The myth of Labour class betrayal

By David BoothroydClass

When Alan Milburn took charge of opening the professions to people from all backgrounds, The Times interviewers could not resist saying how social mobility had affected this “son of a single mother” who grew up “on a council estate in a north-east of England mining town”. He now had “a smart line in Italian designer suits” and preferred guacamole to mushy peas. Not so long ago, adopting aspects of high-class lifestyles while sitting as a Labour MP would doom any chance of Labour movement popularity, especially if born working class.

Since our foundation, Labour principles have always committed us to ridding Britain of all hidden rules which hold people back based on social class. This principle attracted upper-class dissidents to support the party from the start: Daisy Greville, the Countess of Warwick (1861-1938), a former mistress of Edward VII, supported Labour candidates in 1906, and after the Great War the Earl of Kimberley was elected as a Labour county councillor in Norfolk with the support of agricultural workers he employed. High-born people in the Labour Party could be popular, even if they stayed in the same social circles.

Ramsay MacDonald, widowed in 1911, was by all accounts lonely in his personal life. He felt keenly the pain of public hostility over his wartime pacifism. When Labour came to government in 1924, he was introduced to society dinners the like of which he had never experienced. At one he met Lady Londonderry, a famous (and very Conservative) society hostess. They were unlikely friends, but friends they became – according to David Marquand’s biography of MacDonald, sharing interests in Gaelic myth and folklore. Partly with introductions by Lady Londonderry, MacDonald spent much spare time from the mid-1920s socialising with the highest classes.

MacDonald remained generally popular within the Labour movement, unknowing of his social life. One who did, and disliked MacDonald for it, was Fabian and diarist Beatrice Webb. When MacDonald formed a National Government in 1931, rashly confiding to Philip Snowden that “Tomorrow every Duchess in London will be wanting to kiss me!”, Webb was convinced that MacDonald abandoning Labour was planned in advance and rooted in social advancement. Her theory gained prominent supporters and the Labour movement accepted it.

Reviving interest in ‘1931’ in the 1970s caused Labour members to take heed of social connections of their senior figures. Harold Wilson remained culturally in line with his skilled working-class origins, to such an extent that unsympathetic biographer Andrew Roth found inexplicable. Wilson, who enjoyed cigars in private, made sure the public only saw his pipe. By contrast, deputy leader Roy Jenkins became more interested in the literary establishment and distant from the coal mines where his father worked. Jenkins’ formation of the SDP, taking mostly middle-class Labour Party members, seemed to bear out the class theory of Labour betrayal.

The chill winds of suspicion affected those who had no working class origins. Tony Benn, who stopped being Anthony Wedgwood Benn in the 1960s, decided he would rather his education at Westminster School went unmentioned in Who’s Who. In 1975 his education was still “in progress”; by 1976 his entry contained only his government jobs, and in 1977 Benn wiped himself from the pages of Who’s Who. Benn’s touchiness at (sometimes unfair) references to his father’s peerage is readily apparent in his published diaries.

Even more misguided was the embarrassing incident in 1988 when Alan Watkins pointed out that Michael Meacher’s father was not truly a working class ‘farm labourer’ as Meacher had claimed, but a wealthy accountant who took medical advice and retired to a farm. Meacher sued for libel, but lost. Such was the strength of automatic suspicion of high-class associations among Labour supporters that Patrick Seyd noted with surprise in 1987 that Ken Livingstone did not share it.

The 1990s saw a change. Labour deliberately sought out people who were not traditional supporters, and the logic of “no no-go areas for new Labour” meant looking for Labour support everywhere. Is the recent concern about Labour connections to wealthy people and bankers a harbinger of the old concerns? Probably not, but with no big defections to the Conservatives, the urge for a revival is absent. The Labour movement needs to realize ostracizing members who look insufficiently working-class is self-defeating. Once Roy Jenkins had gone to Europe it would have looked silly for him to return to a distrustful Labour Party.

Do Labour Party politicians from upper-class backgrounds have genuine left-wing commitments? Surely no-one can doubt Clement Attlee’s government, yet Attlee was the son of a wealthy solicitor and deliberately favoured appointees from his old public school, Haileybury. In fact the truth of the Labour Party’s stance on class was stated by Keir Hardie as early as 1903:

“To claim for the Socialist Movement that it is a class war is to do Socialism an injustice and indefinitely postpone its triumph. It is lowering it to the level of a faction fight. Socialism offers a platform broad enough for all to stand upon who accept its principles. It makes war upon a system, not upon a class.”

More from LabourList