Whenever anyone mentions class in British politics I immediately recoil. It comes from times in Labour politics where, being the son of 2 teachers and with a degree from Oxford, people view me with suspicion. Judge me for what I say and do, not what my background is, damn it, is what always springs to mind.
Cue a debate last night on Twitter, involving a whole bunch of Labour people, started with this:
Being inspired by @jimmurphymp at the #fols dinner: 'We should be about working class parents bring up middle class kids'
— (((Richard Angell))) (@RichardAngell) September 13, 2011
@steve_race we can't all be middle class though or the phrase is meaningless
— Mark Ferguson (@Markfergusonuk) September 13, 2011
@Markfergusonuk The terms working class and middle class have become so distant from original defn. Wish Labour wouldn't use either term
— Jon Worth (@jonworth) September 13, 2011
Class has ceased to be useful as a term based on workplaces and the economy – our economies have changed. Class instead is more of a means of identity based on the economic situations of yesteryear. This is how 57% of adults say they are working class in 2007, and in 2011 7 in 10 say they are middle class. Our economy is sure not in that state of flux, even taking into account that these surveys don’t use the same methodology!
All of this is not to say that there is not a problem – the UK’s economically divided society, the lack of social mobility etc., are well known. It’s just those divisions are not well represented by the working class / middle class frame any longer. Time then to abandon the frame, and for Labour and other parties to cease to use the terms?
Something nags at the back of my mind with this rejection though, for class is an emotional connection to some extent (see more in George Walden’s eccentric New Elites book). My mother will tell anyone who will listen how important it is that she’s from a ‘working class background’ (her father worked in a steelworks) and people like her are not uncommon. As George Lakoff so persuasively argues, the left is often lacking frames with a values-based, emotional connection. So is there some way to make something positive and useful from all of this?
The problem is that Richard Angell’s tweet, and Murphy’s quote, really should have read “We should be about parents who define themselves as working class bringing up kids who are economically middle class, but the kids still define themselves as working class, so they will still vote Labour“. Or am I too cynical?