"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":

CEx
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!
x

Katharine
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!

Hannahbannanah
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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.