Class Dismissed

Should we really be judging politicians by their backgrounds? TOM MOULE tells us why this should not be the case.

bbc Eton John Major Nick Clegg Oxbridge posh and posher public school tony blair

A new BBC Drama, Posh and Posher – why public school boys own Britain, has recently examined the languishing nature of social mobility and the hegemonic influences of the privileged over government. Nevertheless, in using the social composition of the British Parliament as a barometer of social mobility, it would seem that we are missing the bigger picture.

Politicians of all parties have promised us a classless society, but with two thirds of government ministers coming from public schools (8 of which are from Eton) and all of the Labour leadership candidates coming from Oxbridge, their talk seems to have no substance. However we should not spend our time complaining about the backgrounds of our representatives. Instead we should be focusing on what they stand for if the classless society is to be realised.

Conservative Prime Minister John Major was a staunch advocate of the classless society in some areas of his rhetoric; however in others he would utilise his modest upbringing as a powerful political tool.  He summarised Blair with the jibe “New Labour, Old school tie,” and continued to play on the contrasts between himself (the man from a council flat who left school at 15) and Blair (Alumnus of Fetes and St John’s College, Oxford). It is of course a great thing that someone managed to move from poverty to Prime Minister, but in a classless society, our upbringings should be as irrelevant to how we are defined as our eye colours.

Major may have made efforts to reveal his poor childhood neighbourhood to the press, but it was posh-boy Blair who had the minimum wage under his belt to support people who still lived in such areas.  Indeed, leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, was also a public school boy; yet his conservative roots do not appear to be reflected in his policies either.

Alan Johnson, who featured on Posh and Posher, is portrayed as a quintessential working class politician. As a former post man who worked all the way up to the position of Home Secretary, many in the Labour party will mourn his recent departure from front bench politics. But it seems again that focusing on background is leading us astray of the real issues. This is particularly clear when one considers that Ed Balls, unlike Alan Johnson, is a proponent of the graduate tax.

Alan Johnson’s resignation also signals the decline of Blairite Politics at the top of the Labour party. But perhaps we should be less concerned about Johnson’s background and simply glad that Labour now has a Shadow Chancellor whose policies include a permanent 50p tax rate. Ken Livingstone, a huge supporter of Balls, would certainly agree with me that class is not the most important issue here.

When asked why William Hague’s state school background was so well propagated on the Tory Party’s website yet his was not, David Cameron (whilst inexplicably caught in a tundra) purported: “it’s not where we’ve come from but where we’re going that matters.”  So perhaps those who disagree with the abolition of EMA and the rise in tuition fees would do better to focus on where he’s going and not where he came from.

No matter what your political affiliation, it appears that class consciousness pervades the narratives of many politicians’ careers when it probably shouldn’t.

Politicians of all creeds have accepted their responsibility to emulsify class boundaries. But measuring their success by their make-up engenders further class-obsession; aspiring people from poorer backgrounds need more than a talisman. If politicians want to reach the elusive classless society, it’s important that the beacon of social mobility should be manifest in their politics and not their background.