The temptation must be excruciating, it really must. Imagine: you’re the leader of a political party that, historically at least, has been on the side of the workers, of the poorest in society, of the dispossessed and the downtrodden. And facing you, on the other side of the chamber, is the clean-cut Tory leader, with his easy aristocratic manner, his multi-million pound fortune, and a close cabal of similarly well-heeled and, to your own mind, plum-mouthed friends. You’re desperate to land a blow, to finally walk out of PMQ’s as the undisputed winner by way of unanimous verdict, so when you glimpse a weak spot in your opponents guard, you go for it… ‘I have to say, that with him and Mr Goldsmith, their inheritance tax policy seems to have been dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton.’
One can only hope that such an approach was spur of the moment, an exuberance permitted to a Prime Minister who has had it so tough for so long, but which will not set the tone for upcoming election campaigns. Unfortunately, I suspect this won’t be the case. Those with little else to lose seem to be willing to go tribal and in so doing will, like Samson, bring the whole edifice down with them. Reverting to the ‘class war’ mindset will backfire, and harm parliamentarians as a whole.
Of course, this is quite a bold claim, but it is a real danger. The reason? Because in the minds of many of the voting public the real class divisions are drawn not between Labour and the Tories, but between politicians and everybody else. The language of us and them undoubtedly still has traction, but New Labour have rapidly become an intimate part of the ‘them’ against which they now cry foul. The expenses scandal, if anything, merely crystallised the widespread malaise; in seeking to offer such dividing lines, Labour risks stoking those very fires that Parliament has tried so very hard these last few months to put out.
In essence, the whole narrative is lose-lose for Labour, and indeed for Parliament as a whole, because every time it tries to depict the Party opposite as particularly ruthless and uncaring, as only looking out for its own interests, they will be countered with the inevitable ‘yeah, but…’. And this will be followed by a string of difficult to answer objections, from the 10p tax debacle to the EU referendum, from Damian McBride to Cash-for-Peerages, that will only serve to undermine the Labour Party’s credibility in the ‘we’re on your side’ stakes. In the mêlée, it will be the fringe parties that profit disproportionately, as the only ones appearing untarnished by the toxic associations of Westminster politics.
For this reason, Labour would do best to avoid such language altogether, not least because the number of privately educated and grammar-school educated members upon their own benches hardly lends legitimacy to the argument. Indeed, it might even smack of hypocrisy, and for those grassroots campaigners struggling to explain to a cynical voter why they should vote Labour instead of Tory, it might well prove one more headache they could well do without.
Politicians as a whole are, in the eyes of many, in the dock; they would do better to present their own case clearly, rather than trashing their co-defendants. Otherwise, the verdict pronounced will inevitably be ‘you’re all as bad as each other’, and this would benefit precisely no-one.
This article was published on LabourList on December 6, 2009.