The middle-class snobbery about being middle class

A third of the most well-off, high status people in society consider themselves to be working class. Maybe it's time for some new definitions?

On facing pages of a weekend national newspaper, there are reviews of two new books, both analysing the British class system in different fashions.

One, Consumed: How Shopping Fed the Class System argues it's now all about money and how you spend it, while the other, Sorry! The English and Their Manners, touches on the use of English, social codes, and how to read them.

Both deal with a fascination that never seems to die among Britons - an endless discussion of class, what it means and why we might care.

Having lived outside the UK for part of my life, I identify a little with the outsider who observes British ways, and wonders why. Partly because, when I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during my high school years, I was always being asked by other teenagers to explain these funny little habits.

Britain was full of mysteries to Pittsburghers, who had an idea it was full of people either wearing bowler hats or kilts; who had no idea there was a country called Wales; and thought British music was oddly challenging; and that all of us were dead posh.

From the outside looking in, the fascination, or even obsession, with class in Britain feels idiosyncratic and oddly backward. Some of those authors who reflected it to the world, such as Wodehouse and Christie, were living abroad at the time; perhaps seeing it through a glass less darkly.

From Christie's snobbery about people with money but no class to Wodehouse's heroes trying to marry chorus girls, we have moved on through Upstairs Downstairs, and Essex Girls, to TOWIE, and still bright-cheeked columnists think it is public-school hilarious to come up with digs about Kate Middleton's mum party firm, and her air hostess past (wave your arms).

But it goes on, and on. In some tightly written newspaper columns, in the hallowed halls of Westminster, and other places where the chosen few have made it, comments float forth on where people were "schooled" and which "college" they went to; about "proper" universities, and the others; and who says "loo" and who doesn't, and who cares?

Yet, in 2013, we do still care. But the markers have changed. In British Future's new State of the Nation 2013 report we find that a third of the most well-off, high status people in society (the ABs) see themselves as working class, rather than middle class.

Middle class, you see, has now become the thing that people are snobby about, so there's no longer any need to lose your regional quirk, and find your inner U. Because being "a bit middle class" is a term edged with irony, and certainly nowhere near a compliment. While in 1950, the majority might have been striving to become the middle class, these days those who have it are throwing it back, and embracing their living-in-a-cardboard-box heritage, having decided it is far more cool to be working class. We all go to the footie now, well except those people who can't afford the whacking great ticket prices. This new-cooler-than-school working class means Westminster bigwigs and big business chaps who talk "football" can be like one of us, even if they live in a more brightly lit world.

Time then for a new definition or two? If we could move on to a place where everyone who works is working class, then that brings a whole lot of us on to the same side. If we are on the same side then we could stop caring why this sentence or that shopping bag makes us just that little better than someone else. And then maybe we could be all in it together.

But history suggests that just wouldn't be British.

Rachael Jolley is editorial director of British Future.

 

Shopping in Waitrose is generally considered to be a very middle-class thing to do. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.