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Labour's Posh Boys (and Girls)

By Mark Wallace
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Labour Bullingdon

Back row: David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman.

Standing in middle: Hillary Benn, Chuka Umunna.

Front row: Fiona McTaggart, Tristram Hunt, Tessa Jowell.

It's become a regular refrain from Labour ranks that the Tories are posh. The infamous Bullingdon photo, which Carla Millar today mimics above, is used as shorthand to pick at the number of privately schooled men and women in the Cabinet and in the Parliamentary Conservative Party.

The failed attempt by Labour to make class an issue in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, with activists dressed up in top hats and tails, stands out as an example of their enthusiasm for the subject.

And yet even a cursory look at the Opposition benches reveals Labour has its own fair share of posh boys and girls.
  • Ed and David Miliband are the sons of a millionaire academic.
  • Ed Balls had the good fortune to enjoy an excellent education at the private, all-boys Nottingham High School.
  • Harriet Harman is an alumna of St Paul's Girls, and the daughter of a Harley Street doctor. 
  • Hillary Benn's father may have given up his hereditary title, but the family weren't so keen to redistribute the Stansgate Abbey estate.
  • Chuka Umunna is the grandson of High Court Judge Sir Helenus Milmo, and was also privately educated, at St Dunstan's College.
  • Tessa Jowell went to St Margaret's School for Girls.
  • Fiona MacTaggart attended the famous Cheltenham Ladies College.
  • Tristram Hunt is the son of Lord Hunt, attended University College School and, well, he's called Tristram.

Now, there is nothing wrong with being privately educated - I was lucky enough to go to RGS Newcastle. But the fact that my fellow old boys include Labour Peer Lord (formerly Sir Jeremy) Beecham and Ian Lucas, Labour MP for Wrexham, should suggest that Labour is being quite hypocritical in trying to cast it as a negative - and a Tory negative at that.

As much as the left might try to pretend otherwise, the simple fact is that politicians on both sides of politics tend to be disproportionately posh. Slinging mud at the Government for poshness invites mud to be slung in return - and a mudfight gets nobody anywhere.

Attacking people who have been fortunate in their education and their start in life is damaging for our national life, too. The collectivist idea that someone's class ought to invalidate their views is as idiotic and unfair when done through inverse snobbery as it is in old-fashioned snootyness towards the poor.

We saw the damage that can be done by such inverse snobs when the Blair Government abolished the Assisted Places Scheme in 1997. At that point, the scheme gave 34,000 pupils the opportunity to access private education that they could not otherwise have afforded. New Labour may have ditched Clause 4, but they were still sufficiently into class war that they closed it down, cutting off such opportunities for any more children.

Those battles are still being fought today in education. Despite years of criticising the restricted access to private education, North Tyneside Labour are spending a fortune on lawyers in order to stop the fee-paying King's School becoming a Free School - opening up a great school to all, regardless of financial means. That they are mounting their legal challenge at taxpayers' expense only adds insult to injury,

The nation would be better off if Labour MPs put their schooling to use thinking up better policies, rather than shouting about school ties.

That is not to say that any of us with an interest in politics should ignore the correlation between political success and poshness. It should be a matter of concern not that the well off are represented, but that the less well off are not.

The same trend can be seen in the arts, in business, in journalism and elsewhere. Social mobility is too low, educational outcomes for the poor are all too often well below average and entrepreneurialism is well behind many of our competitors (as Allister Heath reported yesterday).

Instead of lambasting those who get the best start in life, we should work out ways to raise levels of education and opportunity for all to the same standard. In an ideal Britain, there would be little demand for private education.

Labour were right to start the academy programme - but they should now fully support Free Schools, which radically extend the opportunities and innovation pioneered by academies. Similarly, their opposition to welfare reform means a continued jab in the eye for hard workers who see some earn more than them through the benefits system. Fighting cuts to business red tape means that they prefer the risks and costs of setting up a small business to remain prohibitive. Continuing their commitment to high taxes necessarily means that those with the least money have even less of it to spend on themselves and their children.

We have an opportunity deficit in this country, which all parties should want to fill - particularly one claiming to be the champion of working people. Stopping the hypocritical attacks on "posh" Tories would be a start - and it would free up time for Labour to focus on ideas that would give to everyone the opportunities currently enjoyed by relatively few.