Tag Archives: class

Know your place

I’m a bit of a shy republican, but today gave me a glowing reminder of why any sane person should be one (sorry Dad).

On the same day the Queen “generously” agreed to “rededicate” herself to the UK, Downing Street let it be known that the Cabinet spent their time “banging the table” to celebrate the passing of the Health and Social Care Bill.

It is no accident that this little snippet of information was leaked today. The triumphalism is palpable, as is the very explicit attempt to indelibly tie the Lib Dems to the reforms. So too is the signal it is intended to send.

This quintessentially public school act is very clearly meant to send the opponents of the bill a very clear, class-ridden message: “know your fucking place”. It is no coincidence it has been declared on the same day as all the pageantry going on with the Queen’s visit to Parliament.

This is all about class warfare. And, given the country’s response to the royal wedding last year, it will doubtlessly be extremely effective. Until we somehow manage to extricate ourselves from this mindset, the country will always be extremely vulnerable to such propaganda; however much we might consciously find such behaviour repugnant.

Know your fucking place, serf. And if you don’t like it, what are you fucking going to do?

Why the Conservatives have been making class an issue

David Cameron and his party have been bending over backwards to tell us how petty and spiteful it is to bring class into politics.

They have a point, up to a point. Certainly the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was a dreadful miscalculation by Labour – who, let us not forget, were treating the constituency as an hereditary seat and the idea of someone with the privileged background of Ed Balls claiming to be some kind of latter-day class warrior is just stupid. But regardless of how weak Labour are on the issue, the fact remains that it is primarily the Conservatives who have been making an issue of class in politics in recent years

Where do I start? Clearly there is that single, emblematic tax cut they want to give to all those who stand to gain from hereditary wealth, and in the last week there has been the eye-watering way in which Zac Goldsmith has sought to belittle his own bit of local difficulty by shrugging off a tax saving of £10,000 as if it essentially the same thing as a tenner he might lose down the back of a sofa. This was a highly charged political statement. What he was saying was: “I’m safe and I feel confident enough that I can rub my wealth in your face. What are you going to do about it?” If that isn’t making class an issue, what is?

A few weeks ago, Cameron made the highly controversial statement that what mattered was not the widening gap between rich and poor but the gap between the poor and the “middle” – if that isn’t a statement charged with class consciousness, what is? Again, the fact that Peter Mandelson has been saying essentially the same thing for the past decade and a half, doesn’t exactly help Labour provide a counterpoint to this.

The fox hunting ban is not something I feel particularly strongly about – I view anyone who takes pleasure out of the killing of a wild animal with contempt but there are good reasons for keeping the rural fox population under control and it is an issue that would be better regulated at a local government level in my view. I also feel that the ban hasn’t really worked and that for a lot of the Labour MPs who pushed it through, it really was a class issue. Rather than responding in kind, the Tories tack is instead to emphasise that this is not a class issue but a civil liberties one, whilst simultaneously announcing an intention to limit the right to protest. It is hard to see how legislating on fox hunting could be a priority for any government over the next decade, yet Cameron is determined to do so whilst simultaneously trying to mask it as some kind of march towards freedom. If they weren’t preoccupied with class, it is hard to see why they would be so determined to scrap the ban or to pretend it is about something it blatantly isn’t.

And then there’s this obsession that the Tories have had over the past decade with the social class of John Prescott and Michael Martin. The latter has been particulary interesting. All the time the Tories have been chuckling about the ineptness of “Gorbals Mick” it has emerged that the real Speaker Martin has been bending over backwards to defend the entrenched privilege of MPs – especially the wealthy ones – to trouser hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money in the form of “expenses.” He’s been their most faithful servant, and yet they have bullied him and hurled the most appalling insults at him. It is hard to look at this and not see a resemblance to arrogant Eton schoolboys behaving not like elected politicians but like people who have been born to rule. The only people who turned the expenses issue into the class issue have, consistently, been the Tories and their supporters.

And now we see Eric Pickles entering into that bear pit which is the Conservative attitude to class. Whatever you might think about Pickles, he is a politician with a track record in his own right. Yet what has happened to Pickles under Cameron? Well, he’s reinvented himself as the Tories’ answer to John Prescott. In doing so, he has adopted an avulcular, parodic working class persona which seems to have been plucked wholesale from the Beano circa 1959. Let’s be under no illusions here – this performance has precisly nothing to do with attracting the working class vote. You won’t see him playing up to the camera and mugging about his “chums” on Question Time or the Today Programme. No, it is about giving the party faithful what they want to hear on his regular emails and “war room briefings” in his role as Party Chairman. As far as they are concerned, the acceptable face of the working class appears in charming Ealing Comedies, not on housing estates. The fact that Pickles feels he has to transform himself into some kind of clown in order to keep the party masses happy speaks volumes about the view of class within the Conservatives. Frankly, I await the day before Pickles starts one of his war room briefings with an establishing shot of him showing his prize pet ferret around CCHQ, with all the bright young things around him cooing and stroking the creature. It is only a matter of time, trust me on this.

In short, the one party still obsessed with class in this country are the Conservatives. Frankly, it would be nice if there were a bit more class consciousness within the other two main parties.

(On a personal note, it isn’t that I don’t want to live in a classless, divided society, I really do. It’s just that it is painfully obvious to me that I don’t live in one and that we need to be talking about this much more.)

Why I just can’t get enough of bannng lightbulbs

I wrote my article earlier this week on the Daily Mail’s bonkers line about a sinister EU plot to ban traditional lightbulbs primarily to point out quite how many non-facts were in the story. I should have remembered the golden rule – nonsense begets nonsense. Because the next thing I knew I was getting ticked off, not for making any factual errors, but for advancing the cause for banning things (yes Jennie, I am talking about you).

There is a certain degree of irony in this, having pontificated about the perils of banning things myself from time to time. When it comes to bans, Rob Knight gets to the heart of things:

what about when trying to control the bigger picture is just as harmf ul as ignoring it?

Well exactly. Indeed, I would go further than that. You need more justification for a ban than simply some narrow cost-benefit analyis. You can justify pretty much anything that way. Where bans are bad is when they become about bullying and forcing conformity (the tricky thing being that sometimes not banning can have the same effect).

So it is that, eighteen months down the line – and despite being a non-smoker and enjoying the benefits – I’m still not comfortable about the smoking ban. Patio-heaters, and thus a cost to the environment, have not become quite as ubiquitous as we were promised they were – although that has clearly been a problem. The fact that every single bit of shelter on the London streets now reeks of tobacco as smokers have taken up semi-permanent residence, is an unfortunate by-product but still nicer than the alternative. Why I’m uncomfortable about the smoking ban is that I simply don’t believe that the dangers of passive smoking actually outweigh the denial of the smoker’s liberty – particularly given that as a non-smoker I always did have at least a degree of choice to avoid smoky pubs, etc. I appreciate it was a balancing act but I continue to think the wrong call was made. Furthermore, the more I consider the class angle and the fact that anti-smoking policies seem to be generating a small, inevitably poor, hardcore who are more addicted than ever, the more uneasy I get. These policies are helping those who need help the least while harming the most vulnerable.

That it was a balancing act at all however, is a fact that is not recognised by the libertarian right, who only consider the restriction on the smoker as material. And this gets to the heart of why I don’t frankly have much time for libertarianism. It is a fetishised, parodic version of liberalism in which personal liberty trumps everything (except money). Libertarians have it easy; they never need to consider anything other than the fact that all bans are automatically Wrong.

Going back to lightbulbs, the calculation seems extremely one sided if you accept the need for urgent action on climate change. Incandescent lightbulbs are not a lifestyle choice but a different way of producing light less efficiently. If you don’t define their dominance as a market failure (General Electric even originally decided to shelve the design of Compact Fluorescent Lights as soon as they were invented – they were only produced at all because the designs were “leaked” and copies made), I seriously question how you define market failure. We could try taxing incandescent bulbs and try gradually phasing them out like that I suppose, but that would be even less popular.

And the arguments in favour of keeping them? That CFLs are “too dim” (they aren’t)? The interests of the snake-owning, lava-lamp demographic (even that is contested)? 33 year old studies on fluorescent bulbs based on miniscule sample sizes? Come on!

There may well be a killer argument out there for not phasing out incandescent bulbs, but I haven’t heard one yet. You’re entitled to disagree with me of course, but until you can come up with a stronger argument, implying that supporting phasing them out is illiberal is simply lazy.

Representation in politics: what has gender got to do with it?

One anniversay, two very different ways of covering it. The Today programme opted to mark the 90th anniversary of the first woman elected to the Commons by interviewing the son of a hereditary peer and his granddaughter. Both of them poured cold water over the idea of all women shortlists altough, this being Tony Benn, he then instantly contradicted himself by calling for a system of doubling up constituencies to ensure they were all 50% male and 50% female.

Emily Benn, I’m afraid, rather drew my ire by describing herself as “post the 1970s, 1980s feminist agenda.” So, that would make you anti-equal pay, anti-choice, pro-casual sexism in the workplace and pro-domestic violence, then? If not, what was the 1970s, 1980s feminist “agenda” you consider so irrelevant? What do they teach in that school of her’s these days?

As someone who spent a lot of time in youth politics in the 90s, I found Emily’s “I am not a feminist” stance wearily familiar. In fact, she reminded me a lot of the 19 year old Jo Swinson. The older Jo Swinson however is much wiser, and on politics.co.uk has this to say:

“It’s not harder for women. It’s just harder for carers.”

“The division of family duties in society is still very unequal. This is what we find all the time. Women get involved in politics in their twenties and then in their thirties they say ‘I’ll take time out’. But men don’t take that time out.”

This is an absolutely crucial point, and one which so often gets missed or glossed over – sadly all too often by organisations like Fawcett. So often this debate gets turned into a simplistic, and thus irrelevant, debate about all women shortlists and not about what a truly representative parliament would look like. It wouldn’t look like the current one except with the male lawyers and political careerists replaces with female lawyers and political careerists. It would have a broader range of men. Let’s not forget that the woman whose achievement 90 years ago we are marking today, was a countess. John Harris has criticised the new Speaker’s Conference on a more representative parliament for ignoring class and he is absolutely correct.

Emily Benn may have very little chance of getting elected as the next MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, but if she chooses to stick with it, she is all but a shoo-in for the general election after next, largely thanks to the family name and the other advantages being a member of a family which has provided her with a stable family life and a good education. I hope that, as she grows older, she will gain an insight into that advantage instead of using the platform that advantage affords her to belittle the cause for women’s rights.

As I’ve written before, the BBC does not have a “liberal” bias per se, it has a middle class bias. Their coverage of this anniversary is an excellent case in point.

Why class still matters

There have been a series of articles in the Guardian over the past week that have made it clear that class is still a very real issue and demands a Liberal Democrat response.

First, John Harris wrote about the impact of right to buy on Tuesday. Then, Felicity Lawrence wrote about the politics behind Jamie Oliver’s new Ministry of Food. Finally, today Jon Henley wrote about smoking, and how people on low incomes remain resistant to attempts to persuade people to kick the habit. It strikes me all these issues are linked.

Taking John Harris first, I don’t share this romantic vision of sprawling 1960s era housing estates draining the coffers of local government (“when I were a lad, this were all sprawling council estate”), but I well recognise the problems of landlordism (*ahem*). What is interesting about Harris’ article is his description of how the positive side of right to buy that was very clear in the mid-90s – where, as he said, you could tell which houses where privately owned and which were council run simply by looking at which ones had the hanging baskets or had been painted relatively recently – has given way to a culture of buy to rent. The nice homes have been sold, their occupants have moved either abroad or to the country, and their homes are being filled with economic migrants. Local people aren’t getting a look in and with no new council houses being built they have extremely limited options. As we have seen in Dagenham, this is fertile ground on which the BNP can build their lies and half-truths.

In student areas, such as Headingley in Leeds where I used to work and Fallowfield in Manchester where I lived as a student, the result has not been ethnic ghettos (although there are plenty of those in Leeds and Manchester) but student ghettos. What these areas have in common is that the toxic mix of right-to-buy and buy-to-let has atomised – or more accurately stratified – local communities. Our cities have curdled like milk, with the rich clumping together in gated communities. Council housing won’t solve that problem by itself (indeed it pre-existed council housing, albeit not to this extreme), because the problem with that is rooted in our exaggerated land values which we allow people to speculate on not because of who owns the property.

Buying back properties owned solely for investment purposes and building on land with inflated values is a very expensive way of levelling the playing field, but with no senior politician prepared to look seriously at taxing land values (nice to see Polly Toynbee on board with that particular issue), it may be the only thing we can do. Meanwhile the cost of housing will continue to price our own workforce out of a job and favour economic migrants willing to spend a couple of years sleeping on floors in the UK in order to better their families’ lot. You can’t blame them, but there is little to be gained from expanding our own underclass.

Jamie Oliver’s programme dealt with fundamentally the same problem but from a different angle. Instead of housing, his concern is – not surprisingly – food. Oliver has an agenda to get Britain eating more healthily. In 2005 he set out to transform school dinners successfully (although it should be pointed out that Lib-Lab controlled Scotland was way ahead of him), although this in turn lead to a backlash. That backlash lead him to ringleader Julie Critchlow and the town she lives in – Rotherham.

In order to get Rotherham eating more healthily, Oliver’s plan is simple – teach eight “can’t cook, won’t cook” local residents the basics of cooking but on the strict understanding that they will undertake to pass the recipes they learn on to two of their friends, who are then to pass the recipes on to another two and so on, until the whole of Rotherham is cooking. If that sounds like a nice idea in theory that doesn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of succeeding, on the basis of the first programme you are correct. By the end of the first episode (I’m blogging instead of watching part two), even the most enthusiastic of his eight trainees are flagging.

Oliver’s mistake is hardly unique. It is the problem common to anyone who is convinced that policy makers need only concern themselves with equality of opportunity and “meritocracy” as opposed to outcomes. The theory goes that if you give people the right training and opportunities, they will run with it – unless they are lazy and feckless and not worth bothering with. At several points in the programme, you can see Oliver wrestle with that idea. To his credit, he is prepared to try to understand, but watching him listen to explain why, at the end of a long day at work, they lack the energy to leap in the kitchen and rustle up a meal, you can see it really grates against his whole outlook on life. Thatcher has a lot to answer for.

As is the nature of such “reality” television programmes, they have cherry-picked some pretty extreme examples of individuals who can’t cook, including an unemployed mother of two who feeds her kids kebabs on the floor every evening and has never so much as boiled an egg in her life despite having a fitted kitchen. What is clear though is that the problem is more than simply educational; as Oliver acknowledges but perhaps does not internalise, the problem is actually cultural and deeply ingrained. That won’t be solved by a few cooking lessons.

It isn’t to say his initiative is a wasted exercise (although if he really does want to get millions of people cooking he should probably consider producing a 99p version of his £25 book), just that it can only scratch the surface.

This is reinforced by Jon Henley’s article. Independently, I drew remarkably similar conclusions to Darrell G on Moments of Clarity. We appear to have come up with an anti-smoking policy that has proven to be remarkably effective at stopping you smoking – so long has you happen to be well educated, well housed and on a good income. If you are from a lower socio-economic background all it appears to be doing is eating up a bigger slice of your income and leaving you even more addicted. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

“One of the things that means, says Jarvis, “is that if you’re a poor smoker you’re going to want to maximise the ‘hit’ you get from each cigarette, because it represents a larger chunk of your income. The amount of nicotine you can get from each cigarette is very elastic; it depends how hard you puff, how deeply you inhale, how much of the cigarette you smoke.” Across all age groups, and even if they smoke the same number of cigarettes, poorer smokers take in markedly more nicotine that wealthier ones. “Smokers in lower socio-economic groups,” says Jarvis, “are addicted to a higher hit. Their nicotine addiction is stronger.

I have to admit, that gave me a “what the fuck are we doing?” moment. Sheesh – maybe John Reid was right. Unlike Jon Henley, I’m less than sanguine about the progress we’ve made in reducing smoking because it seems to have increased inequality. This is skirting dangerously close to Morlock / Eloi territory.

But it is also silly to say that we should never have made smoking a public health issue and settled for a less healthy but more “equal” society. And the theory advanced by some libertarians that any political party that became pro-smoking would instantly become massively popular is pie in the sky as well and not backed up by any evidence. It isn’t that poor people want to smoke; its that they live tough lives that make them prone to dependency. It is the same underlying problem that Jamie Oliver identifies. It’s about quality of life, but fundamentally it is about economics.

Most studies I’ve seen suggest that social mobility is now going in reverse after a half-century of progress. If that is the case, and our society is becoming rigidly stratified once again, then despite the “classless society” platitudes of the 1990s, it is time we started talking about class. In this respect, I pay credit to Nick Clegg for forcing the agenda on the pupil premium. We need more of that sort of approach.