Class and the Career Politician

Portsmouth University senior lecturer Sophia Wood dissects the relationship between social class and political affiliation – nationally and locally.

Class is playing an extraordinary role in the seemingly endless run-up to the 2015 general election with its seven-way televised leader’s debates and prime ministerial breakfasts en famille captured by media film crews (anxious, no doubt, to show the voting masses “ordinary” aristo, Sam Cam, popping porridge on silver spoons into the mouths of the Cameron offspring).

The long established interplay between mainstream media and political propaganda (or spin, as it was more benignly christened under New Labour), has produced certain popular images of politicians, parties and voters that have always been closely connected to class.

Who can forget the media derision levelled at John “Two Jags” Prescott? The moniker was inspired by establishment incredulity that a former shop steward should ascend to the heights of Deputy Prime Minister. Equally, “champagne socialist” is attached to those who claim to share “proletarian” concerns which are seemingly at odds with their own middle class lifestyles. Just a few weeks ago, Ed Miliband scored a PR own goal, when sharp-eyed viewers noted that, while being interviewed at home with wife and family, Ed appeared to be drinking tea in a rather utilitarian-looking kitchen. Cue class war all round when it emerged that this was not the family  kitchen but rather that of the LIVE-IN NANNY. Unkind journalists observed that Miliband is part of a “North London Elite” that is increasingly out of touch with “traditional” Labour voters; “traditional” here clearly acting as euphemistic shorthand for “poor people”. But, in 2015, do people vote in line with their class interests or their class aspirations?

As I ponder this, while marking undergraduate essays addressing the ubiquity of spin in political life, it seems to me that the generation twenty years younger than myself are more willing to believe in the grand narratives of social mobility and meritocracy.  The “noblesse oblige” rhetoric of smooth-cheeked David Cameron too often goes unchallenged, despite the ConDems’ austerity measures, tuition fees, and benefits bashing – all of which serve to undermine the “all in it together/big society” mantras of the government. But then is Cameron, the Old Etonian, also not equally ridiculed in certain quarters for his class origin and expensive schooling? With a baronet’s daughter for a wife, who else might David Cameron stand for if not for the “party of governors”?  Generations of privilege quietly assert themselves in each unflappable public appearance and journalists have been quick to eulogise Cameron’s “statesman-like” demeanour, while contrasting it with Ed Miliband’s seeming inability to consume a bacon roll in a telegenic fashion while the nation’s media train their greedy lenses upon him.

What of class at the level of local politics? Might one expect candidates to be more ‘in tune’ with the heartland voters who elect them to public office?

In my own experience I have witnessed a sharp contradiction between the life and “income stream” of a prospective councillor, and their electioneering spiel.  I, like many others in Portsmouth, have experienced the much-discussed housing crisis at first hand. In my mid-thirties, post-divorce and with a young son to accommodate,  I purchased (with the help of a mortgage that would probably be harder for me to obtain now at forty years old) a modest two bedroom flat in Southsea. While my son and I occupied the flat, as our home and putative shelter from the outside world, I soon discovered that the other three flats in the large old house that my flat had been whittled out of were privately rented. In time, and with the inevitably regular turnover of tenants in an increasingly insecure job and housing market, I found myself living alongside some rather “anti-social” characters that made it hard to raise a small child in anything resembling the  domestic tranquillity he deserved.

Coming from a working class family in Portsmouth, and witnessing the ‘right to buy’ propaganda of the Conservatives in the 1980s, I was aware that decent council houses had increasingly fallen into private hands, given Thatcher’s “vision” of home ownership for all. In reality this had meant that those with steady incomes, and maybe some inherited wealth, could buy, do up and sell their council houses for far more than they paid; while those who could not, found the social housing market depleted of its best stock, and themselves increasingly forced into damp and over-priced private rental stock (or ghettoised on outlying sink estates).

Living in my own little “castle”, it soon transpired that the two flats responsible for the problem tenants (to name but a few of the issues: they had nightly loud parties, had brought down my ceiling rose by stamping on the floor, smoked weed in my front garden – they had it delivered through the post into the communal hallway – forced my front door lock in a bungled attempt at burglary, costing me £150 to repair the lock – and trampled dog’s mess through the communal areas) were owned by an individual affiliated to a particular political party, and standing in the upcoming local elections in Portsmouth.

At each turn, when life was becoming more intolerable, yet income prevented me from moving out, I informed the landlord of the problems her tenants were causing  me. Not once has anything meaningful been done to remedy the situation, through more responsible selection of prospective tenants. Indeed, instead, last summer, when drying my child’s clothes in my own front garden, I was emailed by said landlord telling me that I was making the outside area look ‘unsightly’, and putting off potential buyers for one of her flats.

This individual has clearly used property as a means to make profit over a number of years, despite publicly bemoaning the housing crisis, bedroom tax, and ‘unscrupulous’ landlords. When I told them that my child had accidentally opened drugs posted through the letterbox to one of their tenants, they replied that it was not their problem. How does one proceed, with such a case? The police have been unhelpful, environmental health need long and detailed records of ‘nuisance’, and all the while my MP-in-the-making neighbour pays lip service to one political ideal, while benefitting from another one entirely.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.