Labour’s Poshness Paradox


How do you solve a problem like Sir Keir? With an approval rating of –48% in the latest Yougov poll, something needs to be done, but what? Perhaps he needs more policies – there is a plethora of think tanks which can supply those. Perhaps he needs to appear a bit less stiff – there are plenty of left-leaning comedians happy to offer him some gags. But what if his problem is less political and more intractable? What if he is just not posh enough to be PM?

It may seem odd to raise this issue in a supposedly classless society, but betting on the posher-appearing party leader to win an election has proven to be a remarkably successful strategy over time, similar to the rule of thumb that the tallest U.S. Presidential Candidate wins. Consider, for example, Tony Blair who, in 1997, won Labour’s first election for 23 years and, in 2005, its last for 16 and counting. His Fettes and Oxford education allowed him to see off the grammar or state educated John Major, William Hague and Michael Howard. The rot set in when he handed over to Gordon Brown of Kirkaldy High School, who, like his sarnie-munching successor, proved no match for the Etonian David Cameron. Grammar schooled Theresa May’s plummy vowels and Oxford education saw her almost stalemate the shell-suit wearing, allotment-tending Jeremy Corbyn – a former prep school and state grammar boy – before the Tories turned to another product of Eton and Oxford to finish him off.

Blair’s first victory came after a long run where the Conservatives had either “out-poshed” Labour by deploying the honed tones of the Oxford educated, wife of a millionaire, Margaret Thatcher or when there had been a tie. John Major may have been a “working class kid from Brixton”, but Neil Kinnock pointed out that he was the “first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to University”, a claim so emotive that it was recycled by a minor American politician named Joe Biden. Whatever the historicity of the line – universities not being thick on the ground in 23,000 B.C. – it also made his humble origins clear.

A major counter-example would be Harold Wilson’s defeat of Alec Douglas-Home (his contests with Edward Heath in the sixties and seventies were split as befits two men known to be grammar school-educated Oxonians, notwithstanding the Conservative’s more “elevated” tastes). However, the 1964 election came after 13 years of Tory rule, and just over 18 months after the Profumo scandal. Even then, Labour’s majority was only 4.

While the left’s leaders in the previous elections, Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell, had not exactly been poster children for the working classes, the Tories had been able to trump them by playing the grandson of a Duke and a pair of Old Etonians, the former avenging his defeat in 1945, another counter-example. That election, however, was fought over the expansion of the Welfare State and a man who had spent much of his life doing good works in the East End was probably seen as a better bet than a war hero with well-known reactionary views.

Such a persistent effect requires some explanation. Perhaps we are a nation of Hyacinth Buckets, living in dread of a national representative using the wrong fork at a state banquet. Safer then, to vote for the candidate who can be trusted to know how to behave in polite society.

Perhaps, as a country which likes using its past as the setting for entertainment, we have absorbed an image of leadership derived from more aristocratic times such as the plucky public schoolboy leading his chaps over the top. Having avoided class-based bloodletting, and with the traditional seats of learning still in existence, we find it easier to identify modern day analogues for the figures we meet on page and screen than, say, the French do.

So whither Sir Keir? If the principle holds, not very far. Short of finding himself in direct line to some forgotten title of nobility, his ability to “out-posh” Boris is limited. Nor is playing for time likely to work, with a Winchester and Oxford-educated son-in-law of a billionaire waiting in the wings.

Perhaps, like Attlee, he can place himself on the side of the people in a program of national rebuilding. But he faces a Prime Minister who has never met a pound he did not want to spend. He could wait for sleaze to overwhelm the government but that, while hardly impossible, is not exactly a racing cert either.

If Labour is to be master of its own destiny, it may need to show a hitherto unusual ruthlessness and suggest that Sir Keir spend more time with his briefs. The problem is replacing him. If Donald Trump was a poor person’s idea of a rich man, Angela Rayner is a snob’s vision of what a pleb looks like. Andy Burnham may be the commander of the Armies of the North, but he could awaken Southerners’ atavistic dread of chips and gravy being served to visiting dignitaries. If the party needs a “posh boy”, it is not clear that it has one.

Nor may it even be able to find one who is sufficiently free of baggage to win power. Consider Seamus Milne. Winchester and Oxford tick a lot of boxes, as does having a father who ran the BBC. The election campaign he directed, however, showed that the electorate has a reasonably positive view of its country, and expects, as a minimum, its leaders to share it.

Given the capture of the academy by the woke, it is a reasonable question as to whether a figure on the left would be able to pass through the institutions which mark one out as posh without acquiring a range of beliefs which are toxic at the ballot box. While a familiarity with the output of Colonial Studies departments might be a useful marker of membership of the left-wing establishment, it is sufficiently unpopular with the country as a whole that it may preclude ever joining the real Establishment.

Unable to move up the class ladder, and unlikely to win if it moves down, Sir Keir may, faute de mieux, be Labour’s best bet. If, however, history is any guide, he will need to place his trust in the wisdom of a product of Eton, Balliol and the Guards and wait for “Events, dear boy, events.”

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He has been published by Areo and Spiked, and writes (when he can think of something to say) on Medium as Stewartslateruk