Socialist Worker

Class politics are alive and kicking in Britain

New Labour’s hypocrisy over class politics cannot disguise the real anger, writes Owen Hatherley

Issue No. 2119

Harriet Harman’s fairly unremarkable comments on class to the TUC last week – essentially saying that the class system exists – have elicited a flurry of protest from the old right.

An offended Daily Telegraph has insisted that the class war is over, citing the utter failure of Labour’s attempt to win the Crewe by-election earlier this year by portraying their Tory opponent as a “Lord Snooty” figure.

Apparently, the British public is tired of class.

Another recent event might make us think twice about the alleged end of the class war.

Prince Harry’s girlfriend recently held a “chav party”, something popular in Oxbridge universities, where those born into affluence pretend to be proles – getting dressed up in Burberry and shellsuits.

In fact, anyone who seriously believes that the language of class warfare has declined (let alone disappeared) in everyday life should examine the “chav” phenomenon.

Look at anti-chav websites and you can see raw, virulent class hatred. Invariably, posters to the sites will call for a “cull”, for “sterilisation” or for a given council estate to be “wiped off the map”.

Of course, there aren’t armed attacks on “chavs” just yet – but the outlines of an aggressive class politics can be seen in the incessant TV programmes where a middle class presenter dresses up or cleans the house of some unfortunate proletarian.

So class in terms of accent and manners is clearly still very much alive – but class in its fundamental economic terms is also more polarised than it has been for some time.

Under New Labour, child poverty and pensioner poverty has risen despite an economic boom.

A report for the London School of Economics last year found that social mobility in Britain hadn’t improved in 30 years, and the country was “stuck at the bottom of international league tables when it comes to social mobility”.

All the evidence points to Britain becoming a more unequal society since Labour came to power in 1997.

This is a party that is famously “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

The salaries of those at the very top of the scale – the same people whose gambling on the markets has helped to fuel the imminent recession – have exploded to an unprecedented extent.

And the old public schools may well soon have a monopoly on political power again – the shadow cabinet is dominated by old Etonians.

This isn’t the first time Labour has used class-based rhetoric.

At the same time as they abandoned any pretence of redressing class inequality and declared “we are all middle class now”, Labour reverted to a clumsy workerism to defend their illiberal security measures.

Successive home secretaries have habitually claimed that opposition to their brutal policies on asylum, prisons and war is based in the wealthy London suburb of Hampstead.

So New Labour attempts to dismiss opposition as merely the whining of bourgeois liberals, rather than, say, trade unionists or the millions of ordinary people who marched against the Iraq war.

In other spheres too, New Labour has carped about “elitism” at the exact same time as reinforcing the new elites.

The current culture minister Margaret Hodge has been keen to flaunt her no-nonsense philistine credentials.

This has led to her dismissing all 20th century architecture as “concrete monstrosities” and expressing her hatred of the Proms.

A cultural populism has dominated, reversing the old Labour dictum that “nothing is too good for ordinary people” to “anything ordinary people can’t immediately understand is worthless”.

New Labour has been keen on appropriating the language of class resentment in terms of disdain for “high culture” and “elitism”.

However whenever it comes to calls for taxing the rich, arms fly up and Labour flings out accusations of the “politics of envy”.

Envy and resentment, however, are not the same thing.

Envy is merely wanting what the rich have, resentment is wanting to ensure that they don’t have it.

As the gap between rich and poor becomes ever more grotesque, we should remember that anger is an energy.

It is a violent rage at a society in which the accident of birth determines so much and can be a foundation for genuine class politics.


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Tue 16 Sep 2008, 18:05 BST
Issue No. 2119
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