing we have witnessed hitherto, something has been conspicuously missing. None of the three main parties has yet advanced any big idea; none has articulated anything that even approximates to a political vision for the future. The Chancellor's talk of Britishness is probably the closest anyone has come.

In all the feverish pre-election skirmishing we have witnessed hitherto, something has been conspicuously missing. None of the three main parties has yet advanced any big idea; none has articulated anything that even approximates to a political vision for the future. The Chancellor's talk of Britishness is probably the closest anyone has come.

Now, it seems, Labour's grandly titled policy and general election co-ordinator is preparing to launch the over-arching idea that the party hopes voters have been waiting for. In his interview with The Independent, published today, Alan Milburn speaks of the need to break down barriers and provide opportunities "so that more people get the opportunity to join the middle class". Tomorrow, he will give a speech in which he talks of consigning to history a class system that, he believes, has held people back for generations.

Mr Milburn, of course, is supremely qualified to represent such a big idea - far better qualified, it may be said, than most of those currently in the Cabinet. The son of a single mother, he grew up on a council estate and, as he tells it, attained the chance of a university place by the "luck" of moving to a better school at a crucial age. He says, quite rightly, that young people should not have to rely on luck. "You should rely on merit, talent and ability." That is the sort of society he wants to see.

We would go further: it is the sort of meritocratic society that many, probably most, people in Britain would like to see. Indeed, so appealing is the idea of eliminating class privilege deemed to be, that we recall having heard rather a lot about it before, around the time of elections - usually from those, such as John Major or Norman Tebbit, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps or got on their bikes. We also recall that long, long ago, a certain Karl Marx was rather attached to the idea of a society without classes - and none too fussy about the methods used to create it.

The truth may be, however, that the politician of recent years who did more than most to start the demolition of Britain's class system was Margaret Thatcher. She may have denied that there was such a thing as society, but her enthusiasm for the free market and wealth creation hastened the transition from old-fashioned class to newly acquired wealth as the gauge of success. Class barriers have largely been replaced by economic barriers - that are not necessarily easier to surmount.

What is more, over eight years in power, with massive parliamentary majorities, the Blair government has done very little to reverse those trends. Where it has tried, it has been to little effect. While precious few opportunities are now closed for reasons of class, a great many remain closed to those who are poor. The wealth gap has widened. The rich have grown richer; top executive pay now nudges up against that of US captains of industry; proportionately, the rich pay less tax than those on lower incomes, and the Government has no plans to change that. Soaring house prices and competition for the best schools have exacerbated social divisions.

The battle at the coming election is already being waged over the votes of the many in the middle - especially the new middle class that was a product of Thatcherism and gave Tony Blair his two election triumphs. It is here that Labour's "stealth" taxes have been biting, and here that promises of more public spending and still inadequate public services are starting to grate.

Labour's dilemma is that the more it encourages aspiration, the more it risks generating expectations it cannot fulfil. The greater people's personal ambitions, the more appeal low-tax, lower-spending - non-Labour - policies are likely to exert.

Mr Milburn, like Mr Blair with his "opportunity society", may want Labour to open wide the middle class to aspiring new members. The party's greater problem, however, will be to retain the loyalty of those who already count themselves middle class. Unlike the poor, they have a choice.

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