There’s nothing the right loves more than to point out when left-wing people are middle-class – as exemplified by the insult of choice to undermine opponents: “Champagne socialist”.
When Jeremy Corbyn became leader, this route of attack focused on the MP himself – like his idyllic Shropshire manor house-based childhood, and the fact that his close advisers, Seumas Milne and James Schneider, had attended the same public school.
Then the gleeful criticism moved on to Corbyn’s supporters. The childhood homes and educational backgrounds of individual Momentum figures were picked over, and when the party began attracting tens of thousands of new members, they were dismissed as middle-class.
I looked into how middle-class Labour’s new members really were at the time. It’s difficult to get this data from individual local party branches, so sweeping statements from Conservatives (and those in Labour who were perturbed by Corbyn’s leadership) were often based on flimsy information.
It is true that the majority of the party’s members are from affluent demographics, but this was the case before Corbyn – and is a historic feature of all political parties. They all tend to be disproportionately middle-class. There’s also the simple fact that Britain’s middle-class population is increasing.
But recent research into Labour’s membership – carried out by the Economic and Social Research Council’s Party Members Project – has found that this is an upward trend for the party. Of those surveyed, more than half of Labour members are graduates, and 77 per cent are in an ABC1 social group, up from 70 per cent in 2015.
Again, this will draw mockery from Labour’s detractors, trying to present the party’s supporters as hypocritical or indulging in a bourgeois hobby. Yet this is where those who mock are missing the point. This trend really represents Labour’s growing mass appeal. The fact that Labour attracts middle-class members, and appeals to middle-class voters, isn’t a weakness – it’s a strength.
Whenever I write about young people overwhelmingly voting Labour, I get the same response: when they grow up, they’ll vote Tory. But that’s not true anymore. Because growing up no longer means a stable job, an increasing salary, and the opportunity to own your own home. It no longer means that you will have enough assets or income to want the Tories to protect you from progressive taxation.
It’s much the same with the class argument. Even if your credentials (a degree, a profession, earning above a certain level, etc) make you traditionally middle-class, it’s more likely now that you will end up with a precarious contract and renting for long periods, if not for life. You can’t rely on the Tories for help anymore if you’re from a certain social demographic.
As I’ve written before, Labour’s manifesto had something for everyone, including the middle-class. Its membership make-up doesn’t show a party whose support is narrowing; it shows its appeal is broadening. Something that was not happening under Ed Miliband – who was never as ridiculed for his bubble of posh advisers as Corbyn, until it was too late.
There are “champagne socialists” in Labour’s midst as there always have been. But the difference now is that Corbyn is making a virtue of them – and the label sounds increasingly desperate.