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26 September 2010

Muddle in the middle

Is Ed Miliband aiming to appeal to Middle Britain or to the middle classes?

By Sholto Byrnes

The Sunday Telegraph, of all papers, should know better — and would have done when I was a junior reporter there in 1996. A news item about an article the new Labour leader has written for the paper carried the headline: “Ed Miliband: my pledge to the ‘squeezed’ middle class” and then goes on to explain, “Ed Miliband made an immediate appeal to the ‘mainstream’ voters of Middle Britain after winning the Labour leadership with a dramatic and narrow victory over his older brother, David.” But Middle Britain and middle class are not the same thing at all.

In fact, Miliband refers to “the squeezed middle” in his piece. When he adds that he wants Labour to show it is on the side of “everyone who has worked hard and wants to get on” it seems clear that his appeal is to that amorphous entity that we recognise as Middle Britain. It’s very hard to define, but we have a sense of what it is — and money definitely comes into it.

Class, on the other hand, is often associated with a certain level of income, but it is not defined by it. This is why, for all his billions and his knighthood, Sir Philip Green, for instance, is not upper class and never will be (I’m not suggesting, by the way, that he or anyone else should want to be). This is also why John Prescott’s late father, Bert, was right to insist that his son was working class, whatever his position and income.

It’s also why although I think David Cameron was pushing it a little to describe himself as middle class; upper middle class would seem pretty accurate. A perfect example of the difference was captured when Prince Charles visited a homeless hostel a few years ago and was introduced to someone who’d been at Gordonstoun with him.

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The PoW’s old classmate was still upper middle class (at a guess), despite his penury. But he was clearly not a part of Middle Britain.