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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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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