When Conservative politicians resort to class warfare, you know they’re rattled. Usually it’s the Labour Party that falls into this trap: trying to campaign on the so-called politics of envy, pointing out its opponents’ wealth, second homes, private schooling or general tendency to be “out of touch”.
It never works. Mainly because meritocratic values and a spirit of aspiration run deep within the British psyche: Don’t bash the rich, because one day I might be rich, too.
This is something I’d always assumed Tory ministers better understood than their opposite numbers. Yet the Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab walked right into it in PMQs last week. He intimated that a politician like Angela Rayner had no place attending Glyndebourne, the Sussex opera house, and accused her of being a champagne socialist.
“She was at the Glyndebourne music festival sipping champagne, listening to opera. Champagne socialism is back in the Labour Party.”
Oh, Dom. There are so many problems here – snobbery and sexism being the most obvious. Rayner, who was also recently accused by a Tory MP of not matching up to Boris Johnson’s “Oxford Union debating skills” in another sexist line of attack, gave a characteristically unruffled response: “My advice to the Deputy Prime Minister is to cut out the snobbery and brush up on his opera. The Marriage of Figaro is the story of a working-class woman who gets the better of a privileged but dim-witted villain.”
But there is another issue here too, which exposes not only Raab’s classism but the governing party’s fundamental misunderstanding of the British public.
Attitudes to class, in this country, are changing. People aren’t making Raab’s snide little cultural judgements anymore.
In fact, according to the New Statesman’s own polling, the majority of the British voting public now see salary as a key sign of social class (56 per cent) – far above taste and lifestyle (16 per cent), where someone’s from (15 per cent), hobbies and interests (7 per cent), or accent and word choices (6 per cent).
This is an apparent shift towards a more “American view of class”, said the anthropologist Kate Fox, who wrote a seminal work on British class perceptions, Watching the English, in 2004. Rather than prejudging someone on their lifestyle choices, younger generations in particular are more likely to see income as determining class: something that has tipped over into being the majority view.
Most Brits, for example, say being a politician is an “upper class” occupation: because of salary, rather than looking at home at the opera.
Even when people are not asked what the most important determinant of class is, they still rate income as a key signifier of social standing, according to Jack Bailey, a political scientist and research associate on the British Election Study.
Labour is beginning to acknowledge this shift. It has been discussed at length in at least one recent informal shadow front-bench meeting, I have heard from a source. The Tories, however, don’t seem to have a clue about this change in popular attitudes if Raab’s comments are anything to go by.