The politics of class has returned to Britain — and in Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls Labour has found its chief exponent of class-baiting. Balls will never pass up an opportunity for taunting the Tories about their toffishness and out-of-touch-ness, accusing them of promoting only the interests of their millionaire chums in the City. After March’s budget Balls had much fun joshing that class war had broken out within the Conservative Party — between Cameron and his old Etonian coterie on the one hand and the alumni of “minor public schools” such as George Osborne and Michael Gove on the other. By what logic Osborne’s alma mater, St Paul’s, indubitably one of London’s top two independent boys’ schools, is a “minor public school” was not explained.
Tony Blair, albeit in the face of some stern resistance and talk of treachery, seemed to have expunged class from the Labour lexicon. During Labour’s victorious 1997 election campaign one Labour political broadcast presented a phalanx of business leaders and other wealthy types saying that they now supported Blair and would be voting Labour. In 1998, when he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson famously said that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. During the 2001 election campaign Blair was interviewed on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman and was asked: “Do you believe that an individual can earn too much money?” Blair’s response was dismissive: “No, it’s not a view I have. Do you mean that we should cap someone’s income? . . . Why? What is the point? You can spend ages trying to stop the highest-paid earners earning the money but in an international market like today’s, you probably would drive them abroad.”
Paxman then pressed Blair on why the rich should not pay a higher rate of tax, asking: “Where is the justice in taxing someone who earns £34,000 a year, which is about enough to cover a mortgage on a one-bedroom flat in outer London, at the same rate as someone who earns £34 million. Where is the justice?” Apart from reminding us how much further house prices have risen in London, Paxman’s question is exactly the line of argumentation Labour is now using. Blair’s response could have come straight from Osborne: “The person who earns £34 million . . . will pay far more tax on the £34 million than the person on £34,000 . . . The fact that you have some people at the top end earning more, fine, they pay their taxes . . . If you end up going after those people who are the most wealthy in society, what you actually end up doing is in fact not even helping those at the bottom end.” Blair sums up his attitude with a line which was seen as a betrayal of all that Labour traditionally stood for: “It’s not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.”
Blair stuck to this position throughout his time as Prime Minister; indeed, Gordon Brown after taking over in 2007 maintained this line for a while before introducing an additional rate of tax of 50 per cent on earnings above £150,000 in 2009, which came into effect in April 2010, just a month or so before the Tories were returned to power. The Labour Chancellor at the time, Alistair Darling, suggested that the additional rate of tax was a temporary measure to offer some counter to the ballooning of the deficit after the 2008 financial crisis and the resultant bailouts.
Today it would be inconceivable for a Labour figure to make statements like Blair’s. Instead, the party has reverted to an older narrative of class division. Ed Balls is the driving force behind this move and the party’s main line of attack on this government is that it is so wealthy and out of touch that it cannot see the problems faced by ordinary people and, worse, is only interested in promoting the interests of the rich and powerful. Despite the considerable evidence that the Coalition’s lowering of the additional rate to 45 per cent in 2013 has increased government revenue, Balls has pledged to restore the 50 per cent rate, come what may.
When economic interests are not involved, the attack switches to the Tories’ supposed social aloofness and otherness from the pleasures and pastimes enjoyed by the rest of Britain — as if the Labour leadership’s own interests and tastes were wholly in tune with those of the average Briton. (Balls lists his recreations as football and the violin.)
Why has Balls taken Labour’s rhetoric back to a time before Blair? Having joined Brown’s office in 1994, Balls was, after all, at the heart of the New Labour project, albeit as a Brownite, throughout. And is Labour’s new rhetoric likely to be succesful?
Balls’s attitude can partly be explained by his own background. It is not that Balls had a working-class upbringing — far from it. His father, Professor Michael Balls, is a zoologist who specialised in finding alternatives to animal experimentation. He taught at the universities of East Anglia and Nottingham; during his time at East Anglia, when Ed was a small boy, the older Balls actually taught at Eton for a term as part of an exchange programme with the school. At a substantial financial sacrifice to his parents, Ed and his two siblings went to fee-paying schools. Ed attended a “minor public school”, Nottingham High. (Tory minister Ken Clarke attended the same school when it was a direct grant grammar school. Its fees are now £12,291 a year.) Ed then followed in his father’s footsteps to Keble College, Oxford. There he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics and graduated with apparently the fourth highest first in his year — according to Independent columnist John Rentoul, a higher first than that of his contemporary David Cameron. Balls too was a member of an Oxford drinking club, the Steamers, albeit one with a lesser pedigree than Cameron’s Bullingdon.
Balls went on to be a journalist at the Financial Times, as did his younger brother Andrew. For both brothers the paper was a stepping stone to greater things; Andrew is now Deputy Chief Investment Officer of Pimco, the world’s largest bond trader. He was reportedly paid a bonus earlier this year of £4.5 million.
Most of Britain is simply not familiar with the kind of world of privilege that Balls enjoys attacking. Apart from having heard of Eton and Harrow and perhaps Winchester, they have no conception of the pecking order — or indeed that there is a pecking order — in the independent schools attended by 7 per cent or so of children. Until the press went overboard on reports of the university antics of Cameron and Boris Johnson, few people had ever heard of the Bullingdon Club, let alone knew how it might differ from other “lesser” Oxbridge drinking societies. Most people have never met a banker or fund manager whose annual bonus is more than they can expect to earn in a lifetime. Because of his background, Balls is acutely aware of these worlds, while not part of them. Might not this be the cause of his anger? It seems too visceral to be wholly confected.
It is undoubtedly the case that the current government is widely perceived, to paraphrase occasional Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, as consisting of a cabal of out-of-touch posh boys who don’t know the price of milk. The fact is that Cameron’s government, as I have previously argued in these pages, is the least patrician, least wealthy and least public-school-educated — indeed the least Etonian — Conservative-led government this country has ever seen. This reality will, however, do nothing to change perceptions — and in electoral terms it is perceptions that matter.
The trouble for Labour with running class-based attacks on the Tories is that, for much of the public, all politicians are members of a privileged elite living in a foreign country. The differences between Nottingham High and Eton may be a gaping chasm in Balls’s mind: they are all part of the same world of privilege to voters who have to send their own children to the local bog-standard comp. A party led by Ed Miliband will find it extremely difficult to present itself as representing Everyman — to most voters the world of Marxist north London intellectuals from which he hails is every bit as foreign, and rather more exotic, than that of Home Counties stockbrokers.
Austin Mitchell, the 79-year-old Labour MP for Grimsby who last month announced he would be stepping down at the 2015 general election, said as his parting shot that Miliband needs to “bring the debate down to the level of ordinary people . . . [he] needs to get out and mix with ordinary people more.” This must be a somewhat galling statement coming from Mitchell, whose appearance in Tower Block of Commons — a Channel 4 series in which MPs swapped places with council block tenants living on benefits — did nothing to reinforce his own image as a tribune of the people. Nevertheless, the comment does reflect a wide popular perception of Miliband and will have some resonance.
UKIP seems to be the only party which has managed to capitalise on the public contempt for the otherness of politicians. This may be somewhat ironic — its leader Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated former stockbroker who has been an elected politician for 15 years. But nevertheless he has so far not been sullied in the same way for being remote from ordinary people’s lives and concerns. Farage has achieved this — whatever one may think of his policies — not by pretending to be something he isn’t but by talking about issues that matter to many voters, especially the broad mass of lower-middle-class and aspirational working-class voters that Labour must win over if it is to achieve secure majorities in the future. This seems to have worked rather better in catching the voters’ imagination than Balls’s inverted snobbery and his promises of squeezing the rich until the pips squeak.