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Jeremy Corbyn is a risk the middle-class can afford to take

I’ve spent too long now watching the class I belong to live on its own sense of moral rectitude, says Sarah Ditum.

I know I’m middle class, because the day I needed to claim benefits and burst into tears because the queue was too long and I knew I would be going home without the money to pay the overdue electricity bill, the security guard took me aside and told me that if I came back early the next day, someone would be able to see me. I know the family in front of me were not middle class because the buggy they were pushing was a lesser brand than the one I was pushing, and because they were smoking, and because they had strong Sheffield accents, which I heard when they started to remonstrate with the security guard about the special treatment they (rightly) suspected I was getting. I hurried away, their threats to give me a good slapping echoing behind me.

The year of being poor was the year I knew my class most keenly. That year, I was thin because I walked a lot and ate mostly lentils, traipsing between the university campus where I studied English literature, and the flat I lived in with my boyfriend and our baby and the mice that poured in under the skirting boards. I paid for things with prayerful checks, hoping my student loan would clear in time. We took part-time jobs to eke out our tax credits – one working days, one working nights, meeting to hand over our baby. I stood in line outside seminar rooms, listening to normal students complain that they “hadn’t had time” to read Middlemarch over the summer, and wanted to deliver a slapping myself. The spines of all my Victorian set texts are split because I held them with one hand, cupping my baby’s head with the other, reading while I breast-fed.

That year was pinched and hard, and I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew that, in the end, I was more like the idiot children who couldn’t be bothered to finish a novel than I was like the neighbours I shared my mice with. I had a nice voice to talk to officials with, and a lifetime of trust that people in power were there mostly to help me, and parents who, if everything failed, would always come and get me. I had been brought up to believe that I would do well, sure of my own exceptionalism; my head stuffed with art and politics and foreign travel and table manners, so that if or when I sat down at formal hall one day, I would pass as someone who had always belonged there. My parents were the first generation of their family to go to university and lived very different lives to their parents. They wanted that life for me too.

When my boyfriend and me got our degrees and moved for work, we had to leave behind most of our furniture – all cast-offs and donations from family and friends. A little later we came back to do some final tidying up. I called in at my neighbours, and found myself sitting on my own ex-sofa, resting a cup on my own ex-coffee table, politely not mentioning it. That was the difference: neither of us had much, but I could afford to bet that there was more in my future. That’s what being middle class meant to me then. It was the promise that, however tired or wet or hungry I was that day, my future would be warm and dry and plump. I couldn’t always believe it. But I lived as though it were true, and by my acts I was redeemed.

Even so, the life me and my boyfriend had was really only possible because of a government that is now held in contempt by many of my peers. It’s hard to agree that New Labour was the epitome of neoliberal evil when tax credits kept you fed. Student loans and tuition fees smarted, but they didn’t stop me from doing OK. Labour helped me. It didn’t hugely help the place where I lived in my year of being poor, though. The constituency of Brightside and Hillsborough (once David Blunkett’s) remains a very safe Labour seat, but it’s never been given a solution for the disappearance of British industry. Unemployment is high, educational attainment low. The white population’s anxiety about immigration was evident when I lived there. Now, the second party in the constituency is Ukip (albeit second by a very long way). Sheffield voted, narrowly, for Leave in the the EU Referendum.

I didn’t live there for a general election, but the chances are I would not have voted for Blunkett if I’d had the chance. Class again. My issues were the Iraq war and tuition fees. I had a vague idea that a “proper” Labour government would not have done those things, and I took the goods of the Labour government I had for granted. In its turn, Labour took constituencies like Brightside and Hillsborough for granted, banking that they had no other party to turn to. That freed Labour up to move into the centre, where it won election after election. I still wish Labour had used that power to do more. I still think it’s wrong that the kind of redistribution Labour established could fix me safely back in the class where I started, but not haul up the whole neighbourhood.

But I want Labour to have power. I’ve spent too long now watching the class I belong to live on its own sense of moral rectitude, at the expense of the class I temporarily lived within. Corbyn's heritage, heirloom leftism is a luxury good – you can afford it if life under perpetual Tory government is something you can bear the cost of. And, like most retro pleasures you find at the farmers’ market, it’s a very modern version of the old: Corbyn’s Labour is a Labour movement for a world where labour has lost most of its former power. A Labour of the herbivores, headed up by a grammar-school boy, flanked by his Winchester-educated press-strategy man, still expecting the working classes to fall into grateful line. That’s an expectation that can no longer be relied on. I know I'm middle class now because Labour’s failure doesn't hurt me. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.