The media and political classes like to tell us that we are now a classless society. Class should no longer be a factor in politics. Measures aimed at fairness are a sign of “the politics of envy”. Everybody should realise that fatcat bankers stashing away their £100 million pa incomes in tax havens magically benefit everybody.
Yet of course class does exist and really does matter. For a lesson in class in Britain I only have to walk out of leaf lined Whitehall Gardens, down the hill and into the South Acton estate. Four hundred yards but an entirely different world. With entirely different voting patterns, too. Class remains an important factor in the election. The working class – much of which has no prospect of work – still clings to New Labour.
Not only does class matter, it is more rigid than ever. The UK has the lowest social mobility of any developed country.
It also has the biggest gap between rich and poor of any developed country except the United States. The gap between wealth and poor grew larger under New Labour at an accelerating rate. In fact we are catching the US up, and the wealth gap under New Labour grew much faster than under Thatcher, indeed at the fastest rate since it has been possible to measure it. When Mandelson said he was “Extremely relaxed about the filthy rich” he really meant it. The government’s enslavement to the city, deregulation and worship of Mammon has had spectacular ill results.
This lack of social mobility is a product of social attitude as much as structure. Anybody who has moved around the higher echelons of the City and of government will know that there is a nexus of family, school, and Oxbridge college relationships that greases the path of commercial and political transaction. Similar systems work in every country, but it is stronger here. To get the finance for my African project, I used the services of a man whose entire value was that he was at Oxford, a minor aristocrat, dines at the Wolseley and knows everybody. He could get me in the door of the merchant banks and seen at decision making level. He had no other qualification and had never done any succesful business himself. He lives off introduction fees. Others are able to make better use of their opportunities but I tell the story to illustrate a simple truth about this country. It is who you know that counts.
With such a huge wealth gap and with almost no social mobility, class resentment in the UK is not just natural, it is needed. The irony is that it is the Conservatives who are set to suffer and New Labour to benefit. The only desire of the New Labour leadership was to insert themselves into the gilded circle – into which Blair was anyway born – and get troughing. But New Labour voters still do not see that, not least because they are kept in such a pit of poorly schooled, reality TV-fed ignorance.
Cameron has made the crucial mistake of surrounding himself with fellow toffs. Thatcher was not one and had Tebbit as her self evidently non upper class attack dog. Major was not one either and was backed up by blokey Ken Clarke. I can only imagine that Cameron surrounded himself by an entire front bench of public school yaahs because that is the company in which he feels comfortable. But most people like their subservience to a ruling class they cannot join not to be rubbed in their faces quite so obviously.
Huge puzzlement is being expressed all over the media and blogosphere about how the Tory lead can have narrowed so much. There is your answer.