Why it's Tory hypocrisy not to talk class

Heath, Thatcher, Major and Howard all played the class card

A packed lecture theatre, an esteemed panel and a single plea at this lively Fabian Conference session: "Will the real David Cameron please stand up?" Not a chance.

Despite the appearance of three members of the Conservative family on the panel ("comrades", said a welcoming Gaby Hinsliff) and lots of talk of localism, choice, decentralisation and the "post-bureaucratic state", there was a failure to convince on the central premise.

More notable was the level of political cross-dressing. Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, confessed surprise at how often she found herself agreeing with her fellow-panellist Polly Toynbee, of the Guardian.

Meanwhile, Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich and Clacton, came out as a staunch supporter of proportional representation. "I wouldn't want a monopoly supermarket or cinema in my town, so why would I want a monopoly on MPs?" he asked the audience, which, once it had digested the message, responded with sustained applause. (For the record, his PR method of choice is single transferable vote.)

Even on class, Dorries declared that it was an issue that "matters more than anything else in British society". Which puts her somewhat at odds with her leader, the subject of the session.

It took our host Sunder Katwala, the Fabian Society's general secretary, to get to the nub of the issue and in turn throw some light on the "real" David Cameron.

Katwala asked why talk of class was verboten in 2010. After all, Conservative leaders have long played the class card, from the grammar school boy Ted Heath, to Margaret Thatcher "the grocer's daughter", to John Major, whose famous trip down memory lane -- or rather down Electric Avenue in Brixton -- formed the basis of a party election broadcast -- and again, most recently, to Michael Howard, who chided Tony Blair across the despatch box, declaring: "This grammar school boy isn't going to take any lessons from a public school boy."

So it was more than a little strange, said Katwala with tongue in cheek, that only now we have an Old Etonian as Tory leader is the question of class off the agenda.

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What Labour MPs who want to elect the shadow cabinet are forgetting

The idea is to push Jeremy Corbyn to build an ideologically broad team, but it distracts from the real hurdle – management.

Labour MPs who have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn are pushing to vote for shadow cabinet members – rather than having all the posts appointed by the leader.

Most of the parliamentary Labour party who are not Corbyn loyalists believe this should be the “olive branch” he offers them, in order to put his recent words about “unity” and “wiping the slate clean” into action.

Corbyn and his allies have refused to consider such an idea outside of a “wider” democratisation of the party – saying that Labour members should also get a say in who’s on the frontbench. It’s also thought Corbyn is reluctant due to the shadow cabinet having three representatives on the National Executive Committee. He wouldn’t want his opponents voting for those, tipping the balance of the Committee back towards centrists.

Shadow cabinet elections were a longstanding convention for Labour in opposition until Ed Miliband urged the party to vote against them in 2011. Labour MPs on different wings of the party believe a return to the system would avoid Labour’s frontbench being populated solely by Corbyn’s ideological wing.

But there is a complication here (aside from the idea of a party leader having to run an effective opposition with their opponents in key shadow cabinet positions).

Proponents of shadow cabinet elections say they would help to make Labour a broad church. But really they could put those in the “make-it-work” camp who initially helped form Corbyn’s team in a difficult position. Initially conciliatory MPs like Thangam Debonnaire and Heidi Alexander have since left their posts, revealing frustration more at Corbyn’s management style than policy direction. Chi Onwurah MP, who remains a shadow minister, has also expressed such concerns.

One senior Labour MP points out that the problem with shadow cabinet elections lies in those who left Corbyn’s shadow cabinet but had wanted to cooperate – not in bringing ideological opponents into the fold.

“There were lots of people on his team who actually liked Jeremy, and wanted to make policy with him,” they tell me. “And many of them eventually felt they had to leave because of how difficult it was to work with him. They wanted to stay but couldn’t. If people like that couldn’t stay, will they go back? It will be much harder for him to show them he can work differently.”

One of the “make-it-work” faction voices their concern about returning to the shadow cabinet via elections for this reason. “A lot of us [who left] are still really interested in our policy areas and would be happy to help if they asked,” they say. “But it was too difficult to be taken seriously when you were actually in those shadow cabinet meetings.”

My source describes a non-collegiate approach in meetings around the shadow cabinet table, where Corbyn would read out pre-written opening statements and responses when they delivered their ideas. “It was like he wasn’t really listening.”

The plan to reintroduce shadow cabinet elections barely left the ground in a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee on Saturday night, on the eve of Labour conference.

This is in spite of Labour MPs urging the NEC to make a decision on the matter soon. Jon Ashworth, an NEC member and shadow minister, told me shortly after Corbyn’s victory speech that this would be “a good way of bringing people back” in to the team, and was determined to “get some resolution on the issue” soon.

It doesn’t look like we’ll get that yet. But for some who have already tried serving on the frontbench, it’s a distraction from what is for them a management – rather than an ideological – problem.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.