I enjoyed Andrew Neil’s BBC4 documentary Posh and Posher. If enjoyed is the right word, which I’m not sure it is. It was compelling in collating all the evidence to suggest – as Neil concluded – that politics is becoming ever more dominated by elites – rich people, urban middle-class university (mainly Oxbridge) graduates, and worst of all, the public schools.
And I also agree with Neil in that we can’t stop with the
coalition Tory-led government. The Labour party is hardly a beacon of social mobility either – and while under-representation of women and ethnic minorities has been recognised and, to some extent at least, dealt with via shortlists and targets, under-representation of working class people seems to get brushed under the carpet.
It’s as if it just ain’t fashionable to talk about class anymore. I don’t like linking to Daily Mail articles but I’ll make an exception as this one’s by Ken Livingstone. I remember hearing Ken talk at a hustings with Oona in Dagenham – elaborating on this issue. “The problem was,” he said, “that too few of us came from the working class. It was really just me and – what’s his name? That postman!”
Ken’s absent-mindedness aside (let’s remember his recollection of facts and figures is second to none!), he was spot on. As Andrew Neil said in the film, things haven’t got better either. Since Prescott, Johnson and Livingstone very few working class men and women have risen to the top of the Labour party. And it’s something the leadership seriously needs to address – and not beat around the bush in fear of saying the c-word. Not that we should exclude people from politics on the basis of inverted snobbery – but fair representation just ain’t happening. And as a “leftist” (to reclaim the Sunday Times witch-hunt word) party we should care about that, and distinguish ourselves from the party of that other c-word in the Department of Culture.
The issue reminds me of a discussion at a London Young Labour meeting at the weekend – a debate between Christine Quigley and Susan Nash, both of whom are vying to be chair of (national) Young Labour. Cat Smith, women’s officer and vice-chair of LYL expressed her concern that while we had fairly good LGBT and BME representation on LYL, most of us were either university students or on one side or the other of being so. “We need to do more to represent young workers and people outside university education,” she passionately argued.
Both candidates gave insightful responses, although Quigley has evidently been working hard already as LYL chair with trade unions to make sure the Labour party isn’t just middle-class in make-up in the years to come. Being university-intended myself, of course Labour should be doing all it can to recruit here – but I joined Labour because I believe people of all classes, and all occupational persuasions, should be valued. If I’d wanted to mix purely with middle class people – and believed that they were better than the poor – I’d be a Tory or Lib Dem.
Neil’s conclusion that Bring-Back-The-Grammar-Schools is the answer was disappointing. Whenever this question is brought up it seems to be largely forgotten that while there were cases of poor people rising up to the top rungs through the Grammars, these schools were largely dominated by middle class children anyway. And no matter how hard you try, Andrew, you can never stop such a selective system consigning some to jobs (or no jobs as the case may be) they won’t find stimulating.
So for your next documentary, Andrew, how about a feasibility study into getting rid of private schools? Well done for doing something to stand up to them, anyway.