Thursday, 3 December 2009

Are the Tories playing class warfare?

A shortened version of this article is published at Left Foot Forward.

Sometimes what people don’t say publicly speaks volumes about their own particular neuroses. Perhaps they hope to distract attention away from something that embarrasses them. Ironically, a deliberate omission can reveal that which it was intended to obscure. In the case of the Tory leadership, their fear of being branded as privileged public schoolboys, provides a good example of this.

At conservatives.com silence is deafening when it comes to public schools. Perhaps an edict was issued by Conservative Central Office excoriating all reference to public schools from online biographies? For if you surf around their ‘Meet the Shadow Cabinet’ section, you’ll be hard pressed to find any. David Cameron’s entry makes no mention of Eton. And the entry for his chief lieutenant, George Osborne, makes only the anodyne statement that he was “born and educated in London”. Indeed he was, at the exclusive St Paul’s School. Cheryl Gillian’s entry merely reads “Born in Llandaff, Cardiff and educated at local schools until the age of ten,” while omitting to mention that she later schooled at the prestigious Cheltenham Ladies College. Her own website mentions the Ladies College.

Of course what the Tories reveal about the educational backgrounds of their MPs is entirely a matter for them. They seem to be reluctant to be open about the huge number of their MPs who received the kind of privileged education that is out of the reach of almost all their constituents. This would be slightly more palatable were it not for the fact that their deafening silence on public schools is contrasted by the prominent place given in other MPs’ biographies to their state school educational background. Greg Clarke and Philip Hammond’s entries at conservatives.com are good examples. But if you spend some time looking around the biographies of the Tory PPCs, you’ll see this trend played out again and again.

This is, of course, all part of David Cameron’s attempt to re-brand the Tories. Even if most of his closest advisors and Shadow Ministers were educated at public schools, he doesn’t want the public, at least those outside the Westminster bubble, to be reminded of this. Why? Perhaps because it does not sit well with their new-found commitment to increasing social mobility, to bringing ‘law and order’ to their hitherto friends in the City, defend the NHS and of course, tackle the problems of poverty that they outrageously claim the Labour Party has compounded.

So according to the pundits, ‘class warfare’ is back. At PMQs yesterday the PM cheered his backbenchers with well-aimed and well-delivered jibes which skilfully referenced Zac Goldsmith, another Old Etonian, saying Cameron’s tax policies were “written on the playing fields of Eton.” Perhaps Brown and the Labour Party are on to something. Yet when so-called class war tactics were last tried, at the Crewe and Nantwich election, they backfired spectacularly. But those were dark days for Labour and for the Prime Minister and we are now entering a phase in the electoral cycle where the polls are narrowing and more scrutiny is being applied to Tory plans and personalities.

Labour’s critics are quick to deploy the phrase ‘class warfare’, because it dreadful phrase and describes something which, if it ever truly existed, has thankfully long gone from our politics and society. But what has not disappeared is a sense amongst the electorate that Britain, in so many ways, is not a country in which fairness take centre stage. People instinctively feel aggrieved that City bankers can cause a crisis that damages the lives and jobs of ordinary people, be bailed out with their taxes and yet continue to pay themselves huge bonuses. Gordon Brown will be hoping that his attempt to portray the Tories as the party which seeks to reduce tax for the well-off will gain traction with voters.

For the evidence from the Tory on-line biographies suggests that they are acutely sensitive about their leader, his inner circle and indeed the current and future parliamentary Tory party, being viewed by the electorate as out-of-touch and privileged. If they weren’t so vulnerable on this issue, David Cameron and George Osborne would not have looked so uncomfortable during yesterday’s PMQs and nor would Tory’s be so quick to dredge up notions of class war. Andrew Lansley certainly used the “class war” and “politics of envy” defence when the lack of reference to Tory frontbencher’s public school education was put to him by Anita Anand on the Daily Politics yesterday. Leading Tory commentators, such as Benedict Brogan, have also been quick to mention it. The shrillness of the response often indicates the accuracy of the attack! Handled with care, Labour could exact some electoral advantage from these recent developments.

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