Rod Liddle, class and Pinter’s poetry

The split among Labour leaders, we are told, is between those who want to appeal to the working-class "core vote" and those who prefer to woo the middle classes. After the latest attempted coup, we are further advised, Gordon Brown was taken prisoner by those of the latter persuasion,prompting his pro-middle-class speech at the recent Fabian New Year conference.

All this may be true, and I am the last to underestimate the importance of social class in Britain. Nor would I deny the crassness of Brown's speech, which pandered to resource-depleting aspirations for bigger houses and new cars. But Labour need not create an opposition between middle-class and working-class interests.

Over recent years, growing inequality has been most evident at the upper echelons of the income scale, with the top 0.1 per cent racing away from the next 0.9 per cent, the top 1 per cent from the next 4 per cent, and so on. The top 1 per cent are resented far more by the next 10 per cent than by the bottom 10 per cent, because the two groups compete for similar goods - metropolitan housing, domestic services, places in fee-charging schools - and, in many cases, went to the same schools and universities. Labour should enlist the middle-classes as allies in its class war, stoking their envy of those just above them. The Tories, with their posh leaders and pro-rich policies, are offering an open goal.

Prefects in power

“As a progressive, as a socialist, I believe getting rid of fascist dictators is a good thing," Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff in Downing Street, told the Chilcot inquiry. The S-word, normally eschewed by New Labour, is deployed to justify war. Indeed, Blair himself once expressed amazement that the left opposed raising the scarlet banner over Baghdad. The inquiry has reminded us that Blair had already been "involved" in regime change in Serbia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Perhaps he felt obliged to remove one fascist dictator a year. But hearing ex-public schoolboys such as Blair and Powell justifying the Iraq war, one is reminded not of serious socialists but of the historian Correlli Barnett's observation: "The British governing elite suffers . . . from the reflexes . . . of a school prefect."

In Rod we trust

Would you have Rod Liddle, the ubiquitous columnist and former editor of Radio 4's Today, in your house? Would you leave him alone with your daughters? We may have to address such questions if, as predicted, Alexander Lebedev, owner of the London Evening Standard, buys the Independent and appoints Liddle as editor. The Independent was once the most high-minded of papers, notorious for its lack of much in the way of laughs. With Liddle, it's laughter all the way. "The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community," he wrote on his Spectator blog last year. "Islamophobia? Count me in," he stated on another occasion. Dawn Primarolo is "a shovel-faced termagant", Caroline Flint is "as fit as a butcher's dog", and he once asked if one would, er, do it with Harriet Harman ("after a few beers obviously, not while you were sober"). This is cutting-edge satire and you are no doubt splitting your sides. Oh, and when Liddle married the mother of his two children, he scarpered in the middle of the honeymoon for an assignation with a bird he'd met in the office. Which was very witty indeed.

But in the Sunday Times, he recently argued in a boring, liberal way that Anjem Choudary, whose Islam4UK faces a ban, is entitled to free speech. I hope that, as the responsibilities of office beckon, he isn't losing his sense of fun.

Poetic injustice

Antonia Fraser's memoirs of life with Harold Pinter fail to solve one mystery: why was he such a bad poet? Though Pinter was capable, in his plays, of emotional depth and vivid language, his poetry was clunky and unrhythmic. A bigger mystery is why nobody told him he was a hopeless poet. The Guardian and the London Review of Books proudly displayed Pinter poems as though they were newly discovered Shakespearian sonnets. Surely Fraser, over the champagne they were always drinking, could have told him the truth.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war