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Narcissism of small differences: Ed Balls (left) and Ed Miliband like to tease the "posh" Tories — but they too inhabit a world alien to most voters

The politics of class has returned to Britain — and in Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls Labour has found its chief exponent of class-baiting. Balls will never pass up an opportunity for taunting the Tories about their toffishness and out-of-touch-ness, accusing them of promoting only the interests of their millionaire chums in the City. After March's budget Balls had much fun joshing that class war had broken out within the Conservative Party — between Cameron and his old Etonian coterie on the one hand and the alumni of "minor public schools" such as George Osborne and Michael Gove on the other. By what logic Osborne's alma mater, St Paul's, indubitably one of London's top two independent boys' schools, is a "minor public school" was not explained.

Tony Blair, albeit in the face of some stern resistance and talk of treachery, seemed to have expunged class from the Labour lexicon. During Labour's victorious 1997 election campaign one Labour political broadcast presented a phalanx of business leaders and other wealthy types saying that they now supported Blair and would be voting Labour. In 1998, when he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson famously said that he was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". During the 2001 election campaign Blair was interviewed on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman and was asked: "Do you believe that an individual can earn too much money?" Blair's response was dismissive: "No, it's not a view I have. Do you mean that we should cap someone's income? . . . Why? What is the point? You can spend ages trying to stop the highest-paid earners earning the money but in an international market like today's, you probably would drive them abroad."

Paxman then pressed Blair on why the rich should not pay a higher rate of tax, asking: "Where is the justice in taxing someone who earns £34,000 a year, which is about enough to cover a mortgage on a one-bedroom flat in outer London, at the same rate as someone who earns £34 million. Where is the justice?" Apart from reminding us how much further house prices have risen in London, Paxman's question is exactly the line of argumentation Labour is now using. Blair's response could have come straight from Osborne: "The person who earns £34 million . . . will pay far more tax on the £34 million than the person on £34,000 . . . The fact that you have some people at the top end earning more, fine, they pay their taxes . . . If you end up going after those people who are the most wealthy in society, what you actually end up doing is in fact not even helping those at the bottom end." Blair sums up his attitude with a line which was seen as a betrayal of all that Labour traditionally stood for: "It's not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money."

Blair stuck to this position throughout his time as Prime Minister; indeed, Gordon Brown after taking over in 2007 maintained this line for a while before introducing an additional rate of tax of 50 per cent on earnings above £150,000 in 2009, which came into effect in April 2010, just a month or so before the Tories were returned to power. The Labour Chancellor at the time, Alistair Darling, suggested that the additional rate of tax was a temporary measure to offer some counter to the ballooning of the deficit after the 2008 financial crisis and the resultant bailouts.

Today it would be inconceivable for a Labour figure to make statements like Blair's. Instead, the party has reverted to an older narrative of class division. Ed Balls is the driving force behind this move and the party's main line of attack on this government is that it is so wealthy and out of touch that it cannot see the problems faced by ordinary people and, worse, is only interested in promoting the interests of the rich and powerful. Despite the considerable evidence that the Coalition's lowering of the additional rate to 45 per cent in 2013 has increased government revenue, Balls has pledged to restore the 50 per cent rate, come what may.

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sd goh
May 9th, 2014
2:05 PM
Why do the Brits still have this hang-up about 'class'and are so conscious about it that it affects subjects like education, jobs, recreation etc. I bet Mr. Balls cited football as one of his main pursuits just so to counter balanced the violin one lest he be seen as a highbrow not in touch with the soccer-mad masses to whom Mozart perhaps excites as much interest as garlic in Transylvania. Must the love of classical music be associated with a hoity toity one? I have yet to meet someone with an deep interest in classical or 'serious' music (an interest that once developed to the full can become an all consuming passion in one's life to the detriment of other things as well) who at the same time professes a love for football with the same level of intensity. The pleasures and benefits derived from one pursuit are miles apart from those of the other. Would Lee Pan Hon, one time lead violinist of the great Halle orchestra, get to where he did if it was drilled into him from young that violin playing is only for the rich and well connected and that he had better divest himself of all pretensions of wanting to be a concert violinist because of his 'lowly' origins ie. his dad was a knife-grinder in the Chinatown of Singapore?

Charlie7
May 9th, 2014
10:05 AM
Ed may have a good degree in PPE but it is degree where one can select subjects. One could not undertake a degree in chemical, electrical and nuclear engineering and it be rigorous. I think most middle class class socialism is nothing more than resentment and bitterness caused by personal petty grievances. The problem with going to to universities are that one meets people who can achieve a first in subject such as chemical engineering, having played u19 for one country and then go on to be part of a national squad in a sport. If one is playing sport to a high level, undertaking a rigorous degree and working for a first one does not have time to wallow in self pity and resentment.

Craig Campbell
May 7th, 2014
7:05 PM
Spot-on piece. This troubles me. I feel I should be comfortable voting Labour every time, but since Blair I have looked in their eyes, listened to their words and wiki'd their backgrounds, and tough lads from the steelmills they are not. Sorry, but anyone called Tristram is not my traditional idea of a man of the people, and that is possibly wrong, but I don't know any working-class folk who would send their lad to school with a name like that. Reading this, while still hating the Tories, really puts me off Labour and Balls' tricks, more so when I look at Miliband, who is rather plummy, too. I can't see him kicking a football around or going without something till his next pay packet.

Jonathan Sidaway
May 2nd, 2014
7:05 PM
Thank you for this. There is an awful ordinary-blokeishness about EB and he is anything but. Perhaps the stylistic provocation is nevertheless a clever means of distracting attention from his intellectual flimsiness; we are certainly told he is quite clever. One of the great evils of British life since the 40s has been guilty privilege masquerading as socialist altruism. In education for instance it has been such a convenient way of clearing able working class people from the path to advancement. Watch out for Tristram Hunt.

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