Andrew Grice: Labour must stop fighting a class war

The ‘class war’ headlines generated by Harriet Harman’s plan worried some ministers

Saturday 17 January 2009 01:00 GMT

Cabinet ministers believeGordon Brown is having a good war but are starting to worry about the peace. Other issues will come to the fore at the general election, whatever the state of the economy at the time.

Even some Brown allies fret that the Prime Minister looks like a one-club golfer. After 21 years in economic briefs in opposition and government, he is in command of his subject but is less sure-footed in other areas.

Some ministers believe his single-minded focus on the recession meant he viewed the debate on Heathrow's third runway only through the economic end of the telescope.

The environment was largely ignored until the last minute; it took a revolt in Cabinet led by Ed Miliband, the Climate Change Secretary, to secure some safeguards.

Just as the toxic decision on Heathrow risks handing the green agenda to David Cameron, ministers worry that Mr Brown's concentration on the domestic and global economy may leave too much space for the Tories on other issues.

This partly explains why the Government launched a White Paper on social mobility this week – a core mission for Labour which unites the party. It will be followed soon by a White Paper on public service reforms, the next stage of Labour's attempt to "personalise" health and education. "The battleground cannot just be about the economy," one cabinet minister told me. "It's crucial that some of the other big policy issues come through."

The debates on social mobility and public services also allow Labour to play its favourite anti-Tory tunes.

In hard times, ministers argue, there is a need for public investment, not the spending cuts on which Mr Cameron has impaled himself.

And the state's role is pivotal again, just when the Tories had based their programme on it going out of fashion. Labour is instinctively at home with an active state, the Tories uncomfortable.

There are some ministers who think social mobility can be used to have a pop at Mr Cameron's privileged background.

They need to tread carefully: the Tories and media are quick to turn any faux pas into a cry that Labour is renewing the "class war".

Tory frontbenchers levelled this charge twice in the past week. Firstly, when Alan Milburn, the Blairite former cabinet minister, joined Mr Brown's big tent to head a panel on how to open up professions such as medicine and the law to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Tory claim was wide of the mark. Mr Milburn is not among Labour folk who crave a new class war. He believes it would be a throwback to the 1970s and would alienate voters, who would see it as anti-aspirational.

His commission will cajole the professions into opening up access, working with them rather than against them. He wants to see people from poor backgrounds get a fair share of the new jobs that will be created after the recession – an estimated one billion skilled posts in the world over next 20 years. That doesn't mean dragging some down the ladder so that others can go up.

The second "class war" accusation came when the social mobility paper was published.

This time it was more justified. Harriet Harman, the Equalities minister, wants a new law to put "the persistent inequality of social class" on the same footing as discrimination on grounds of race, gender, sexuality or disability. Contrary to some reports, she did not win the Cabinet's backing on this one.

The White Paper says the Government will consider imposing a strategic duty on public bodies to tackle social disadvantage and narrow gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds but adds that "further work and consultation is required".

The caveat reflects doubts about whether legislation would work. I am told they are shared by Downing Street. So I wouldn't bet on such a law being brought forward.

The "class war" headlines generated by the Harman plan worried some ministers.

Others were more relaxed. They argue that two things have changed since Labour's silly "Tory toff" campaign in last year's Crewe and Nantwich by-election.

Firstly, the Corfu kerfuffle which embroiled the shadow Chancellor George Osborne reminded voters of the "Bullingdon Club" factor, a potential handicap for Mr Cameron.

Secondly, the public blame the bankers for the financial crisis, so Labour can gently remind people of the Tories' rich friends.

True, focus groups conducted for the Liberal Democrats show that voters think Mr Cameron looks "posh". But if they already believe that, why does Labour need to remind them?

This week's "class war" headlines should be a lesson to Labour's class warriors. I suspect the public have little appetite for their crusade. Far better to stick to Mr Cameron's policies rather than where he went to school. That will require Mr Brown to be more than a one-trick pony.

"It's the economy, stupid," is fine for the immediate crisis, but not for the election.

It would be plain stupid to put all his chips on it, as elections are normally about the future, not the past.

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