Page last updated at 15:44 GMT, Thursday, 11 February 2010

Is the class issue dead in UK politics?

By Mary Ann Sieghart
Presenter, Class Dismissed

If you ever doubted that class was still thought to be important in politics, just look at the number of times the words "Tory toff" appear before the name "David Cameron" in a certain left-leaning tabloid.

David Cameron
David Cameron has faced frequent comments about his background

And if you want to get a feeling of how powerful this inverted snobbery is, just imagine it the other way round.

What if the Daily Telegraph always prefaced the name John Prescott with the words "Labour oik"? It would sound really mean.

But is this class consciousness something that voters share? Are they bothered that the Conservative leader went to Eton?

For the BBC Radio 4 show Class Dismissed, I went to North Kensington, the part of London where David Cameron lives, to find out.

Among the many shoppers I talked to, only one said he did not want to be governed by an old Etonian; the rest said they did not care one way or the other.

The truth is that, over the past decade or so, class has played a far less significant part in British politics.

Tribal voting

For a start, many fewer of us think of ourselves as working class. A recent YouGov poll for the Telegraph shows two-thirds of us say we are middle class and only 30% working class, down from 40% just a decade ago.

So if Labour were to target only working-class voters, it would never win an election.

But also we seem to identify with our class less strongly than in the past. Time was when our voting was much more tribal.

"My dad always voted Labour. I've always voted Labour," was what you used to hear.

People supported political parties like they supported football teams, through thick and thin.

Jack Straw
My old mother, whose hero was Clement Attlee, said to me recently, 'You know the reason he did so well was because he was a bit of a toff'
Jack Straw, Justice Secretary

And the parties they supported tended to match their class: Labour for working-class voters, the Conservatives for middle and upper-class people.

The Liberals always prided themselves on being a classless party - and their successors, the Liberal Democrats, still do.

Margaret Thatcher, though, in the 1980s, managed to reach out beyond her middle-class base to working-class voters when she allowed them to buy their council houses.

But it was Tony Blair's transformation of the Labour Party in the mid-90s that really shattered the class tribalism of British politics. He made great play of Labour being the party of the many, not the few.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said: "It's perfectly obvious why the Labour Party should have wanted to change its class image because the one thing that has undoubtedly has changed about class in Britain is the size of the classes.

"And the working class, which is traditionally associated with the Labour vote, has become the smaller of the classes.

"All parties have to persuade the country that they are standing up for cross-class issues, to stand up for the country as a whole, so they need to broaden their appeal.

"All parties are essentially saying 'We want a predominately middle-class society, living off brainpower not manual labour, and to a degree you have aspirations to be middle class and we understand that.'"

Blair effect

So, gradually, many more middle-class professionals felt comfortable voting Labour.

Polls suggest that the swing to the party in the 1997 election was highest among what are known as the ABs - the top two social classes.

New Labour's policies had certainly become more moderate, but the fact that Blair himself was a well-spoken barrister and had been to public school must surely have been reassuring for former Tory voters.

Michael Howard, who was Conservative leader from 2003 to 2005, now rather regrets talking in the 1990s to Alastair Campbell, who went on to become Blair's head of communications.

He said: "One of the pieces of advice which I most regret giving occurred during a conversation that I had with Alistair Campbell, when John Smith was leader of the Labour Party... which was that the Labour Party would never win an election until they had a leader who looked and sounded like a Tory."

Edward Timpson MP
Edward Timpson was called a "Tory toff" during the Crewe by-election

Howard played on his own background when he found himself across the despatch box from Tony Blair. "This grammar school boy will take no lessons from that public school boy," he declared.

So does it help a political party to have a leader who is cast against type? Does Labour do better when it has a posh leader? Do the Tories do better when their leader comes from a humble background?

Justice Secretary Jack Straw recognises that view.

He said: "My old mother, whose hero was Clement Attlee, said to me recently, 'You know the reason he did so well was because he was a bit of a toff.'"

William Hague became Tory leader when his party's fortunes were at their nadir, after the 1997 defeat. You might have thought his northern accent and comprehensive school background would have helped, because he did not look or sound like a typical Tory.

But however useful that might have been, his personality was not voter-friendly enough.

Brown jibes

Conversely, charm or a certain ease with voters can overcome class prejudice. Mr Cameron is a Conservative leader in the traditional upper-middle-class Tory mould - the first since Alec Douglas-Home to have been to a top public school.

However, despite Mr Brown's jibes, opinion polls show that only a fifth of voters, even in the bottom two social classes, say they care about his schooling.

When ComRes pollsters asked whether, bearing in mind Mr Cameron's Eton education and his "privileged upbringing", his policies were aimed at "helping rich people, rather than the whole country", voters disagreed by nearly two to one.

Trying to fight a class war may actually be counter-productive. Voters do not like either personal attacks or parties that claim to represent a sectional interest.

When Labour accused the Tory candidate in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election of being a toff, it misfired badly.

Mr Straw thinks these personal attacks are a mistake.

He said: "I don't think I would have chosen it. I think it's where people are going than where they've come from that matters.

"People can't chose their parents and in practice the scope that a child aged eight, nine or 10 has to choose the type of school they're going to go to is very limited."

After ministers like Mr Straw, Tessa Jowell and Lord Mandelson protested about Mr Brown's personal attack on Mr Cameron recently, the prime minister agreed to return to the New Labour tactic of soothing the middle classes.

'Lost out'

In a speech last month to the Fabian Society, he tried to reassure them: "The Tories have planned a raid on the quality of life of our middle class. It is only Labour that offers a manifesto for all the people of this country, only Labour that owns the progressive centre ground in this country."

But is there a danger that working-class voters will feel neglected if they sense both main parties are targeting better-off people? Mr Straw recognises the danger, particularly among the white working classes.

"There is a specific problem, particularly amongst white men, who feel that they've lost out in terms of life's chances, and they blame this on immigration, on the other.

"It's actually been a feature of British politics as long as we've had the other here. It was when the Irish came in the 1880s.

"In recent years, because the Conservative Party has itself sought to become multiracial and multi-ethnic, the Conservative Party has no longer been, as it were, the safe haven for racist views that it was.

"So people have drifted off to the BNP. It has affected the Labour Party more than others, but interestingly it's also affecting the Conservative and Liberal Democrat vote."

Mr Hague has been tasked with reaching out to northerners who might be put off by Mr Cameron's silky southern charm. He thinks his northern roots help him connect to certain parts of the country.

'Consumerist'

"Things have improved quite dramatically for us in the past three years, in the time I've been chairing the Northern Board. All the evidence is that we're advancing somewhat more in the northern marginals than in the country as a whole.

"Now, if you looked at the socio-economic breakdown of voting intention, it would be much more even and so it further illustrates that people are making their decisions now for their own reasons and on a wide range of issues and not because they think they belong to a particular class, which is no longer how British people regard themselves."

Maybe we have just become more individual, more consumerist in our voting patterns.

If a party is governing badly, we will chuck it out, whether it is the party our parents voted for or not.

If a party looks promising, we will consider voting for it, whatever our background.

That is surely healthy in a democracy. And if it means the political parties cannot take us for granted, just because we were born into a particular class, well so much the better.

We can keep them more effectively on their toes.

Class Dismissed can be listened to here on the BBC's iPlayer.



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