UK goverment in 'class war'

2009-12-08 15:12

London - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stands accused of launching a pre-election "class war" on the opposition, painting the Tories as rich, posh and out of touch in a desperate bid to whip up voters.

With Britain in its worst recession for at least 50 years and an election due by June, experts say Brown is trying to regain the initiative by accusing the Conservatives of siding with rich people, including despised bankers.

On Wednesday Brown's government is to unveil its annual tax plans including a reported clampdown on bankers' bonuses, in what is seen as an opportunity to stake out his dividing lines - Labour for the poor, Tories for the rich.

"I doubt we would have seen this had it not been for the economic crisis," said Robin Pettitt, a politics lecturer at Kingston University in London.

"They want to associate the Conservatives with the bankers and I guess the implication is that a lot of the bankers went to the same kind of school as the Conservatives".

He said ministers were also trying to tie the Tories, traditionally more free market orientated than Labour, to the kind of financial "orthodoxy" which many critics believe led to the crash, like the payment of big bonuses.

Brown's highly personal argument against Tory leader David Cameron focuses on his education at Eton, the most prestigious of Britain's private schools, where fees are nearly 30 000 pounds a year.

Middle-class voters

Private schools educate many of Britain's elite but have traditionally been viewed sceptically by Labour.

Claiming Cameron is too privileged to understand ordinary Britons, state-school educated Brown jibed last week that Tory tax policy was "dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton". This includes a controversial pledge to scrap inheritance tax on legacies under a million pounds.

Over half of Cameron's shadow Cabinet attended private schools, compared to around seven percent of Britons overall and six out of 23 in Brown's Cabinet.

Perceptions of Cameron's Conservatives as a party for the wealthy were not helped when it emerged last week that Zac Goldsmith, his environmental adviser and a parliamentary candidate, claimed non-domicile tax status - labelled by critics as a tax loophole for the super-rich.

Ironically, one of Cameron's predecessors, Margaret Thatcher, is often credited with weakening Britain's long-entrenched class system, although Cameron's inner circle shows little evidence of this.

If Brown's bid to associate the Tories with wealth works, it could shore up support from left-wing Labour voters, many of whom were uncomfortable when now Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said in 1998 that New Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes".

It could also draw in middle-class voters stung by the credit crunch, Pettitt said.

Class and privilege

Despite disquiet among some Labour ministers, including some who attended private schools themselves, Brown's recent rhetoric has been welcomed by many Labour sympathisers.

Ex Downing Street communications chief Alastair Campbell has written that Cameron's education is "a symbol of a system of class and privilege, and a fairly big barrier to Cameron's efforts to present himself as someone who 'gets' the life of most people".

Cameron has hit back, insisting that "class war" tactics would turn voters off.

"What people are interested in is not where you come from but where you're going to, what you've got to offer," he told the BBC on Sunday.

"If they want to fight a class war, fine, go for it. It doesn't work. It's a petty, spiteful, stupid thing to do."

But newspaper reports of the Tories asking candidates with aristocratic-sounding double-barrelled names to change them suggest they are rattled.

The Conservatives are trying to make their party more diverse, in part through open primaries for general election candidates which should bring in more women and ethnic minorities.

Even without this shake-up, though, the British public look set to swallow any reservations they may have about the Tory party and vote them into office next year.

Another Sunday Times/YouGov poll on Sunday gave them a 13 point lead over Brown's Labour.