“Harriet Harman puts class at heart of election battle” screamed the headline of The Guardian’s online version this morning. The sub header was a more measured “Labour deputy leader to make inequality a key dividing line with the Conservatives“. One of the quotes from Harman’s speech about the issue is: “Persistent inequality of socio-economic status – of class – overarches the discrimination or disadvantage that can come from your gender, race or disability.” This I find maddening.
If you read Harman’s words purely in terms of the economic interpretation of class her argument makes sense. But for me and for so many others the word ‘class’ rankles at a sociological level.
I’m by any definition middle class – 2 university degrees, working in tertiary industry etc. – and the same could be said for my mother, a teacher, who enjoys bourgeois pursuits such as regular visits to plays at Stratford and the Hay Festival. That doesn’t however stop her banging on about how her ‘working class roots’ are so vital to her. Essentially for her and many others the word ‘class’ is not purely economic, it is also social, and surveys tend to prove this in the UK.
Where Harman does have a point is to do with inequality. The gaping inequality in the UK economy is clear to see everywhere, from the idiocy where it’s viable to have armies of low paid workers handing out free newspapers to well paid commuters, to the dreadful condition of UK social housing. Wilkinson and Pickett’s landmark work The Spirit Level gives dozens of reasons why more equal societies almost always do better and – importantly – these benefits are not only confined to the poorer people in society. Even the richer groups in society benefit from safer streets, better life expectancy etc.
So, in short, “dealing with inequality” and “class war” (or words of that nature) must not be used interchangeably. Labour needs to promote a vision of a more equal, more fair, more inclusive society and – importantly – have policies that can actually deliver that. For the many, not the few as the 1997 line so aptly put it. Recourse to talking about class takes the focus of true inequality and pits one part of society against another, and that’s absolutely not what Labour should be doing. Just look at what happened in Crewe.