This week Harriet Harman, long since identified as the standard bearer for all things out of touch and politically correct in the demonology on modern British politics, did something that requires considerable courage; she broached the subject of social class and its influence on the life chances of individuals.
In a speech made to left leaning think tank Compass last Thursday she said, ahead of a government sponsored report due to be released next week, that while she recognised the continued presence of racial and gender related prejudice there was ‘overarching and interweaving with these a persistent inequality of social class.’
The report is expected to show that children from poorer backgrounds are less well prepared to start school and that the average lifespan in wealthy areas is thirteen years longer than in disadvantaged ones. She went on to say the government had used ‘public policy interventions to halt the rising tide of inequality,’ much of which she said had been created during the years of Conservative rule from 1979 to 1997.
Responding to the speech Ms Harman’s Tory shadow Theresa May said that ‘over the past twelve years social mobility has stalled’ and claimed that faced with this all the Labour Party could do was ‘reach for the old fashioned response of class war.’
A Tory government, she said, would ‘deal with the causes of poverty and inequality, including educational failure, family breakdown and worklessness.’
In a week when the nation recoiled in horror from the details of the brutal attack carried out by two boys, aged respectively ten and eleven, in the former mining town of Edlington the hysterical tone of the debate may come across as distasteful but its subject matter is no less pertinent.
For the past quarter of a century social class, specifically the seemingly unstoppable growth of a feral underclass has been a subject nobody has wanted to talk about. The Tories tried to distract attention from it by claiming to have abolished the class system by allowing people to buy their council housed, the small matter of social housing being needed for a reason and if it disappears the problems it provided for will only become worse doesn’t seem to have registered on their radar. New Labour, as part of its admittedly brilliant marketing strategy under Tony Blair in the mid nineties sold everybody the notion that we’re all middle class now, at least we were so long as their new friends in the city kept coming through with limitless credit. Now that credit has dried up many of the people who maxed out their cards trying to ‘live the dream’ have got a ringside seat as it turns into a nightmare.
Recently class has made it back onto the agenda with David Cameron promising in his speech to the Tory party conference that the Conservatives would be the ‘party of the poor’, to date though his prescription for mending ‘broken Britain’ seems to consist of little more than a lukewarm promise of a tax break for married couples. There are people on the right talking sensibly about tackling inequality such as former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, but, like Labour’s Frank Field in the nineties, he is likely to be relegated to the fringes of the party once it returns to government.
The real burden of tackling social inequality rests with the Labour Party because issues of class are the reason for its existence. They are also what could bring about its destruction since the areas where the greatest hardships have been felt over the past quarter century also happen to be, nominally at least, Labour strongholds.
In her awkward, right-on way Harriet Harman seems to have recognised that Labour has to start talking about class, it’s too late for doing so to save them from losing the coming election, but it might just give the party a foundation upon which to build a new identity, one based on policy rather than the dark arts of spin.