"Outfitters to the gentry"

Election-determining class dynamics being played out on the high streets of our "university towns"

Putting the more off-the-cuff 2010 predictions to one side for a moment, one thing that we can all be sure about is that political debate this year will keep on returning to the C-word as pre-election battles get down and dirty.

The question now is how both major parties will frame their approach to class. Will either party truly adopt the "class war" line that journalists have been bolting on to both David Cameron's and Gordon Brown's words for the past few months? The Times's political coverage over the Christmas period was dominated by reports of a rift between, first, Mandelson and Brown, then Jack Straw/Tessa Jowell and Brown, and then half the cabinet and Brown, over the Prime Minister's increasingly class-focused approach to oratory -- the "playing fields of Eton", etc.

On Christmas Eve the newspaper suggested:

A Christmas drive to reassure middle-class voters that Labour still supported the better-off was abandoned because of disagreements between Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson. The failure to mount a fightback against Conservative accusations that Labour has abandoned aspiration is the latest sign of tensions between Mr Brown and his most senior minister . . . Mr Brown's use of class-war rhetoric against David Cameron, the Tory leader, has led to concerns that he intends to fight a campaign aimed at shoring up Labour's core vote. Lord Mandelson, who is expected to be in charge of the campaign, is determined to ensure that the party maintains broad appeal.

Then came the Telegraph's suggestion at the end of December that inheritance tax represents "a tax on aspiration, thrift and independence that tends to be paid by people of relatively modest means". And so on.

Whatever official class line Labour and the Tories take in 2010, these so-called "aspirational middle classes" will, it seems, be the ones to watch. Which means that anybody with an interest in the outcome of the general election has a responsibility to start swotting up on what this particular buzz-term actually means: Who are the "aspirational middle classes"? I reckon there's no better place to start such an investigation, particularly during the January sales, than at Jack Wills, "outfitters to the gentry".

It's all too tempting to make fun of the Jack Wills brand, established in 1999, yet willing to place a pheasant wearing a top hat and carrying a cane, together with the words "fabulously British" and "university outfitters", at the heart of its iconography. One might choose to point out the way it edges closer and closer to self-parody with every new collection of clothing titles: "Brickford Striped Henley", anyone? How about a "Breckwood Melton Great Coat"? Or how it seems to encourage its 16-year-old salesgirls to wear Ugg boots, a hoodie, underwear and, um, nothing else while they're working. Or the way it proudly displays on its website a box of pencils, "sold in a branded rigid card case with magnetic snap closure", and costing a full £10.

But to do so is, perhaps, to underestimate the political insight into certain quarters of those all-important aspirational middle classes that the brand provides. Just look at the following exchange, lifted from the Jack Wills website's message board, a (sort of) direct rephrasing of Jack Straw's suggestion that it is "unfair to criticise individuals for something over which they had no control. Most people have little choice over where they go to school":

i might be being completely unreasonable but does it not really annoy you when people from state schools (nothing against them) come on and moan about us being stuck up and 'mean' to the state school kids. Jack Wills was CREATED for the private sector, sorry but it really bugs me!

agree with CEx. we can't help it that we have been born into luxury where we don't have to worry about a thing. the only reason they moan is that they are jealous of our lifestyle and secretly they want to be like us!

I went to state school, I am now at a state college. My sister goes to private school. I have nothing against private school people only snobs who think they're better than everyone else because of money.
That annoys me -- besides its far better to act with class regardless of how much money you have.

And then there are the little touches. The website, for example, includes a "lifestyle" section, complete with links to "polo" ("Meet the players!"), "seasonnaires" ("Winter in the Mountains") and, bizarrely, "library", recommending Lady Chatterley's Lover, a "genuine classic which has stood the test of time for the quality of the writing, not for the shock factor approach of today's reality TV 'celebs' ". Most tellingly, the brand's latest venture, a spin-off label "exclusively for the discerning" adult (named Aubin & Wills), features as its logo a top-hatted fox. A fox! What could be more class-war political?

I think the moral of the story is relatively straightforward: fancy winning the election, Gordon and Dave? All you need is an "Oxenford Topcoat", £498 but reduced to a mere £349. It really is as simple as that.


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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.