Low on big ideas and rhetoric, Labour must tackle class inequality

As the party's conference looms, Mary Evans asserts that keeping its earlier pledges on education would help to combat societal divisions

September 27, 2012



Credit: Miles Cole


In his preface to the 1959 edition of his novel Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh wrote that he had been wrong to assume (as he had in 1945) that all was over for the aristocracy. "The English aristocracy", he wrote, "has maintained its identity to a degree that then seemed impossible."

In 2012, a further preface might be necessary: not only has the aristocracy retained its identity, it has also maintained a stranglehold on government.

Faced with both the social composition and the social attitudes of the present coalition government, there have been many recent calls for the Labour Party to become vocal, indeed rhetorical, in the defence of public services and ideals of fairness and equality. A return to the days of Churchillian bombast is advocated, no longer by the Right - its usual advocates - but now by the Left.

Yet what exactly is to be said is more problematic, not least because the Labour Party's two most widely remembered sound bites of recent years are "education, education, education" and "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". Both these policies have little meaning unless seen in the context of social inequality and social class, but the fundamental issue of social class is seldom mentioned by party leader Ed Miliband or others in the Labour leadership. Class, as Miliband's father Ralph wrote in Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour, is "always repudiated by Labour leaders".

But not "doing" class, as Miliband elder realised, leaves the political landscape at the command of those who assume that it is theirs both to define and govern. In one telling example, Michael Gove, the education secretary, made a passing reference recently, during a debate on achievement in education in the House of Commons, to "three professors". The contempt with which he voiced those words came across clearly over the radio: education, rational thought, debate and careful research all vanished into a sneer of dismissal. Gove is in no sense an aristocrat (in terms defined by Waugh or anyone else) but his assumption of a right to reject evidence with nothing more than the confidence of class is part of the landscape of current political debate that the Labour Party is being asked to challenge.

The Labour Party is being encouraged to turn to "big" ideas. But perhaps there is one big idea that involves less rhetoric and more thought: that of standing up for the implications and the benefits of all that education that Labour has been so eager to endorse.

One of those implications is that education allows us to understand more: to be able to speak with educated assurance about the inequalities of class and class relations. This is not about endorsing moralistic class divisions (the "good" poor and the undeserving poor, the former beloved - although not radically assisted - by conservatives since Matthew Arnold), because these divisions serve only to enforce refusal of the consequences of class divisions. It is about pointing out, on behalf of nearly all of us, that many of us provide, and we all depend on, state services, and that it is entirely legitimate to work outside the market economy. At the same time, we might also expect the Labour Party to speak for those millions of people who work for very low pay and yet provide socially essential work. Exactly what, we might ask, is so frightening about pointing out that a society cannot exist with those who perform what are defined as "low skill" tasks? The collapse of the fantasy world of Tony Blair, in which higher education automatically led to secure middle-class employment, is not about the failure of education, but about a refusal to recognise the context of education.

Outside the Westminster world, the extent of public dissatisfaction with many forms of evidence-free judgement has become clear in recent years. In this context, in which all kinds of organisations and groups have written informed critiques of both foreign and domestic policies, relying on greater rhetorical flourish would be inadequate.

Education is not about skills or entry to the middle class: it is part of a much greater concept that involves understanding the world in which we live. That world includes privilege - often extreme, often divisive. Refusing its existence offers Labour little alternative except empty rhetoric.

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