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This is class war! Between club class and economy, that is

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

So, here I am in club class on a plane running under the flag of a Well- Known Airline. Yes, yes, I know. What is a column calling itself “Down and Out” doing in club class? You may well ask. Well, sometimes this kind of thing happens, even to hacks. In my case, never before. If you spend your professional life working for newspapers and magazines of a liberal disposition, you’re lucky to blag a freebie to High Wycombe. But the magazine I’m writing for – not this one, it hardly needs saying – is stumping up and who am I to argue? The class struggle can go on hold for eight hours.

Class struggle

And yet . . . it can’t, not really. Loath to spend the four days at my destination on my own, I have decided to stump up half the economy fare for the Beloved so she can come with me. I also entertain a notion that we can swap over halfway through the flight and she can spend some time in the lap of luxury – a phrase that is a cliché, I know, but when the seat folds down flat and you can have as much champagne as you want, it somehow seems to have the force of accurate description.

The problem is, as so much is, all about class. About the only positive thing one can take away from the lesson I learned is that, for once, it is not necessarily the British class system that is to blame. It is the very structure of humanity. Let me explain.

So, there we are, the B and I, who have struggled in the early dawn light to get to Gatwick (a pain to get to, but it does have that groovy shuttle to the North Terminal, where you can look out of the front – “this is the best bit!” I say), are now parted at the door of the plane, where I turn right, she turns left. I have earlier tried to get her an upgrade, retaining a folk memory of the days when you could get an upgrade with a plausible manner, a winning smile and a nice suit; but those days are long gone. Upgrades are indeed available – if you pay something like £1,000 extra.

And I am shepherded into the club class bit. A steward offers me a glass of champagne. I accept it; and, for good measure, another. (I am a nervous flyer, unless anaesthetised.) The seats . . . they’re not seats, they’re cubicles. The cubicle I have been allotted – well, actually, it’s more like a spare room – has a fogged plastic dividing wall so you do not have to look at the pampered, ugly mug of the running dog of capitalism sitting next to you.

There is actually nobody sitting next to me and I have been given an aisle seat, which, although right behind the cockpit, is not my cuppa, so I ask if I can have a window seat instead, and the flight is so empty that I can (yet somehow they cannot see fit to bung in a few Morlocks from economy to fill it up and also give them the treat of their lives). What is more, this seat faces backwards and I can gaze at the engine’s turbine, so I’ll be the first to know if it stops; also, I gather backwards- facing seats are a good idea if the plane crashes.

I do manage to wangle an extra club class sponge bag, which contains a toothbrush, an individual portion of toothpaste, an eye mask, and two grammes of high-grade, uncut cocaine. (I made that last bit up.) Thinking the B might appreciate it, as well as my third glass of champagne, I sidle into economy. My, the seats look cramped. The seatbelt light has barely been switched off and I am reappraising my fellow human beings with unsavoury and ignoble feelings.

Guilt trip

A stewardess tells me that it is forbidden to take items from club into economy. She does not confiscate these items, to her credit, but my unease has been reinforced. And can you take items from economy into club? Like people, for example?

Earlier, I had asked about swapping seats during the flight and was told that, theoretically, after the meal has been served, this was possible, but now I begin to wonder. Worse, I wonder if this is desirable. I don’t fancy sitting here, I want to go back to my hotel suite. I have been spoiled. Literally: turned rotten.

So I spend the rest of the flight wondering what kind of wanker pays three times the cost of a ticket to sit apart from the plebs – or even blandly accepts that such a system should operate in the first place – and it doesn’t take me too long to come up with the answer: I am.

So, if I feel really, really guilty about sitting up here, does that make me any better a human being? And I am afraid I work out the answer to that one pretty quickly, too.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide