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13 March 2015

Shut up about Ed Miliband’s two kitchens: if you kick champagne socialists out, champagne Tories will conquer

What matters is not privilege, but what you choose to do with it.

By Frances Ryan

It’s funny because, up until this morning, I had thought Ed Miliband did all his cooking on a camping stove with out-of-date sausages he found in the discount bin in Aldi. It turns out the Leader of the Opposition has his own kitchen. He even has two. Or, as journalist and friend of the Milibands Jenni Russell put it, Ed and wife Justine have a kitchen and a “functional kitchenette” by their living room for “tea and quick snacks.” A politician and a barrister have money? It’s this sort of investigative revelation for which I rely on the press. Next week’s exclusive: Britain has a class system.

Whether it was a soft PR move or a personal calculation, it is telling that Miliband used his “smaller” kitchen for the original photograph. Over 24 hours, he’s found himself kicked by both sides of the dilemma waiting for anyone further left than Thatcher: Be honest about your wealth and you’re a privileged hypocrite. Hide it and you’re a liar – or, as the Daily Mail’s Sarah Vine described it, the owner of “communist-style egalitarian lino”.

This is the same trap left-wing commentators routinely find themselves in. A columnist objecting to private education will be shouted down for having gone to one themselves. A pundit criticising low pay for the average worker will be derided for how much they earn. If the entry requirement for a politician or journalist discussing progressive policies was being working class, inequality would be discussed around three times a year. Which, as a tactic, seems very convenient for anyone wanting things to stay exactly how they are. Kick out the champagne socialists and the political discourse will be (even more) defined by champagne conservatives.

Sure, it is tempting to dissect a politician’s bank balance. If we’re deciding the next election based on who has the nicest kitchen (and I’ve heard worse ideas) we could point out that David Cameron’s cost £25,000 – and is seemingly full of luxurious utensils and furniture, including a £1,600 lamp, an £800 cooker and a £140 toaster. He’d probably look at Miliband’s kitchenette and burst into tears, stamping his feet in between sobs of “What am I? Middle bloody class?” But then again, I could not care less. It is not simply that Cameron is an Eton-educated, Bullingdon Club product of the ruling class that is objectionable. It’s that he’s an Eton-educated, Bullingdon Club product of the ruling class who has chosen to use his position to make low-wage earners, benefit claimants, and the disabled poorer. It is not the privilege someone has that matters but what they choose to do with it.

What’s Miliband’s crime? That he advocates a mansion tax and a living wage and then goes home to a nicer-than-average house. It is smoke and mirrors. Power and money, of course, matters: both the advantage our politicians come from and what they have now. The British class system is a running joke; where cash, networks, and schooling beat talent, morals, and vision. The House of Commons and the contest for No 10 is clearly a damning example. But castigating individual politicians will do nothing to disrupt the structural inequality that helped them, rather than their cleaner, get there.

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Nor will attacking Miliband for earning enough to buy a house with a spare kitchen do anything to fix the inequality that means millions of others are on zero hours, peanut benefits and fearing debt or eviction. Worse, the cycle of denial and outrage – whether it’s hiding a luxury kitchen or criticising it – actively enshrines both. We may as well make a pact: “Let’s pretend there’s no such thing as economic, social, and gender inequality and then do absolutely nothing about it.”

Pretending our leaders – or for that matter, barristers or journalists – are largely anything but advantaged is the sort of insulting game that treats the public like children appeased by shiny colours. “Kitchens” are a distraction. Inequality, poverty, and skewed life chances matter. It would be a start to elect someone who cares they exist.