Status anxiety

Labour’s failure and Lady Colin Campbell’s popularity point to one thing: the politics of envy has failed

Except under non-leftie Tony Blair, the party has not won a decisive election victory for nearly 50 years

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

Last week I put £25 on Lady C to win I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here. At 25/1, I thought it was quite a good bet – until she withdrew for medical reasons. For those not watching the 15th series of the jungle reality show, Lady C is Lady Colin Campbell, a self-proclaimed ‘socialite’ and author of several royal biographies. Some of her fellow contestants, such as ex-Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley, have accused her of not being a ‘real lady’, but they don’t have a clue, obviously. They mean she swears a lot, which hardly disqualifies her from being a toff. As it happens, her aristocratic credentials are a bit dubious — her title derives from her brief marriage to a relative of the Duke of Argyll – but she seems to delight in conforming to the upper-class stereo-type. When she did her first Bushtucker Trial, she apologised to Ant and Dec for not wearing her pearls, and she refers to Hadley as a ‘chippy oik’. Like Boris, she’s a pantomime toff, someone who exaggerates their poshness for theatrical effect, and the viewers seem to be lapping it up.

This confirms my theory that any antipathy the British public feels towards the upper class has dwindled away to almost nothing. Following Labour’s triumph at the 1945 general election, the aristocracy became convinced that the nation had been seized by revolutionary fervour and embarked on a frantic public relations offensive. Stately homes were demolished, accents were played down and ostentatious displays of wealth became taboo. As Nancy Mitford put it in her famous essay on the subject in 1956: ‘The English lord has been nurtured on the land and is conversant with the cunning ways of the animal kingdom. He has often seen the grouse settle into the heather to rise and be shot at no more.’

Whether as a result of this strategy or not, no serious attempt to redistribute wealth has taken place since the Attlee administration. One of the most striking facts about post-war politics is that if you discount the three victories won by Tony Blair — who was about as left-wing as David Steel — Labour hasn’t won a general election since October 1974 and that barely counted. Without Blair, Labour hasn’t won a convincing majority since 1966, almost 50 years ago. The politics of envy has failed.

To be fair, even the Tory party, which prides itself on understanding how to win and retain power, took a while to wake up to this. After Alec Douglas-Home failed to win in 1964, it concluded that the party should never again be led by a toff and the next three leaders seemed to vindicate that decision with varying degrees of success. But after three consecutive losses in 1997, 2001 and 2005, it was forced to re-evaluate this policy and put another Old Etonian in charge. Exactly 10 years later, David Cameron has proved to be one of the most successful leaders in the party’s history.

Some might argue that Cameron has only triumphed by toning down his privileged status — resigning from Whites in 2008, for instance – but such efforts have always been half-hearted. There’s a telling moment in Dan Hodges’ excellent new book about the general election, One Minute to Ten, when Cameron deliberates about whether to appoint Chris Lockwood as deputy head of his policy unit. He’s an old friend from a similar background and, at this point in the story, Cameron is under pressure to broaden his team. But he decided to appoint Lockwood anyway. ‘These were the sort of people David Cameron wanted in his inner circle,’ writes Hodges. ‘Not just people he could rely on. Or even people whose judgment he could trust. He wanted people he knew. People he could look into. People like him, in fact.’

Inside the Westminster bubble, the Prime Minister’s promotion of his friends to his inner circle is regarded as a political mistake, since it adds to the impression that he’s in politics to help out his rich chums. In fact, there’s no reason to think it has harmed his party’s electoral prospects. The British public isn’t nearly as obsessed by class as political journalists. In their eyes, I suspect, all politicians seem to be from another planet, with little attention paid to whether they went to Eton or Haverstock Comp.

That is why poor old Jeremy Corbyn, with his touching faith in class war, is doomed to failure. After he’s obtained national treasure status — the ultimate humiliation for anti-establishment rebels — he might want to take a turn in the jungle.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • mickey667

    What? The 1945 post war settlement spurred on by millions of working class men returning from war demanding a more just society was the politics of envy?

    Are you on drugs? Or being deliberately offensive?

  • Nutritional Information

    All, the same, Oldham is enough of a success that Militant are here to stay. That’s a “fact on the ground” that angry centrists like me and amused righties like Toby need to get used to. And the Tories are not going to hold power for ever. It’s a dangerous situation.

  • paul oxley

    No mention of your other £25 bet placed on UKIP (shrewdly apparently) at 11/ win a seat that had been held easily by a left winger with an almost identical Corbyn for 45 years.and where fading force UKIP were always going to get the V sign (and not V for victory) from the locals..

    Sadly for Toby Mug ..The new look left wing anti war, pro welfare Labour party sunk this ” shrewd ” wager by just..just..just scraping home with er.. 60% of the vote

    How to lose money and delight people (and not just Ladbrokes)..

    • alfred5

      I never expected UKIP to win but it is a pyhrric victory of sorts for Labour ; it means they will have to endure Corbyn while he poisons the Labour brand …Corbyn will sink Zadiq Khans chances in the London Mayor’s race
      I expect Corbyn to resign sometime after may/june

  • alfred5

    After hearing Corbyn’s brother on TV last night calling G W a fraud I was rather impressed …it’s just a pity that Jeremy does not have the same kind of common sense

  • alfred5

    The postmodern UK is much improved and much less polarized than it was a mere 30 years ago ; it is much more egalitarian , less class conscious , less racist and much more tolerant …politics are just a mere reflection of that ….victory lies in the political centre
    The socialist Left are as anachronistic as the Tory Right

    • King Kibbutz

      What is postmodern about the UK?

  • jennybloggs

    I have never heard of any great animosity between the aristocracy and the working class. Indeed it has been said that together they built an empire. They worked together in the military. The lower middle class certainly attracted the ire of both of these groups.

  • jeffersonian

    ‘David Cameron has proved to be one of the most successful leaders in the party’s history.’

    Yes, if the Conservative Party is happy being identified with the greatest decimation of the UK armed forces in modern history (also known as the 2010 defence ‘review’) – precisely when we’d need them the most. All presided over by Dave.

    • LordJustin

      You obviously don’t understand their measure of success, which is maintaining privilege supported by an occasionally surly, but generally deferent peasantry – and crushing the ambitions of the dangerously subversive Thatcherite middle class, with their demands for home ownership and university education for their children. By THAT measure, he has done everything his masters have demanded of him.

  • Andy JS

    I don’t think the British public ever had a problem with the upper classes. The big problem which has always existed is the disdain in which those in the middle have always been – and continue to be — held by those at the top and bottom. The reason grammar schools were successfully abolished was because both those at the very top and very bottom of society were horrified by the way in which bright people from the lower-middle and upper-working classes were threatening to turn Britain into a genuine meritocracy. Those at the top were afraid their position might be threatened, and those at the bottom were resentful that people who weren’t all that removed from themselves in background might actually improve themselves through education. It suited both types of people to support getting rid of grammar schools.

  • LordJustin

    Blair, Cameron, Corbyn, all cut from the same cloth – Elite NWO haters of the self-made middle class and all we stand for.

    The only political question in this country today is: Do you want to be ruled by ANOTHER hand picked member of the anti-middle class Elite for the next five years; or, ignore the media hate and bile and vote for anti-Elite UKIP, the only party still supporting the Thatcherite middle class?

    To me, rejecting the NWO and it’s pro-elite propaganda is a no brainer. How about you?

  • John P Hughes

    “Exactly 10 years later, David Cameron has proved to be one of the most successful leaders in the party’s history.”

    So successful that he needed Lib Dem support to form a coalition government in 2010, and in 2015 won a narrow majority, less than John Major’s in 1992 ? And that by essentially taking back seats from the Lib Dems which (in previous forms in the same areas) had been Conservative for most of the period from 1951 to 1997? The large block of Lib Dem seats in the West Country which were won by the Tories in 2015 were Conservative until voters turned against the Tories during the later Thatcher period. The Lib Dems not Labour were the opposition party in the South West.
    It would be more accurate to say that Cameron is one of the luckiest leaders in Conservative Party history. He isn’t particularly competent and he has in him far too much of the PR man (his only ‘proper job’). He has weak opposition leaders, so he appears to be head-and-shoulders above them, but voters don’t like him that much. If the Conservatives want to win well in 2010 they will need another leader – as (at present) is intended.

  • davbeau

    So called ‘politics of envy’ doesn’t exist. This is simply a phrase used to undermine the politics of social justice. The phrase is deployed not just by those who benefit from unjust ways of organising our society but also by those whose percieved benefit is less material and more psychological. Like you Toby.
    The reasons for Labour’s failure to be more successful at winning selections are many but characterising the striving for greater social justice – which has in fact been monumentally successful over the last 100 years – as the ‘politics of envy’ is simply toadying, unthinking small-mindedness. And you setup schools for a living? What does it say over the threshold of your educational establishments – “Musn’t grumble”….?