PMQs sketch: Ed launches class war

Dave on the ropes after Miliband goes for Tory jugular.

After 18 months in the doldrums Ed Miliband at last came up with a successful strategy today for taking on the Government -- munching on millionaires.

It may seem odd that the leader of the Labour Party has taken so long to remember its history but that only goes to show how deep Lord Mandelson's "relaxation" with the filthy rich had sunk its roots.

But having successfully snacked on Stephen Hester over the weekend and gorged on Fred Goodwin yesterday, Ed clearly had the taste as he popped into the House of Commons for what turned out to be a lunchtime feast at Prime Ministers Questions.

Having stared at them across the Chamber since the General Election, Ed finally came up with the collective noun for the Coalition Cabinet that has been escaping him for months: millionaires.

Someone somewhere on the Labour team had remembered a fascinating fact which appeared and then disappeared after the election -- that almost everyone sitting around the Cabinet table has more than a Hester-sized slice in the bank.

Standing up to face the head millionaire, otherwise known as the Prime Minister, Ed, buoyed up by giving Dave a good kicking in the loose change over the banks and Europe, was cheered so loudly by his side that he looked around to see who else had come in.

But he was the hero as he demanded Dave follow up on his pre-election pledge to name all those in the banks who would be trousering at least a million despite collapsing share prices and the continuing crisis. As this could be a list that could take several hours to spell out, Dave could only adopt the historical precedent at PMQs and remember there is nothing in its title about answers.

Having failed to get millionaire Dave to answer, Ed then named his millionaire buddy Chancellor George as someone else who said names should be named.

Talking about money always makes the well off uncomfortable and the Tory side of the House seemed uncharacteristically quiet as Ed deployed both hands to make his point.

With Labour members now beside themselves with unexpected elation, Ed introduced a charge not heard since Tony and his pals seized the commanding heights of the Labour Party twenty years ago and delivered it directly to Dave.

"The class war," he said, "is being led by him and his Cabinet of millionaires." It was impossible to tell if all the Front Bench had heard what he said over the noise from Ed's new fan base, but Dave recoiled on their behalf from phraseology he and they must have thought would only ever be heard from Denis Skinner (who himself could be forgiven for thinking he'd woken up in the wrong place).

It remains to be seen if class war is taken out again from its glass case in the Museum of Labour History, and it is hard to avoid the glee with which it will be received at the Daily Mail, but it certainly did the business today.

The Prime Minister, now clearly unnerved by the drubbing he was getting, tried to bounce back with a charge of "hypocrisy" against Ed -- but when your luck is out, it really is out.

Quick as a flash, Speaker Bercow, whose own relationship with Dave is less than warm, was out of his seat to announce that the word was unparliamentary and must be withdrawn.

With their man floundering on the ropes the usual suspects on the Tory benches desperately tried to come to his aid with a series of fixed questions on the benefits cap due for debate later.

Labour is much less sure-footed in this area but Ed quite happily ignored the Prime Minister's increasingly frustrated attempts to draw him in. Chancellor George meanwhile sat silent as both counted down the minutes to the final bell setting them free from the nightmare.

But Ed was not finished and popped up again to list everyone in the NHS who had now come out against the Government's non-reorganisation plan to re-organise the health service.

If millionaires are Dave's latest nightmare, the cock-up over the NHS has been keeping him awake for months, and Ed's reminder only served to push his above-the-collar hue right off the colour charts. It was the Prime Minister who famously said: "We are all in this together." All of a sudden, we are not.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage