Miliband's big opportunity is to unite the middle and working class

By promising fundamental changes to the economy, the Labour leader can carve out a new coalition which quietly puts to bed the old battle lines of the 1980s.

Goldman Sachs will kick off the controversial bonus season today when they announce their results. That is presumably one reason why Ed Miliband chose this week to launch his challenge to the government around banks. If it hadn’t been for the looming Miliband speech, there would be the usual hand-wringing about bonuses, the usual debate about equality – and the response about how much the City earns for UK plc. In short, the same old stuff. But thanks to the Labour leader's linking of the issues, there is at least an implication that bonuses need to be an issue for the middle classes. 

This is uncharted territory because we have become so used to the idea that the middle classes benefit from the success of the City that we forget that bonuses tend to get recycled into property. which feed into house prices and rents, and slowly prices everyone else out. We haven’t seen how bonus culture – and the extreme salary packets of bankers – are the cuckoo in the nest which feeds into inflation for everyone else. And how they corrode what used to be known as middle class values, morally and economically. We don’t see how the values of financial services are driving out the traditional values of thrift and deferred gratification.

This is important politically because we are, in some ways, still stuck in the Thatcher era when it seemed to be obvious that the interests of the working classes and the middle classes were diametrically opposed. Since then, the economic underpinnings of working class life has been kicked away by global competition. But you only have to look at London to see that the middle classes seem to be on the same track – no middle management, and priced out of the neighbourhoods where they grew up, and their children likely to be priced out of the neighbourhoods they are living in now.

My own small three-bedroomed home in north Croydon is worth £500,000, which will effectively exclude my own children from the area – unless they go into financial services, of course (if I see any of the money, it will replace my non-existent pension and social care insurance).They will live in a landlord-dominated city, paying extortionate rents to the agents of the Far Eastern investors and speculators who chose to rent out their homes, rather than keeping them empty for tax reasons.

No proper pension provision, panic about schooling, their jobs disappearing and their salaries corroding, the middle is being squeezed.  If these trends continue – and there seems to be no reason why they shouldn’t – there will be no middle class in a generation, just a tiny elite and a vast, dependent proletariat, which is what the Miliband intervention implied but did not spell out.

It is, of course, partly their own fault. The middle classes misunderstood the emerging financial services sector, assuming it was on their side , when, as it turned out, it wasn’t (as the Lloyd’s Scandal showed in the early 1990s, the failure to learn the lessons of which led to the 2008 banking crisis). They cheered rising house prices without realising they would eventually throttle their children.

So this is also a dangerous moment politically because the beleaguered middle classes are beginning to wake up to the fact that they are heading in the same direction as the working class – precarious, dependent and timed when they go to the toilet at work. They feel excluded by the mainstream parties, which claim to support them but actually don’t, and are flirting with what Jean Marie le Pen used to call the "anti-technocratic" right.

This is an opportunity for Miliband to broaden his own appeal, if that is the main objective, but there is also a much broader opportunity, if he has the nerve. It is to redraw the political battle lines and carve out a new coalition which quietly puts to bed the old battle lines of the 1980s, and begins to work for the beleaguered majority. But that is going to require bold change, and some consensus across the political divide, and will need something much more fundamental than more childcare, a few more banks and raising school standards.

David Boyle is the author of Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis (Fourth Estate, published 16 Jan)

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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It harms women more than men when dads doing parenting are seen as “babysitters”

In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

“Dads don’t babysit (it’s called ‘parenting’).” So says the T-shirt created by Al Ferguson of The Dad Network, in response to the assumption that a father seen caring for his own offspring is simply playing the role of temporary childminder.

The t-shirt has prompted a great deal of debate, not to mention marketing opportunities (you can already buy a “my dad doesn’t babysit” onesie for your little one). It seems more and more fathers want to be recognised as equal carers, and who can blame them?

From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see why describing fathers as “babysitting” their own children is a bad idea. It lowers the expectations placed on fathers, putting them on a level with people who have no emotional ties to their children and are merely providing a service.

It feeds into the myth that when it comes to wiping bottoms and drying tears, fathers are amateurs while mothers are naturals.

It suggests that childcare remains the sole responsibility of mothers, who should therefore be grateful should any man bother to “help them out”.

It’s rare to see mothers described as “babysitting” their own children. On the contrary, one is either “being a mother” – doing what mothers do, without receiving any particular recognition for it – or one is guilty of neglect.

To that extent, I’m with the dads. I don’t want them to be seen as mere babysitters any more than you do. And yet there’s something about the testimonies of some of the “babysitting” dads of reddit that I can’t help but find annoying. Sure, their parenting efforts aren’t always appreciated – but do they have to be quite so self-pitying about it?

Take this complaint appearing in the “Dads don’t babysit” thread, for instance:

“Watch comedy shows about families. Dad is always the bumbling but loveable fool, mom is the strict, way too good looking, poor woman who has to put up with all of this.”

Poor men. Poor, poor men. And lucky, lucky women for being the beneficiaries of gender stereotypes that would appear not to bear any resemblance whatsoever to real life.

Except that’s not quite true. While the number of stay-at-home fathers in the UK has risen, it remains relatively low at 16 per cent of all stay-at-home parents. In heterosexual couples where both parents are in paid employment, women continue to take on the majority of household tasks and childcare responsibilities. While carework is seen as the key reason why mothers earn less than childfree women, men with children earn more than men without.

Moreover, there is evidence that men tend to cherrypick when it comes to the type of childcare they are willing to perform. Kicking a ball about in the park is one thing; taking time off work to look after a sick child is quite another.

Of course, when I say “men” I mean #notallmen. But enough men to make it somewhat galling when “fathers being seen as mere babysitters” is presented as an injustice not just to women, but to men.

The trouble is, when it comes to how children are cared for, many fathers do behave more like babysitters. They get to do the fun tasks; they don’t end up out-of-pocket; they’re not expected to stick around to clear up afterwards. Not all men are like this, but is it really fair to pretend that current divisions of labour are more equitable than they really are?

This is a common dilemma for feminists when dealing with gender. Do we let language run ahead of reality on the basis that this in itself will change expectations of what should be, creating a virtuous circle of cause and effect?

Or do we assume, as I tend to, that any linguistic manoeuvre suggesting that equality has already been achieved will be used to suggest that women have nothing left to fight for?

After all, we’ve already been told, for years on end, that “perhaps the pendulum has swung too far”. Alas, it’s utter nonsense. The “pendulum” remains one massive swinging dick, swooping between boorish laddism on one side and performative new man-ism on the other. Women don’t even get a look-in.

It’s easier to be frustrated at gender stereotypes than it is to remember why they exist in the first place. Inequality between men and women is so deeply ingrained – and so pathetically mundane – that we forget beliefs about men and women’s “essential” selves have anything to do with it.

We treat the imposition of gender roles as equally unfair on both men and women, failing to register that it is through these assumed roles that men have acquired the vast majority of the world’s wealth and resources. When men suffer due to gender, it is a side-effect; when women suffer, that’s because it’s the whole sodding point.

Thus a woman trying to gain acceptance while performing what is traditionally seen as a “man’s” role is not in the same position as a man performing a “woman’s” role. The woman will eventually crash into the glass ceiling, while the man may well find himself on board the glass escalator instead.

From a male perspective, this particular privilege is experienced as a mixed blessing. To their credit, some commenters on the reddit thread note how the criteria for being a wonderful dad can end up the same as those for being a terrible mother:

“When my kids were little I’d take them to the playground and chase them around a little bit then settle in on a bench and look at my phone while they played. I can’t count the number of times people walked up to me while I was essentially just airing out my kids, and told me that I was a wonderful father. Meanwhile when my wife took them to the playground, when she sat on a bench and talked with her friends, people would tsk tsk her for not attending to our kids 100% of the time.”

The belief that men are not natural carers heightens the value of the caring work they do, whereas the belief that women are not natural, say, artists or politicians leads to them having to work several times as hard to be taken seriously. In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

We all deserve to be recognised for the roles we perform. Nonetheless, there’s a difficult balance to be made between reflecting the ways things are and the way they should be. When it comes to shared parenting, I’d like to assume that we all want the same thing. But if that were the case, devoted dads, surely we’d already have it by now? And since we haven’t yet been there and done that, is it really time to be getting the t-shirt?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.