Leading article: Still playing the class card

Share
Related Topics

There is more than one middle class in this country. Which is why the Prime Minister's mission yesterday to present Labour as the champion of the middle classes was always going to be a tricky assignment. He claimed in his speech that he was "born and brought up in Britain's middle class", but the Scottish bourgeoisie is different from its English equivalents: whether the public-sector middle class or the capitalist managers; whether London or provincial; or whether it is the middle class in the American sense of anyone with a permanent job above the level of the minimum wage.

Mr Brown pitched his speech at those whose "dreams" were "owning a bigger house, taking a holiday abroad, buying a new car or starting a small business". On a day that £10m was raised for the Disasters and Emergency Committee appeal for Haiti, this struck a discordant note. Even in the absence of an urgent humanitarian crisis, we imagine that the readers of this newspaper might harbour dreams that extend beyond material comforts and status symbols.

It just shows how careful politicians should be with the hidden meanings of class. Assumptions of social station lurk beneath the surface of all manner of issues of party-political contention. Take the yearning for a "return" to an imagined golden age of responsibility, civility and stable families. Just how ticklish family policy can be is illustrated by David Willetts, the opposition Families spokesman. As we report today, he got into a terrible tangle in trying to explain to the BBC how the Conservatives want to support marriage through the tax system but that they are not trying to send a "message" about what kind of family is preferable – thus contradicting not only himself but his leader, who said that the tax break for marriage (and civil partnerships) was "about the message more than the money".

Or take the resentment of car drivers that minor infractions are used as a revenue stream – a resentment that is often justified, as we report today. Speed cameras are widely regarded as a conspiracy against the middle class, a way of raising money easily from respectable people rather than pursuing really dangerous or uninsured drivers who are hard to bring to justice and yield little money.

So when Gordon Brown says that he was "always taught that hard work, effort and responsibility were what you needed to make your way in the world", we know what he means, of course. He has been criticised for tilting towards a core vote strategy, of pitting the interests of the poor against those of David Cameron's privileged chums. Yesterday's speech, therefore, was all about putting Labour on the side of people on middle incomes that would, allegedly, be "squeezed" by the Conservatives.

But even if the election were determined simply on what Americans call pocketbook issues, this is a hard sell. The idea that most middle-income voters believe that their household finances are going to be hit harder by a Tory government than a Labour one is sufficiently counterintuitive to require more than one speech from the Prime Minister and a press release from Labour HQ. The press release said that the Tories would cut child tax credits, trust funds and Sure Start for better-off families. But Mr Brown's continued reluctance to talk about public spending cuts invites most middle-class voters to draw the conclusion that they will end up footing the bill. He ought to remember that honesty and thrift are middle-class virtues too.

Mr Brown's clunking attempt to lay claim to the politics of aspiration failed to address this. Nor is "social mobility" the kind of slogan that people would stitch to their banners. It is not exactly the language of the Chelsea tractor school run, so it lacks any emotional appeal to make up for its intellectual vacuity. Indeed, "social mobility for the majority", which is what Mr Brown said, invites questions rather than answers them. How many of the majority are going to be downwardly mobile? Does it simply mean greater prosperity for the majority? What about the minority?

This is a pity, because Labour has a good record of widening the opportunities previously open only to tiny minority in schools and universities, and extending the benefits of a middle-class life throughout the country. It also has an important case to make for the future: that protecting employment and public services is in the interest of people of all classes. Mr Brown should stick to making that argument rather than trying to appeal so clumsily to sections of the electorate, especially ones so ambiguously defined as "the middle class".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
The number of schools converting to academies in the primary sector has now overtaken those in the secondary sector – 2,299 to 1,884 (Getty)  

In its headlong rush to make a profit, our education system is in danger of ignoring its main purpose

Janet Street-Porter
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee