‘One Nation’ Labour leader takes aim at elites

Is social class still a clue to someone’s politics? It was in 1937, the date of this famous photo.

Ed Miliband claims the common touch because he went to a state school, while his opponent was educated at great expense. Does this mean only Labour’s leader can unite the nation?

At his local school in North London, he ‘learned how to get on with people from all backgrounds.’

So said Ed Miliband, delivering his much anticipated leader’s speech at the Labour Party conference yesterday in Manchester. The implied contrast was with Eton, where David Cameron was a pupil, which excludes girls and has very expensive fees.

He was trying to pull off a daring political and rhetorical trick – attacking the Prime Minister and other senior Conservatives for being part of an elite and therefore out-of-touch with ordinary voters, while claiming that Labour wanted to unite the country.

‘The Milibands have not been sitting under the same oak tree for 500 years,’ he joked, mocking his opponent’s rural, aristocratic background. Later he accused Tory politicians of class-based arrogance. ‘They think they are born to rule.’

The contrast was emphasised by describing how Miliband’s parents, refugees from the Nazis, had been rescued and brought to the UK, thriving here. They had their children at a local NHS hospital and sent their sons to the comprehensive nearby: ‘Britain has given my family everything,’ he said with feeling.

But later, the main thrust of the speech was to claim he was the natural heir to the Victorian Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who wanted to tackle social injustice and govern the country not as if it was a collection of sectional interests but as, in a famous phrase, ‘One Nation’.

‘How cheeky!’ said the Conservative newspapers in admiration. The Tory Party accused Mr Miliband of ‘Claiming one nation while fighting a class war.’

Could do better?

The two men went to very different schools and come from very different families. But the leaders of both main political parties went on to study at Oxford University, which makes both of them part of an educational and a political elite.

Some will agree with Ed Miliband; ignoring social inequality, which often starts during education, amounts to ‘shrugging our shoulders at injustice.’ Others dismiss his arguments as hypocritical: he’s a metropolitan intellectual claiming solidarity with the rest of the population. And in any case, neither he nor Cameron should be ashamed of their success, they will say. In politics, as in sport, music or any other field of human endeavour, if you are dedicated and talented, you will get to the top.

You Decide

  1. Should there be such a thing as elite education? In sport? In the arts or sciences?
  2. In France, where the ideal of equality has been enshrined in the national motto since the revolution, educational elites are respected and celebrated. Is this a contradiction? Would the French model work in the UK?

Activities

  1. Make a short speech. Convince your friends that if they elect you as their leader, you will be able to represent the whole class, not just the ones who are like you.
  2. Research the origins of the word ‘meritocracy,’ often described as the opposite of ‘elitism’ and make a presentation on the idea. Are you surprised at what you find out? Is it what you would call fair?

Some People Say...

“Life is never fair.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do I need to pay attention to this?
Ed Miliband is leader of the opposition and could become the UK’s prime minister. So whether his statements unite the country or divide it is important. Even if he doesn’t win, he could be changing the nature of what is sometimes called ‘the national conversation.’
And will this speech make a difference?
The next general election is not being held until 2015. But Labour’s leader wants the public to know more about his background and his values, in the hope that they will warm to him as a potential prime minister and to give him a better chance of getting his ideas heard sympathetically. So this speech is important: if people like what they hear, it is a solid beginning to the long march to polling day.

Word Watch

Rhetorical
Rhetoric is the art of using language persuasively, so it is a crucial skill for any politician. In Ancient Rome it was thought of as one of the key skills for any well-educated member of the elites, and the belief was adopted again in Renaissance Europe.
Benjamin Disraeli
This Conservative Prime Minister was a radical reformer who argued for improving the lives of working class people. He was Jewish, and therefore an outsider in the ranks of the Conservative Party. Successive politicians have tried to claim they have a modern version of his ‘one nation’ vision to unite the country.
Metropolitan
Urban, or living in a big, sophisticated city. Sometimes used to furnish a simple description, this word is often used to attack someone’s views or lifestyle as atypical or out-of-touch with most ordinary people.