12 December 2009

Class War

By Lee Marsden

Gordon Brown's criticism that Conservative inheritance tax policy "seems to have been dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton" made some great headlines and revealed that the king of spin, Alastair Campbell is very much back in business.

While criticism of an inheritance tax policy, which proposes to provide a £1 billion tax cut for the wealthiest two percent of the population, is clearly justified, the media were quick to signal this as a change in tactics by Labour in a bid to steal the coming election by resorting to class war. An indignant David Cameron, filmed with the troops in Afghanistan, declared that this was "a petty, spiteful, stupid thing to do", adding that "what people are interested in is not where you come from, but where you’re going to".

Quite so, but what old Etonians and the nineteen millionaire members of the shadow cabinet fail to appreciate is that this is the point – where you're going to is overwhelmingly dependent on where you are from.

Class still determines winners and losers in British society. The seven percent of British children who are privately educated are four times more likely than those from state schools to achieve straight A’s at A Level, and three times more likely to go to university.

A private school education greatly increases the chances of admission to Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which in turn opens doors to the nation's top jobs. Three quarters of all judges, fifty percent of all senior journalists, and almost a third of all MPs were privately educated.

Senior civil servants, surgeons, bankers, and the Armed Forces top brass also disproportionately come from public schools. In contrast, two thirds of pupils from poorer social backgrounds don't even take A Levels and less than one percent of children who receive free school meals go on to achieve straight As at A Level. As overall exam results improve, significant numbers of mainly working class boys are leaving school without any qualifications whatsoever.

Private education enables parents to buy privilege and opportunity for their offspring denied to the vast majority of society. They emerge equipped with a confidence and sense of entitlement that puts them at a considerable advantage in securing prestigious university places, better paid employment and even seats in the cabinet. Independent schools argue that they also offer bursaries to children from poorer backgrounds but these are subsidised by the tax payer taking some of the best students from the state sector, improving the educational achievements of the private sector at the expense of the state sector.

A party that is led by people from enormously privileged backgrounds and seeks to perpetuate inequalities in society is, by its very nature, out of touch with the ordinary lives of the people it seeks to govern. The difficulty for Labour is that it too is out of touch with ordinary people. Eleven ministers seated at the Cabinet table were privately educated, even left wing stalwarts such as Diane Abbott send their children to private or selective schools, knowing the advantages that will accrue for their offspring.

It is a bit late in the day making an issue of class when for the past twelve years they have done so little to improve social mobility and increase life chances for the working class they once sought to represent.

The class issue, despite Cameron's protestations, is not about the politics of envy or spite but rather one of fairness and equality of opportunity. Cameron's policies may indeed have been dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton but Labour now has to convince its own supporters and the rest of the country that it is about creating level playing fields for all. Sound bites are all very well but will Brown actually offer any substance to making Britain a fairer society?

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