I wrote last week about the suspicion growing among female Labour MPs that there is a tinge of misogyny about their new, hard-left leadership. Interestingly, another divide appears to be opening up in Labour’s ranks, too – a divide over class. John Mann’s suggestion of making some Labour members pay £1,000 subscription fees seems on the surface to be simply another outgrowth of socialists’ love of stealth taxes – but there’s actually something deeper behind it.
Mann made the comments to highlight the fact that:
“Membership is now higher in the average Tory heartland seat than in the average Labour heartland seat,” he said. “Within heartland areas it is again overwhelmingly the middle classes who have joined. This is a big political problem. Whilst the Labour party has rapidly grown it is now conversely more distant from its traditional base — including in places like Islington.”
He isn’t the first to make such a charge. Earlier in the week, Lord Watts said:
“My advice to my own party leadership is that they should take less notice of the London-centric hard left political class who sit around in their £1 million mansions eating their croissants at breakfast and seeking to lay the foundations for a socialist revolution. Working people need a practical Labour Party and trade union movement that address their practical day to day issues.”
That distinction between the wealthy hard left (eating croissants or otherwise) and “working people” is at the heart of the dispute. There was a fair bit of griping during the seemingly endless reshuffle that working class MPs, particularly those from the north, were being ditched while Corbynites from better off backgrounds and southern constituencies were advancing. For example, the Shadow Cabinet now includes no MPs from the North East of England, but all of the MPs from Islington.
This adds a volatile mixture of ideology, class warfare and personal dislike into the already strained atmosphere of the Opposition. Not only are the hard left wrong about winning elections, their critics charge, but their well-off backgrounds make them unaware of the harm their preferred policies would do to working households. Rightly, mud-slinging about poshness doesn’t cut much ice with the voters who are more interested in competent government (remember the top hats in Crewe and Nantwich?) but such criticisms are far more biting within Labour circles.
It’s interesting that the Labour power struggle has now touched on one of the oddities of British politics: why is the hard left so posh? Corbyn himself (raised in a rural manor house, educated privately), his spinner Seumas Milne (son a BBC Director General, educated at Winchester) and James Schneider (Dragon School, Winchester then St Paul’s), the national spokesman of Momentum, are just three examples of a widespread and long-standing trend of which the Corbynites are the latest iteration.
From the Cambridge communists and Jessica Mitford between the wars, there has always been a (literally) rich vein of well-off kids in the British far left. You don’t have to search far in the membership lists of weird far-left sects to start turning up people who have more than a passing acquaintance with the technicalities of how to draw on a trust fund. One explanation for it, of course, is that you have to be pretty rich to believe socialism is affordable.
The feeling that such people are essentially playing a game at the expense of the poor understandably drives less extreme Labourites round the bend, and the self-appointed “champions of the people” are inevitably extremely sensitive to the topic being raised. The emergence of this argument in Labour’s internal war suggests that the row is only going to get more bitter.