There were numerous significant sources of politicisation for me. One of the most important was reading Chavs by Owen Jones on a train journey. It was my first politics book, and began a career of wondering the Waterstones politics section for hours. It made me angry and it set my course as a Labourite. It was around that time that I started noticing things around me. The way, on a bus journey, that terraced housing magically changes to detached 5-beds. Noticing people walking past homeless men, not blinking. The normalised classist slurs among peers. So I owe that book a lot.
Which is why when I debated with Owen Jones on Twitter about working class representation and holding backgrounds against social justice advocates, I knew he wasn’t unaware of the importance of class. Owen was responding to Michael Dugher, who’d made a dig at James Schneider, Momentum’s spokesman, for being from a very privileged background. So privileged the story included fraud and a £7m home. Also, voting Green in May, which is surely the greatest crime here.
There’s an oft-repeated motto, that I’m inclined to agree with:
On the left? Too poor: guilty of envy. Too rich? Hypocrite. Too young? Naive. Too old? A dinosaur.
That’s true, it’s a logical fallacy to call a socialist from a posh background a hypocrite. Attlee, as Owen pointed out, was from a very non-Labour background. Ed Miliband, who anyone reading this will know that I practically idolised, wasn’t exactly working class, yet he had good intent. He was willing to tax his own ‘mansion’. It’s a flawed and pretty depressing mentality to call altruism hypocritical. I wish more people were capable of it.
Except hypocrisy is not my accusation here. And Ed Miliband is very much a reason I’m very critical of this dismissive attitude about the significance of backgrounds.
Anyone on the #labourdoorstep knows it well by now, as they most certainly did leading up to May this year: “Labour are not for the working class anymore”. It pertains, often, to the distant liberal ‘elite’. There was something sinister about the accusations against Ed, but the whole living in a mansion in London thing is a running theme throughout recent Labour years, and most definitely applies now to Jez. And it matters. A lot. Especially now.
Why? Well one obvious point is that representation matters in a party that claims to be for the workers. Accents, region, class, perspective.
That latter one, perspective. I’m very sure a lot of good middle class people believe they are doing what is best. My values are probably just like theirs. But it’s often highly paternalistic. An echo chamber of middle class voices who think they know what’s best, assuming what is best, in a Labour membership that’s overwhelmingly AB. Such is the reason I’m skeptical about giving away too much policy-making power to the grassroots unless it can be diversified. Especially Conference, which costs a bloody arm and a leg to attend. Such an arena has no perspective, merely pats on the back.
There’s also a significant point to make about power, and about dismissing power for the sake of purity -a tendency on the Left. The difference between Attlee and some folk on the Left today is that Attlee was, historically and as a reaction, Old Right. Because it was necessary. If such a phrase can really be applied. The road to the 1945 election went straight through working class communities that were not the radical roots of socialism but were, if anything, deeply hostile to it. These were small-c conservative constituencies that required temperance. And Attlee understood this. He appealed to imperialism, monarchy and military, certainly areas that a Leftist today would be very belligerent toward. He created Trident, for God’s sake. And Nye Bevan -Nye- approved. They listened before leading. Listening to the day’s valence issues to create their own: the NHS.
The same can be said for following through with the wider Beveridge Report. A Report that quickly became a valence issue up and down the country, endorsed comprehensively by working class voters. Attlee followed, rather than leading.
Unfortunately, the Left -who have a tendency to look back on this era with revisionism- can see such constituencies and sneer. As a result, UKIP are now the primary challengers across the Labour heartlands. People -not just in Momentum, but across Labour right through to the, well, Right- in this movement are currently all naval-gazing. We all are. Despite abysmal polls, some trolls attack anyone that’s nervous as a Red Tory, which is what invoked me to write this a week back. Some see polls and decide the electorate is wrong, or brainwashed, that they must be led. We’re not listening, not one bit.
Owen said it is not socialist for us to judge someone on background. I agree, but I suggest it is entirely socialist for middle class allies to listen rather than lead. Unfortunately, I don’t have much faith right now that the echo chamber that is the Labour membership is doing much listening. And I suspect that may very well be to do with background.
So yes, background matters in Left politics. James Schneider’s intensely privileged background matters.
Not because altruism is hypocritical, but because altruism should avoid turning into paternalism. And that involves recognising privilege and holding people to account for it, or at least, reminding them it’s there. We need reminding what an echo chamber we choose to be, how much we isolate ourselves from those we claim to represent, and how much ‘do gooder’ is not just a source of contempt for some stuffy journalists in the Telegraph, but for our core voters as well, who rightly feel patronized.