Friday, August 24, 2018

You don't need Class War polemics to fight the scandal of restricted social mobility



Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for his plans to compel the BBC to publish the social class of all its employees “to ensure it properly reflected the broader population.”. Corbyn's proposal was defended on the BBC “Newsnight” programme by Owen Jones and when I tweeted that this sounded like “Class War” to me Owen vociferously objected – as he’s quite entitled to do of course. This led to a lively exchange with Owen and others on Twitter. This blog attempts to explain my accusations.

In an article in the “Times Literary Supplement” in January 1997, a few months before the return of the first Labour Government for eighteen years, Stein Ringen the Norwegian sociologist and political scientist said this:
“What is peculiar to Britain is not the reality of the class system and its continuing existence, but class psychology: the preoccupation with class, the belief in class, and the symbols of class in manners, dress and language. This thing they have with class is a sign of closed minds, and is among what is difficult for a stranger to grasp in the British mentality. Britain is a thoroughly modern society, with thoroughly archaic institutions, conventions and beliefs.”
Tony Blair declared in an election speech in 2001
“Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people”
The above two quotes are, of course, inextricably connected. If you believe in “Equality of Opportunity” in a society it starts with education. And education is itself a characteristic of class.  And despite Blair’s  ringing commitment to education can we say more than twenty years on that much has changed? Owen Jones in his polemic (his descriptor) “The Establishment” says “Governments enter and leave office and yet the establishment remains in power” – in other words the class structure described by Ringen remains in place along with a severely restricted “Equality of Opportunity”  itself a function of a wide disparity in the quality of education in our schools and other institutions.

John Prescott declared, also in 1997, that “We are all middle class now”. He was premature. As Harry Leslie Smith put it in 2014 in “Harry’s Last Stand”:
 “The middle classes are so afraid that they will that they will become as dispossessed as the poor that they have allowed the government to use austerity as a weapon against them and their comfortable way of life”
The subject of Class will not go away – as Stein Ringen suggests it’s an inherent element of Britishness. But does that mean that we are in a “Class War” and that we should be actively fighting on Class grounds rather than as Blair seems to have intended fighting the causes of class differences rather than indulging in a “Class Envy” driven activism?
Carole Stone, ex BBC Producer, prolific writer and Managing Director of YouGovStone said in 2010:
“The people I meet certainly aren’t agonising over whether they are middle class and what that means. Class is a red herring. I have rather coarse vowels when I speak, and very occasionally in my youth I used to wonder whether people would regard me differently if I had a posher accent, but I truly believe that you are now defined by the company you keep and the sort of person you are.”
And in the above referenced book Owen Jones says “…the Establishment is bound by shared economic interest and shared mentalities”. That these shared interests are in part based on similar educational and social backgrounds must be true. But so what? Ed Conway in The Times today admits to having had a privileged upbringing at his private school and says:
“Why this fixation [on the part of Jeremy Corbyn] with classifying people on the basis not of performance or ability but on stuff their parents couldn't influence : their parents’ jobs, the education their parents chose for them?” 
I should perhaps declare an interest here. I came from an archetypically Middle Class family and like Mr Conway I went to a Private School. We weren't fat cat rich but comfortably off and My Dad was a prototype Blairite in believing that education was important and that I would get a better one if he paid for it. Once I started work my background was entirely irrelevant and as I progressed in a business career it was certainly based on “performance or ability” and nothing else.
Demographic classification is really only important if it can lead to action. It would be possible to classify BBC employees by Class  - though I suspect more difficult than Corbyn and Jones think for the reasons Clare Stone (Working Class upbringing, Middle Class  education and Establishment jobs) gives. But what are you going to do with the information except use it as evidence in your Class War battles? Is there to be positive discrimination at recruitment forced on the BBC – a quota system based on Social Class. This is an idea as impractical as it is daft!

I accept that the Establishment is too powerful too cliquey, too monocultural and that change is desirable. But I also believe that you should look at the root causes rather than indulge in socialist polemics. Spending cuts are one of the primary root causes – not least the introduction in England and Wales of Further Education tuition fees. The postcode lottery in education and the unaffordability for many of tertiary education is a scandal in a rich nation, which pro tem Britain still is. Healthcare is another area where divisions are inherent. Poor health in C2DE families compared with ABC1  can be as much of a social mobility inhibitor as poor education.

As Patrick Diamond of the LSE  points out here Social Democratic thinker and politician Tony Crosland would have deplored  “…the recurrent tendency to romanticise English working-class life”. The constant association by Corbyn and Co. with the past (the memorialising of Peterloo just the latest in this long saga) is largely  unhelpful romantic twaddle. The current day scandal of restriced social mobility will not be resolved by referring to previous class struggles and waving red flags. It can only be challenged from a position of power which will only come from pragmatic “Art of the Possible” politics.

Slogans won’t help nor will class envy. The categorising of Social Democrats like me as “Blairite” or “Neo-Liberal” or worse is counter-productive as is the peddling of absurd delusions like a “Jobs First Brexit” – as moronic as it is oxymoronic. And finally it’s profoundly unhelpful to stigmatise people because of their social class and to indulge in petty class envy rhetoric.  


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