Paul Richards: Class War Doesn't Convince the Voters

For several years after the Conservatives' 1997 election campaign, John Major's former communications chief Charles Lewington had the artwork for the 'demon eyes' ad campaign on his office wall.

Paul Richards
Paul Richards

As a piece of office decoration it certainly provided a talking point. M&C Saatchi's visuals were bold, dramatic, and memorable. As a piece of advertising it grabbed attention and interest. But it failed the ultimate test of advertising  - to change consumer behaviour - by not preventing people from voting Labour on 1st May 1997 in record numbers.

Unless you believe that without ‘demon eyes' New Labour would have won even more seats in that election, the campaign must be judged a failure.  It failed because most uncommitted ‘swing' voters in the south east and marginal seats did not believe it. It did not resonate with people's own feelings and perceptions; it jarred with them. The people of Brighton, Watford, Putney, Gillingham and Basildon did not believe that Tony Blair had diabolic intent. They rather liked him. It reinforced the idea that the Tories were nasty and ruthless.

A poll by the poster site company Maiden Outdoor found 64 per cent disliked the campaign. And with cunning political ju-jitsu, Labour's team claimed it was offensive to Blair as a Christian because the image had satanic overtones (and thus blew a dog whistle to church-goers everywhere). Church groups started to complain to the ASA, and it was withdrawn.

I was reminded of ‘demon eyes' this week when we started to get hints of a renewed ‘class war' narrative emanating from the Labour Party. There's been a debate within Labour circles about the efficacy of denouncing the Tories as toffs ever since David Cameron became their leader. Cameron is first genuine toff to lead the Tories for 40 years.

As an Old Etonian he can happily call George Osborne an ‘oik' for only going to St Pauls, and worse, for his family making their money from the wallpaper trade. But even Cameron is a world away from the genuine land-owning aristocrats who used to run the Tory Party until the 1960s. With Margaret Thatcher came a new breed of Tory: people who bought their own furniture, and a Cabinet which contained, as the grandees said, ‘more Estonians than Etonians' (an anti-Semitic reference to the number of Jews in the Cabinet).

In its wilder moments, the Labour Party has indulged in inverse snobbery. In some quarters, a constituency Labour Party dinner, say, it goes down well to claim the Tories are chock full of pheasant-shooting, port-swilling, double-barreled, chinless hoorays. It can get a cheap laugh. But as a component of an election strategy class war is tawdry, desperate and useless.

There are three reasons why:

First, it is hypocritical. The Labour Party has a disproportionately far higher number of former public schoolboys and schoolgirls in parliament and in the government than a random sample of the public they serve. It is well-known that Labour's deputy leader, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Schools Secretary, and a host of other ministers went to fee-paying schools. They can't be blamed for the choices made by their parents any more than those made by David Cameron's parents.

Two of Labour's most successful leaders have been the products of public schools: Clement Attlee (Played 3, Won 2) and Tony Blair (Played 3, Won 3). Most of all it is hypocritical for Labour to attack people's private education because Labour has made no attempt over 12 years to stop private schools operating. And nor should they have.

Second, it doesn't work. The lamentable attempt to depict Edward Timpson, the Conservatives' candidate in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election in May 2008, as a ‘Tory toff' famously failed. A stunt involved apparatchiks dressed in top hats and tails. But Timpson's family made their money from a string of shops which cut keys and mended shoes. Key-cutting and shoe-mending is hardly owning a sweat-shop or salt-mine. Timpsons has a sound brand and good reputation. There was some excitement when a rumour hit the Labour campaign that Timpson had been seen in a Bentley, until someone pointed out that Bentleys are manufactured in - guess where - Crewe.

Any attempt to paint the Tories as the party of toffs would allow the Tories to wheel out Eric Pickles, Sayeeda Warsi, Shaun Bailey and the other non-traditional Tory type candidates they've been assiduously selecting since 2007. It would draw attention to the educational background of various Cabinet ministers. It would back-fire.

Third, it risks contaminating New Labour's image as a party of aspiration. Blair knew that ‘Mondeo Man' would never be able to send his son to Eton. But Mondeo Man didn't hate the people who did, if he felt they deserved their affluence. Indeed Mondeo Man might strive to send his children to the local prep school, and certainly wouldn't vote for a Labour Party which told him it was wrong to do so.

That's why George Osborne's jibe from the dispatch box on Wednesday during the PBR debate that Labour is no longer the party of aspiration is so dangerous for Labour. Most people vote on the perfectly reasonable grounds of WIIFM: what's in it for me. This is more true of the swing voters that will decide whether Gordon Brown or David Cameron is prime minister next summer. If Labour looks ‘chippy', or that it is kicking away the ladder than so many of the Cabinet have climbed, then voters will switch away from Labour in their thousands.

I don't believe Labour is stupid enough to declare class war. Playful references to the playing fields of Eton can get a cheer from the backbenches, but they don't persuade the voters. Look at the successful political campaigns of recent times: Blair, Clinton, Obama. They've been about hope, aspiration, and eye-catching policies, not the school your opponent's parents sent them to when they were 12.

Like ‘demon eyes', a Labour campaign which comprises top hats and tails is doomed to fail.

Paul Richards writes a weekly column for Progress and for LabourList He is a former Labour special adviser and author of How to Win an Election.

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