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You’re probably familiar with the latest Labour election poster by now. It’s certainly been attacked enough, both by our own Mark Wallace and in the media. Perhaps you’ve even seen one in the wild somewhere.

Its central flaw – that most of the items in it are not actually subject to the tax hike it bewails – is by now well-trodden ground. But a closer look at the imaginary shopping basket Labour’s PR team have pulled together hints at another conflict

What leaps out at me is the presence, amidst the sea of healthy vegetables, of cookies, ketchup and cola. The implied defence of such items, and of the ‘ordinary Briton’ who wants to buy them, seems somewhat at odds with Miliband’s recently-revealed aspiration to “force people to be healthy”.

This clash, between the popular and the puritan, is a very old one. A century ago, as the United States was gearing up for its disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibition, the Conservatives and Unionists were facing down radical Liberals who wanted to do the same thing in Britain. In his seminal work, ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’, George Dangerfield describes how the staunch Tory defence of the working man’s beer leant them “a string of political fortresses” in pubs up and down the land.

Recently Diane Abbott updated this notion when she conjured the idea of “Lynton Crosby politics” to explain why the Conservatives were reluctant to push ahead with an (unpopular and ineffective) plain-packaging policy for cigarettes:

“One of the reasons why the Tories have been so reluctant to introduce plain packaging is what I call Lynton Crosby politics. {In contemptuous caricatured cockney accent} A penny off a pint, a penny off beer, and you can have your fags as well.”

Of course politics has converged since Dangerfield’s day, and whilst the beer rate cut did get pro-Osborne promotional piece put up in Fullers’ pubs our party contains its fair share of public-health and lifestyle authoritarians – our Soubrys and Lansleys – and the nation’s pubs are no longer Conservative strongholds.

But whilst our stance on tobacco does much to undermine our opposition to nanny-statism elsewhere, the puritan impulse is much more strongly wired into Labour’s DNA. They’re the party of the ban. This makes sense since, in their own way, the people leading Labour today are as remote and class-distinct a clique as the public-school cohort at the head of our own party. A labour party led by working class people would – and indeed, did – have very different priorities to one run by paternalist metropolitans.

All of which makes any attempt by Ed Miliband to play the in-touch man of the people rather tricky. You don’t need to have gone to Eton to be out of touch, nor be an aristocrat to be an elitist. Could Miliband really shake off the instincts of his tribe and stand in non-judgemental solidarity with a nation of smokers, drinkers and over-eaters, recognising that adult citizens own their own bodies and owe a duty of health to no-one? Prioritise the “cost of living crisis” – sin taxes overwhelmingly hurt the worse off – over the good opinion of the public health lobby?

If not, he might as well add another little post-script to his VAT poster: “The Tories have left most of this alone – but we’ll slap sin taxes on the best bits”. A man of the people, in truth.

16 comments for: Labour is torn between populism and puritanism

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