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Home > Politics

Election 2005: No struggle but the Chardonnay struggle

20 April 2005

'There's now a kind of dinner party critic who quaffs Shiraz or Chardonnay and just sneeringly says "You are no different from the Tories". Most of the people in this category are pretty comfortably off: it's not going to be the end of the world if they get a Tory government. In a working-class constituency like mine, this is a lifeline. It's not a luxury.' - Cabinet minister Peter Hain

At first glance Peter Hain is right: it's simplistic to say that New Labour is no different from the Tories, because it ignores the genuine attempts Labour has made to improve public services, and generally be a bit progressive.

Sadly, give Hain's comments a second glance and you realise that what he really means is: 'We're bad, but not as bad as the Tories'. It's hard to disagree, but since when was not being as bad as something else considered praiseworthy? It's like cheating on your partner then saying: 'OK, I'm a shit. But at least I'm not the Yorkshire Ripper.'

Hain's comment is also a bit of an insult to our intelligence. Tony Blair misled the public to justify an unpopular war, so what is New Labour's reaction? Apologise? Get rid of Blair? No, just come up with this clumsy emotional blackmail: vote for us, or you'll betray the working class.

Well, that's told us (or rather the Chardonnay quaffing bourgeois ponces with their la-di-dah dinner parties, children called Oliver and Camilla, River Cafe cookbooks and modernist lemon juicers that look like spaceships.) Refuse to vote Labour and you may as well gob in the eye of an unemployed Geordie steel worker, sneer at his wife's chunky jewellery and steal his skinny children's Sunny D. You heartless cunts.

But why this sudden class hatred? It's hardly hypocrisy of the highest order, but what's wrong with drinking chardonnay or shiraz at dinner parties? How does Peter Hain like to spend an evening, we wonder? Is it:

A. In an expensive restaurant (or indeed at a dinner party) eating prime Scottish beef en croute washed down with a good merlot; or

B. In a grim working men's club swigging soapy water bitter and eating a sweaty cheese and pickle sandwich that's been festering in clingfilm behind the food counter for a few days?

But Hain's comment is actually part of a wider trend in British politics. You may have noticed recently that both New Labour and the Tories keep invoking two social groups. They are:

1) Hain's 'dinner party critics'. These are presumably middle class people who are achingly politically correct. They probably drive Volvos and own pashminas. They tut about civil liberties and claim to be re-reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. But under this liberal/socialist veneer, they know they can buy their way out of society's ills, by sending their children to private school and making sure they live in affluent, crime-free areas. In this respect they are entirely different to:

2) The put-upon working class. These are the ordinary people who live on estates that are plagued by crime. Unlike the chav underclass, they want to work and they want the best for their children. Both New Labour and the Tories are fond of the put-upon working class. New Labour says you've got to vote Labour, or you're selling the put-upon working class down the river. The Tories love them too, because they're able to justify their right-wing, borderline racist, policies on immigrants and gypsies by saying IT'S WHAT ORDINARY PEOPLE CARE ABOUT.

The big question is whether either of these groups really exist at least in the simplistic way the main parties are presenting them.

To return to Hain's comment: if anything, the parliamentary Labour party itself is far more closely associated with dinner parties, shiraz and chardonnay (or, more likely, a vintage mouton Rothschild) than the average Labour voter. The 'chattering classes' certainly do exist, but they're a minority. It's basically Cristina Odone, Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser. The real middle classes are a far more diverse bunch than this lame Daily Mail stereotype: the average teacher isn't going to send their kids to Perse School because the local comp is

Hain is also disingenous to imply a distinction between the squeamish middle classes who haven't got the stomach for the war in Iraq, and the working class. Opposition to the war has cut across every social boundary, and some of the fiercest criticism of the war has come from the working class areas that are traditional recruiting grounds for the army.

Finally, Hain is also somewhat off the mark about selfish middle class voters. If affluent people don't give a toss about the less well-off, they can vote for the Tories, who believe in lower taxes, cuts in public services and the private sector. However, a significant proportion of the middle class didn't do this. Where does Hain think Labour's large majority came from? Was it solely the product of the 'traditional' Labour vote? No. If Labour relied on traditional vote, it wouldn't be in power.

But what of the put-upon working class? Both main parties love them as much as they hate the chattering classes, but again, do they really exist?

Certainly there are plenty of people out there leading lives of varying degrees of grimness. The terrified pensioner living on a sink estate and families struggling to make ends meet certainly exist, but can they be neatly categorised in the way New Labour and the Tories suggest?

The problem is that New Labour uses the put-upon working class to divert attention from its own policy failings. In reality, a lot of people are disenchanted with New Labour for a wide range of reasons. Simply invoking 'ordinary' people doesn't change that. Even worse is New Labour's habit of justifying controversial and questionable ideas like ASBOs and all-over-the-place immigration policy in the name of these ordinary people. Still, at least it's not as reprehensible as what the Tories are doing.

If you believe the Tories, we're locked in a class struggle between honest, hard-working, 'ordinary' people and a politically correct ruling class. Ordinary people are sick of gypsies and thieves and immigrants ruining their country. And if you happen to be a dyed-in-the-wool racist, that's OK because you're an ordinary person. You're entitled to think like that because an illegal immigrant probably killed Tiddles to make traditional Bosnian cat stew. Michael 'Fucking' Howard knows how you feel. In fact he probably briefed the Daily Mail about it only this morning.

It's rubbish, pure and simple. New Labour and the Tories are happy to dredge up these simplistic notions of 'bad middle class' and 'good working class' because British politics has for so long been conducted at the level of, at best, sixth form politics, or at worst, the playground.

Above all, they refuse to accept that cynicism about politics has got anything to do with their own behaviour. But why bother when you can fight an election on the issue of whether champagne socialists are letting Bosnians pimp your Gran?

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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