John Humphrys: Should “class” matter in our new politics?

July 05, 2024, 2:51 PM GMT+0

Well… how does it feel to you? I know it’s been barely a heartbeat since the new lot took charge but do you detect even the slightest sense that this has become a different country? “Different” in the sense that we don’t just have another party running the country. We have another class. In the words of the psephologist, Peter Pulzer, class in this country is the “basis of party politics, all else is embellishment and details.”

But he wrote that back in 1967. Does it still apply today? Or do you believe that in modern Britain we have left all that class nonsense behind us? And, if you do share it, are your expectations of the next five years based on whether you see yourself as working class or, for want of a better phrase, middle class? Or perhaps you hold the (possibly cynical!) view of the anonymous genius whose declaration was repeated on the radio this week by Giles Coren: “I did look into joining the working class but found out it is exclusively hereditary. If your parents weren’t working class they won’t let you in.”

Very funny and maybe there was even a smidgeon of truth in it when I was a youngster. But only a smidgeon. In my teens I worked in the Welsh valleys at a time when every other able-bodied man made his living digging coal. And, of course, he voted Labour. Unthinkable in those days not to. It was much the same in the district of Cardiff where I was born. An area that would now be considered a slum. We had an outdoor lavatory with newspaper nailed to the wall rather than toilet paper. Not nice in the winter – or, indeed, at any other time.

My mother was a hairdresser and cut the neighbours’ hair in our kitchen. Which was also where my father earned his money polishing posh people’s furniture. He’d lasted only a week in his first job after his apprenticeship. He was (unsurprisingly) sacked for punching the foreman on the nose. So he set up his own tiny one-man business and that, he reckoned, made him a Tory.

The word “Labour” was a term of abuse in my house. My father even joined the Conservative Club but was eventually kicked out because he refused one night to sit in the only free seat. It was directly beneath a portrait of the Queen and he detested the monarchy. If you’re getting the sense that he was a rebellious type you’d be right. But my point is that in those days in an area like mine your political choice was determined by your class and if you were working class you were expected to be Labour.

And that pigeon-holing hasn’t gone away – at least in one sense. Alice Thomson described in the Times how a confused American official got in touch with her when Rishi Sunak became prime minister and asked: “What is a Wykehamist?” She explained it was the term for a pupil who was educated at Winchester, a public school, which in Britain is actually a private school. It’s shorthand for posh and privileged.

“Your country is obsessed by class,” he replied. “I’m trying to explain back home that you don’t seem to mind much about race or religion, it’s all about background.”

Perhaps he had a point. Thomson suggests that we still seem to care about where our politicians come from as much as where they are going. What has changed, of course, is that most politicians now — apart from Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg — want to prove they weren’t born entitled and have had to strive and show resilience. Rees-Mogg has always taken the opposite tack. Rather than apologising for the influence on him of his nanny and his privileged upbringing he tended to boast about it. And, of course, he has lost his seat.

Starmer himself bears the burden of a knighthood. Perhaps when he accepted it he did not expect that one day he would be fighting an election as the leader of the Labour party. And that might explain why he invariably made a point in his speeches on the election stump and his broadcast interviews of reminding his audience of his allegedly humble background: the son of a toolmaker who lived in a pebble-dashed semi.

Even Rishi Sunak, heaven help us, laid claim to a humble background. Not altogether convincingly, it must be said. He might have got away with being privately educated by claiming that his parents struggled to pay the school fees - even if that wasn’t quite the equivalent of struggling to put food on the table - but he did not get away with telling an interviewer that his greatest deprivation as a youngster was not having Sky.

And now we have another party leader in the Commons who was educated at a public school, has enjoyed a little clay-pigeon shooting in his time and once had a bank account with Coutts, the most elite bank on the market. He is, of course, Nigel Farage, a man who has swapped clay pigeons for another target: the “elite ruling class”. Which, of course, invites the question: what class does Mr Farage belong to?

A question that might equally be addressed to David Lammy, likely to be the new foreign secretary. He was not born into the middle class but ascended the ranks pretty swiftly and completed his education at Harvard law school no less. He has dismissed the Conservatives as “not the class of people Britain needs to run it” because they have a “public school smallness” about them. He also compared Boris Johnson and Lord Cameron to aristocratic British colonial administrators: people who “have no real sense of the world as it is”. By contrast, he said, Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader from Manchester who was a single mum and carer at 16, “gets it”.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow paymaster general until his recent shock seat loss this morning, suggested that Labour could have the most working-class and state-educated cabinet since 1945. And his qualification for making such a judgement? “I’m definitely working class. My dad was a croupier in the Playboy Club in Manchester, my mum was a bunny girl … so I know all about class,” he said. Possibly tongue in cheek.

But what do the statistics tell us about the class make-up of our two main parties? The most obvious point is that we have come a long way since class was so often the defining qualification. It might not have been essential to be posh to climb the Tory greasy pole or the opposite in the Labour party. But it certainly helped and the available evidence suggests that perhaps it still does.

More than three-quarters of our new Labour cabinet will have been educated in state schools. Another way of looking at it, according to a new book Born to Rule: The Making and Remaking of the British Bridget, suggests that only 7 per cent of Sunak’s cabinet came from working-class families, compared with 46 per cent of Starmer’s team. Bridget Phillipson, the new education secretary, described it as “one of the most class-conscious shadow cabinets we’ve seen for some time”.

And the link between class and education seems tenuous at best. The new cabinet will be the most highly educated in history. Nearly half of our new ministers will have gained at least one postgraduate degree and all but two have undergraduate degrees. Only six of Sunak’s cabinet have postgraduate qualifications. So class is now no barrier to academic achievement. Nor, clearly, is it even a factor in political achievement. Quite the reverse.

But how worried (if at all) should we be if class distinction remains a factor? Alice Thomson makes the important point that Labour should not replace the culture wars of past years with class warfare. Those were the years when differences between left and right were defined in terms of deeply opposing moral values and beliefs. She thinks it’s not likely to happen because Labour’s core vote is changing. The evidence she points to is the latest YouGov tracker poll, which shows a higher percentage of ABC1 professional middle-class voters backing Labour than C2DE working class.

So where do you stand in this intriguing and important debate? Have you had enough, as Thomson suspects, of “distractions and division”. Do you want a pragmatic government that’s going to get on with the job of sorting out the nation’s many problems education without stoking any more discord?

Or do you take the view that, at its core, politics has always been a combative arena? Do you accept that there have always been vast differences in society between those who have and those who have not and if it takes some pretty radical measures by government to correct the imbalance, so be it.

Let us know.

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