Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cameron is a Tory Toff. Don't forget it.

I know its not the most pressing issue in the world but I am intrigued by the comments in the press on the "Toff Tactic" deployed by Labour in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. It is widely percieved as a failure. I'm not so sure. It must come pretty low down the list of reasons why Labour lost Crewe. Jonathan Freedland, in an interesting article in The Guardian points to several hazards with the tactic:

(i) It can sound like the "four-Yorkshireman" style of inverted snobbery (on the Conservative side, David Davis, and on Labour's side, Alan Johnson, sometimes sound like the "four Yorkshiremen").

(ii) It can be a bit "retro" - by which I think Freedland means old-fashioned (cloth caps and whippets); an image from which Labour wants to distance itself.

(iii) And, Freedland suggests, the English quite like a toff: deference to those "born to rule" may still lurk "deep within the DNA of this society". Freedland observes that: "There was a hint of that in (Boris) Johnson's campaign trips to traditional white, working-class areas of London. Watch him with the butchers of Smithfield meat market or with the drivers of black cabs, and it could have been a royal visit to the Blitzed East End: all that was missing were the doffed caps and declarations that "You're a gentleman, sir, and make no mistake".

To this one might add that:

(iv) Labour has plenty of toffs of its own; not least the recently departed Tony Blair, now busily aquiring property like there is no tomorrow. And there are plenty of others.

(iv) The tactic was badly judged in Crewe and Nantwich. The Tory candidate, Edward Timpson, is certainly hugely privileged and vastly rich, but his family does seem to have practiced a kind of Cadbury/Rowntree philanthropy (I do not mean that sarcastically): they took in numerous foster-children, two of whom they adopted, and these included kids with Down’s Syndrome and behavioural problems. (The Telegraph muses that Timpsons public school, Uppingham, is “a school for the sons and daughters of Midlands manufacturers, not toffs”. Ah, the English class system..). On the other hand, I doubt that the Labour candidate, Tamsin Dunwoody-Kneafsey, has ever had to worry about where her next meal is coming from. Her mother and two grandparents were in the House of Lords. She too lives in a (not quite so) big house even if she doesn’t have any Llamas (neither does Timpson, it seems). True, this is the Labour aristocracy rather than the landed (or manufacturing, or retailing) aristocracy, but even so. Labour seems to have treated the constituency as if it were a family heirloom, "parachuting" in Tamsin for no other reason than to trade on her mother's name.

And yet. For all this I think there is mileage in the "toff tactic". The Tories are vulnerable on this front, and know it. Freedland quotes Stefan Stern, from the Financial Times: “If David Cameron is so proud of the “great school” he attended – it was Eton, by the way – why does he never mention it by name in public?”. For that matter, why does he bend over backwards to appear “ordinary” using phrases like “fessing up” on the Today programme (presumably to show that he’s “down with the kids”)? Why have they gone to such efforts to keep the notorious Bullingdon photograph out of the newspapers? I can't see any reason why Labour cannot continue to point out that Cameron is a filthy rich Eton-educated aristocrat, who at Cambridge choose to join a notorious gang of bullies who revelled in their privilege, and that neither he nor Osborne can have any idea what life is like for ordinary people. One of the more risible features of the by-election was the Tory exploitation of the 10p tax band question. As if they - or the average Tory voter - gives a flying whatsit about the impact upon those on low incomes. For goodness sake - these are Tories. Labour should not abandon the Toff tactic, just because Cameron/Osborne would like them too. And here's the photograph they don't want anyone to see.


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