In a class of their own Darling meet the Veneerings Darling, meet the Veneeings

How new Labour's leaders came to think that everyone shared their values.
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LONDONERS, like F Scott Fitzgerald's rich, are different. Evenly divided between those who think London is the centre of the world and those who think London is the world, they are in constant danger of assuming the rest of the country shares their values and prejudices.

It is a trap that Harriet Harman appears to have walked into. The metropolitan middle-class left can believe that there are millions like them because soul-mates - liberal lawyers, academics, media types - are so easy to find in the capital. Beyond their immediate sets, they believe, lie the camps of a friendly army of well-off, well educated, intelligent and caring people, whom one would befriend if only one had the time to meet them all.

The truth is that the circles in which the "New Labour" modernists move are peculiar and very different from the world of both Labour's traditional working-class supporters and the bulk of the left-leaning middle classes. That is hard to grasp when the potential dinner party guests in the capital are so many.

But attacks on the chattering classes miss the point of the Harman affair. What is striking about the embarrassment she has caused her party is that she comes from Labour's modernising right which rejects the ethos of the Hampstead intellectual almost as strongly as it rejects 1970s trade unionism.

"New Labour" leaders see themselves as tough pragmatists; strong men and women with a clear-eyed view of what stirs the national psyche. When soft intellectuals urge them to take a strong, principled line on prison reform, say, or the treatment of asylum-seekers, they shake their heads and patiently explain that ordinary people are not interested.

To his supporters, Tony Blair's great achievement before becoming party leader was to stop the party being wet about crime. By emphasising family, discipline and responsibility, he took the law-and-order issue away from the Conservatives and, as he said, pushed Labour to talk about punishment "for the first time in years".

Labour, proclaimed Mr Blair, in his evangelical party conference speech last year, is "the party founded by the people, back, truly, as the people's party. New Labour. New Britain. The party renewed. The country reborn."

The emphasis on the "new" is essential, say party strategists, if Labour is to take back the millions of voters lost to the Conservatives. Perhaps. But when the attempt to represent "one nation" united in a new anti-Tory stakeholder consensus falters, as it did last week, the modernisers can be left isolated, looking like the stock figure of English satire: the deracinated arriviste with no ideas except the desire to be modern.

Looking, indeed, like Charles Dickens' caricature of the empty-headed, social-climbing Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend, which cruelly anticipated Mr Blair's language 130 years ago. "Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new ... they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby.

"What was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings - the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky."

The Veneerings suffered social agonies because none of the lawyers, civil servants and poets they invited to enhance their dining table had the faintest idea who their hosts were. No one can have any doubts about the identity of Labour's modernisers; but a brief survey of their dinner companions - lawyers and civil servants, and, to replace the poets, broadcasters and journalists - gives some idea of how different their social circles are from those of provincial middle-class liberals.

The main difference is money. In Manchester or Birmingham it is rare to find Labour Party members with six-figure salaries. In London, when Tony Blair needed funds to fight his leadership election campaign, he was able to call on his friends Barry Cox, Melvyn Bragg and Greg Dyke - three of the former London Weekend Television executives who had received share options worth up to pounds 7m each.

Other contributions came from David Puttnam, the film producer, Jon Craig, a business consultant, and Jon Norton, a banker who lives with Mo Mowlam, the modernising shadow heritage secretary. Mr Blair raised so much money that it shocked the Labour executive into imposing a ceiling on spending in future leadership contests.

High-powered lawyers are prominent in new Labour circles. Cherie Blair, a barrister, earns an estimated pounds 200,000 a year. Margaret Hodge MP, former leader of the council in Islington, where the Blairs live, is married to Henry Hodge, a leading solicitor.

Many people with left-wing backgrounds work in the "Thatcherite" professions. When Ms Hodge left Islington council she took a job with the accountants Price Waterhouse. Patricia Hewitt, who worked with Ms Harman in the ultra- liberal National Council for Civil Liberties in the 1970s and is tipped to be an important adviser to any Labour government, now works in that most 1980s of businesses: management consulting. (Her firm Andersen Consulting was attacked by Labour MPs last month when it was revealed that it had been paid pounds 2.3m for advice on introducing the jobseekers' allowance, a change which will reduce benefits for the unemployed.)

To Conservatives who think that anyone who earns more than pounds 3 an hour and does not vote Tory is a Champagne socialist, these are the lifestyles of hypocrites. To others they are the backgrounds of decent successful people who rationally believe that an underclass undermines society.

But whichever view you take, two social trends isolate new Labour leaders from their electorate. First, they move in vastly different worlds. Even most leftish London professionals in middle-management corporate jobs or the public sector have little in common with the modernisers above them.

A survey by the independent Labour Research Department last year found that "ordinary" professionals in London had their living standards squeezed throughout the 1990s. London "weighting" - the sum paid to meet the higher cost of housing and transport in the capital - has been declining in value. Civil servants no longer receive it automatically and the amounts paid to local government officers and academics have not kept up with inflation.

The second is less tangible: the ideological assumptions that the wealthy modernisers take for granted. Professionalism is all. If you are a lawyer and are asked to prosecute poll-tax defaulters, you do it. If your management firm takes millions of pounds of public money to implement dubious Conservative policies or your television station or newspaper asks you to produce rubbish, you do not resign on principle. To do so would be worse than eccentric - it would be unprofessional.

For these professionals the gut issues - the dining-table issues - are not pay or poverty. Burglaries are much discussed. So too is traffic congestion. But the real issue among middle-aged professionals with money to spare is education.

Only Edinburgh and London have a high concentration of professionals in the inner-city. The provincial equivalents of Islington and Hampstead - Didsbury in Manchester, or Moseley in Birmingham - mark the start of suburbia and reasonably good state schools. London, by contrast, has islands of gentility surrounded by deprivation and an education system that goes with it.

The 1991 census found that professionals make up 7.4 per cent of the workforce in inner London - proportionately there are more of them in the inner-city than in the suburbs. In these circles, it is entirely normal for conversations to conclude that, sadly, the inner-city schools are just not good enough and alternatives must be found in private, grant- maintained and grammar schools.

Only when decisions that seem perfectly normal and reasonable are exposed to a wider world do well-meaning modernisers discover to their shock that the rest of the country sees things differently and even questions their political sincerity.

Ms Harman's surprise was evident. She waited three days before defending herself on television, apparently assuming that if she said nothing the charges of double standards would go away.

Nothing could better illustrate the dislocation of Labour's "bran-new" party. The mask slips, and the modernisers look like latter-day Veneerings with a sticky surface that smells "a little too much of the workshop".