That favourite British obsession, class, has reared its head once again as a major feature of political debate. So here’s my take on it. I’m from working-class stock – that’s not as rare on the Tory benches as you would imagine from some of the media coverage.
My first home was a privately rented house in Cleethorpes. My parents were then allocated a council house in Grimsby – one that they eventually bought. Not only am I not that rare in being from a working-class background but I’m not alone on the Government benches in being "a council house Tory".
We all have stereotypes in our mind, which are, sometimes, indeed often, completely the opposite of reality. Ask the public what comes to mind when they think of a typical Conservative MP; public school, Oxbridge, stockbroker, toff. Perhaps not straight from state school to work, redundancy and unemployment, but take a few minutes to study Hansard for the 19th December last year.
The Party’s problem, as with most things in politics, is not the reality but the public perception. Like many Conservative voters in the 1950s and 60s, my parents described themselves as "working-class Tories". It didn’t worry them that leaders such as MacMillan were ‘toffs’ what mattered was that they were capable and showed clearly that they identified with the needs of everyone. It mattered not whether they went to Eton, Fettes or, like me, Havelock in Grimsby.
But I’m not sure that voters think the same today. Perhaps this is because more is being made of the class issue and it’s something the Party must come to terms with. In the medium-term it means opening up the restrictive selection process that can discourage working class candidates, and when they do make it through the process and become the prospective candidate a modest amount of financial support could make a significant difference, and a recognition that right up to the campaign proper candidates must earn their living wouldn’t go amiss.
But that’s for the future; we need an immediate response to the ‘same old Tories’ jibes from Labour. It has the potential to take hold in the public mind. It’s a double-barrelled attack referring to both policy and class. It can’t be under-estimated. None of us should be ashamed of our backgrounds, it’s a fateful mistake to try and be anything other than yourself. Try to pretend you’re ‘one of the lads’ and it can so easily backfire. It can come over as patronising.
Last week I attended a Policy Exchange event about the decline of working-class MPs. What came across from representatives of both the main parties was that it’s a problem for both of ourselves and Labour. Both sides recognise that too many MPs and candidates have gone from university to being aides/assistants/special advisors without any experience of commerce and industry, being unemployed or facing redundancy whilst having to meet the mortgage payments. The party which acts quickest to resolve this issue could go a long way to determining the outcome of future elections.
The other question to ask is why Ministers want advice from the young and inexperienced, however bright? Advice rooted in experience from a broad range of backgrounds would serve them far better.
As I have pointed out, the public warmed to upper-class MacMillan but didn’t warm to working-class Heath; so personality matters and can overcome class bias. Like Tony Blair, David Cameron is more popular with the public at large than the most fervent of his party supporters. The Prime Minister will realise this and will be aware that the public at large deliver far more votes than the fervent supporters, but without the committed supporters we risk losing the hard-won seats, particularly those in the North – seepage to UKIP won’t deliver them any seats but could hand them back to Labour.
We need more policies designed to support the aspirational working-class. Carping about the leadership is normal in mid-term when the going gets tough, but the help it gives our opponents can easily outweigh the value it may contain. Hopefully this piece has been constructive in its criticisms. Amid all the bad headlines that swirled around last week, amid the nonsense about hot and cold pasties (give me a chip butty any time!) I can’t helping smiling when I see that the one minister who came through the week with his reputation enhanced hails from the North, and whose father was a milkman, and mother worked in a supermarket – step forward Greg Clark.