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Miliband woos middle class with a Blair-lite serenade

PITY the poor set designer who has to settle on precisely the right colour to use as background when Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, makes his speech at this year's party conference.

The people's party has already explored the wilder corners of the colour chart in its New Labour, pistachio years, and anything approaching scarlet must be avoided lest someone rhyme the words "red" and "Ed" in a headline or TV package.

In the best traditions of a DIY store assistant, perhaps we should steer the Labour leadership south of the Border towards suitable shades that chime with their new plan, as outlined this week, to "rebuild the middle class". The range is Farrow & Ball, natch. How about a fetching shade of Middleton Pink? Nancy's Blushes? Or, a popular choice this, Dead Salmon?

Mr Miliband, who sent out an advance guard of shadow ministers in preparation for his own set piece speech on the economy today, believes he has landed a live one in focusing on the middle class as the constituency to court ahead of the 2015 General Election. He is not alone in viewing Chablis Gardens and Audi Avenue as fertile grounds for his message. Closer to home, our own referendum is shaping up to be a fight for the middle. Regardless of the efforts being made to inspire and persuade the young and the don't-votes, both sides know that the middle classes are the real prize.

The power of the middle class has been evident in every election since 1945, the last time the working classes mobilised en masse to secure a better future for themselves.

That power has only increased as living standards have improved. More of us have more, and are more determined to keep it that way, either through voting or, as is increasingly the case, having a good old moan on internet forums.

The consumer revolution has spread its roots into politics. We are all political consumers now, shopping around for the deal that best suits our pockets and ideals (the latter being negotiable).

Seeking to capitalise on this, Mr Miliband used a newspaper op-ed piece to highlight the "gnawing anxiety" he said many middle-class families were feeling. It used to be, opined Ed, that people could look forward to buying their own home, to their children going to university, to staying in a relatively secure job with rising wages, and to retiring with a decent pension.

Not now, though. The British middle class "is being squeezed by a cost-of-living crisis as never before". Between tuition fees (in England), wages failing to keep up with inflation, job insecurity and dwindling pensions, life had become a constant struggle with no apparent end in sight. But there is hope, according to Mr Miliband. He knows just what is needed to halt the slide. He has already called for an energy price freeze and demanded more competition in the banking sector to benefit consumers and small business.

Now he will turn his attention to the economy and how it can be reformed to enable the country to "earn and grow our way to higher standards of living for everyone". Cue a lighting up of the Dead Salmon background, cue splutters from the unions, cue uplifting soundtrack, and exit young Ed, doing his best impression of a grown up with a proper job.

Hang on. Haven't we been through this movie before? Whatever happened to Things Can Only Get Better? Mr Miliband has an answer to that too, or at least an approximation of an answer. "Our programme is rooted in an understanding that this crisis began before the Tory-led government came to power".

That is the closest he gets to an admission that the last Labour government existed and might have played a part in driving down middle-class living standards by, for example, increasing fuel duty year on year, and harming pensions by scrapping the dividend tax credit. No matter, though, because Mr Miliband has plenty more ideas to help those middle-class families currently struggling. The grand plan, no less, is to build a "One Nation economy". Whatever that means.

One wonders if Mr Miliband is entirely sure himself. Having flirted with a return to old-style socialism, he has gone back to singing the songs of New Labour, which in turn borrowed its tunes from Bill Clinton in the early-1990s.

That times and the UK have changed, that Labour was in power for 13 years and only left office four years ago, appears to be neither here nor there. This is what the Labour leader believes will appeal to the middle classes and those who aspire to become members of that socio-economic group.

Incredibly, it is coming up for half a century since Cleese, Corbett and Barker first performed their "I look down on him" sketch on television, and the UK is arguably no closer to working out where it stands on class. Like beauty, class is in the eye of the beholder and it changes decade by decade, individual by individual. Take, for example, Alex Ferguson, son of Govan. He is a sir and a millionaire, but would he call himself middle-class or working-class? Does not an unemployed graduate dream of being working class?

If it is not entirely clear where the middle class ends and the working class begins, politicians of many shades have come to a firm conclusion about who is not in the club. Call these folk the underclass, the benefits set, the welfare staters, call them whatever you like, because not many political leaders will rush to defend them any more. Under the new rules of society, if you are not part of the solution to paying down the deficit, you are part of the problem. Live on Benefits Street? Then let us hope, perhaps with the aid of the bedroom tax/spare room subsidy, that you move out soon.

In Scotland we like to think the divides between the classes are not that sharp. Heaven only knows where that idea comes from given the patchwork quilt of poverty and affluence in cities such as Glasgow, but it persists.

The Scottish Government, to give it its due, has actively proclaimed that it wants Scotland to be a "fairer" country in which wealth and resources work for everyone. While it remains a puzzle how this fits in with the more economically liberal parts of its programme, at least it has been bold enough to say it wants everyone on the bus.

But here is the question. Does middle-class Scotland want to take this bus, or stick with its own car? It is one thing to agree that we should build a fairer Scotland, but how many, in the event that economic growth falls short, will want to pay more in tax to ensure that happens? This is the not-so-secret fear that underpins the independence debate.

For the middle classes in particular, it is less a matter of "can't pay, won't pay", than "can probably pay but prefer not to, thanks all the same".

Fair or not, it is a reasonable point, and one that more than any other could decide the outcome of the referendum.

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Local government

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