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.