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Jealous petulant snipery and the Labour leadership

There seems to be a fair amount of grumpiness and sarcasm going on around the Labour party leadership election.

Much of this is for sensible reasons (broadly “the only one of the candidates who isn’t a dull clone has no experience of managing anything ever, and David Miliband is a war criminal”).

However, there’s also a fair amount that’s come for the stupidest reason possible: “they all went to Oxbridge, so they aren’t representative”.

If you replace “Oxbridge” with “public school”, and “the Labour party” with “the Tory party”, this is definitely a fair point: you get to public school solely by having relatives who have large quantities of disposable cash, and therefore anyone who has been to public school has had at the very least an upper-middle-class upbringing [*].

For reasons to do both with a lack of state-school applications and variations in actual acceptance rates, Oxbridge still has a private school bias in its admissions. So it’s fair to say that a randomly picked Oxbridge person is probably from a privileged background, and is not particularly likely to be a good person to represent the working class.

But that isn’t what we’re being faced with here.

We know that Diane Abbott’s parents were working-class immigrants, and that she grew up as a black working-class girl in 1950s and 1960s London. We know that Andy Burnham’s parents were working-class Scousers, and that (while he doubtless faced less adversity than Abbott while growing up) he also had a working-class upbringing in 1970s and 1980s Warrington.

In other words, we know that two of the candidates for the Labour leadership are people who come from unequivocally working-class families and areas, and who – despite the fact that Oxbridge admissions tilt towards the middle- and upper-middle-classes – were good enough to beat the bias in the system and get in anyway.

Isn’t the correct response to that fact “it’s fantastic that two of the candidates for the Labour leadership are people who are that academically able and motivated whilst at the same time having a very strong understanding of what growing up without a silver spoon is like – this is exactly what we want from our political leaders”, rather than “meh, Oxbridge wankers, unrepresentative, blah blah”?

Well, unless you’re a jealous petulant inverse snob, that is.

[*] before we get any bleeding heart middle-class sob stories, yes, many parents spend a huge proportion of their disposable incomes on school fees and go without holidays, ponies, etc – but in order to for their disposable income to cover a couple of kids’ school fees they still need to be reliably making a lot more than the median wage, which makes them upper-middle-class.

  1. Igor Belanov
    June 10, 2010 at 8:50 pm | #1

    I think the point isn't that they're posh and upper-crust, but that Oxbridge followed by media, PR and policy advice is a relatively elitist political trajectory. It is a bit worrying if we're going to insist on political figures having that type of background, because it suggests that politics has become a career with narrow entry restrictions rather than a field that is open to most people who possess the ability to represent others.

    Plus, it would be nice if these highly educated politicians would give some evidence of intelligence, rather than speaking in glib platitudes or rephrasing the points of view of the tabloid press.

  2. June 11, 2010 at 6:43 am | #2

    I know that it wasn't many and that the system was hijacked by the middle class, but the Assisted Places scheme did provide an opportunity for children from poorer backgrounds to get the opportunity to attend public schools.

  3. June 11, 2010 at 7:46 am | #3

    Agree with Igor. It isn't just that without Diane they were four middle class (yes, that's what they are, and let's not pretend otherwise) white Oxbridge graduates, it was that they've all either been in wonkery, the media or politics their whole lives, just like err, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

  4. June 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm | #4

    Septicisle: what do you mean by "middle class"? If you mean "from middle class backgrounds", then I disagree. If you mean "are now middle class", then that's obvious and inevitable, unless we're going to choose party leaders by random selection from the public rather than from a pool of MPs who are definitionally middle class.

  5. June 12, 2010 at 7:02 am | #5

    I mean the latter. Burnham is however definably middle class while someone like John McDonnell still isn't; defining class is always going to be next to impossible, and I've never believed for a second it's all about how much you earn in a year. By the typical Marxist definition I'd be petit-bourgeois, something I'd resent.

  6. June 13, 2010 at 6:18 am | #6

    "you get to public school solely by having relatives who have large quantities of disposable cash" – not solely, no. Mainly, yes, definitely.

    Public schools all have scholarship schemes. I see on Eton's website that they educate about 30 boys on zero fees, and a fair few more on very small fees. It may of course be that you need to be from a middle-class background to even think about applying to Eton, I have no idea; but the school at which I work (a decent public day school) has a significant number of local boys from very ordinary backgrounds who were bright enough for us to take them on without fees, and I don't think we're unusual in that regard.

    Not a massively sigificant point in this context, but hey.

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