Leading article: Still playing the class card

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

HR Advisor - East Anglia - Field-based

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: To be considered for this position you will n...

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

Day In a Page

Read Next

August catch-up: Waiting on the telephone, tribute to Norm and my Desert Island Discs

John Rentoul
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home