Claiming proletarian roots is seen, in today's Labour Party, as a good, even essential move from candidates for leadership. It's presented as an implicit embrace of no-nonsense common sense, of experience of harder knocks than bourgeois opponents and thus, in a leftist party, a deeper knowledge of what needs to be done to improve working-class life, and a sharper ambition to see it through. It presumes a tilt to the left.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, MP for Salford and Eccles in the Greater Manchester Area, and Shadow Business Secretary in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet, is the furthest left of the declared candidates and has the purest proletarian backstory. Her father was a docker and trade union representative in Salford. Her claim that she 'grew up watching (my father) worrying when round after round of redundancies were inflicted on the docks' was challenged by a Sunday Times
story which revealed that she was only two when the Salford Docks closed, and thus could not have experienced 'round after round' of closures. In a Today
programme interview, she dismissed that, saying the closures continued in other docks where her father worked and was a shop steward. And there is no doubt that her father was a docker.
The two leading upper-middle-class shadow ministers likely to compete for leadership are Sir Keir Starmer, a barrister specialising in human rights, then head of the Crown Prosecution Service before becoming MP for Holborn and St Pancras and Shadow Brexit Secretary; and Emily Thornberry, also a barrister before becoming an MP for Islington South and Shadow Foreign Secretary.
Sir Keir has stressed that, though a prominent barrister for nearly three decades, his father was a tool maker: Thornberry has said that, though married to Sir Christopher Nugee, a high court judge, she had a difficult and suddenly impoverished childhood when her father, Cedric Thornberry, left the family on being appointed as an Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and the family moved to a council house. She had, however, while campaigning for Labour in Rochester in 2014, tweeted the image of a small house swathed in flags of St George, with a white van before it – accompanying that with the message, 'Image from #Rochester' – a comment interpreted as elitist snobbery, angering the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband and prompting her resignation from the shadow cabinet.
Claiming working-class credentials when in a middle-class, or upper-middle-class salary bracket is a common strategy, especially for those who position themselves on the left – and not just in the UK. Elizabeth Warren, earning more than $400,000 a year as a Harvard law professor, has made clear a family background which, like Thornberry's, included a spell of hard times when her flight instructor father had a heart attack, medical bills piled up and she worked as a part-time waiter in her early teens. She had also claimed to be a descendant from a native American tribe – a tie which was shown to be so fragile that she apologised (to native Americans) for having made it.
The European politician who had the most financially difficult and impoverished upbringing is Gerhard Schroder, German Chancellor from 1998 to 2005. His father, a lance corporal in the Wehrmacht, was killed in action in Romania in 1944, when Schroder was six months old. His mother worked as an agricultural labourer to support herself and two son. Gerhard worked as a sales clerk and a construction worker, while putting himself through night school, gained entrance to university, took a law degree, worked as a lawyer and rose through the Social Democratic Party (SDP) until, in 1990, he became Minister-President of Lower Saxony.
As Chancellor eight years later, he took his party to the right economically – lowering taxes, modifying labour law to make hiring and firing easier, and boosting entrepreneurship. Out of office, he has joined several company boards and is chairman of the Nord Stream shareholders committee – the Russian- (Gazprom) owned gas pipeline – and remains strongly supportive of Vladimir Putin. He continues to be reviled by many in the SPD for the record of his Chancellorship: his working-class past neither tilted him to the left of social democracy, nor did it shield him from often furious responses from the trade union movement.
Claims, explicitly or implicitly, that working-class birth confers a natural militancy are often wide of the mark – and may also be futile, as a prompt for lower class votes. The most popular and still best-known American Democratic President of the post-war is John Kennedy – son of a wealthy father, educated at a series of prestigious private schools and Harvard University.
The Prime Minister still most revered for the radicalism of his government is Clement Attlee, born into the English upper-middle-class, educated in a private school and Oxford University. The working-class heroes of his government were Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, a former carter with little education of any kind who was the moving force behind the creation both of the Transport and General Workers Union, and of Nato; and Aneurin Bevan, a former miner, who presided over the creation of the National Health Service. Both – though they loathed each other – served the understated, unrepentantly middle-class Attlee, bequeathing the country its central institution of the welfare state and the Western world with the institution which provides for its common defence.
The undisputed leader of the Labour Party's left-wing from the 1960s to the 1980s was Tony Benn, son of a high-minded upper-middle-class family, educated privately at Westminster School and at Oxford. The other leading left-wing figure, leader of the Labour Party from 1980-1983, Michael Foot, was educated in a series of private schools and Oxford. The most successful Labour Prime Minister electorally has been Tony Blair – son of an academic (raised, to be sure, by a working-class family in Glasgow), who sent him to the private boarding school Fettes College in Edinburgh… and Oxford. Jeremy Corbyn, the (presumably) outgoing present Labour leader, didn't follow the classic, Oxford-capped route (he didn't go to any university) – though his family was solidly middle class, and his schools private.
Working and lower-middle-class voters appear not to care too much if their representatives are 'like them': if they are, it may help on the margin – but the larger issue is their perceived competence, the unity of the party they lead and, increasingly, their likeability. Street interviews taken before and after the UK's 12 December General Election showed some voters, of all ages, in the Midlands and northern England, confessing with embarrassed giggles that they voted Conservative after lifetimes of choosing Labour because they 'liked Boris' – and didn't like, or trust, Jeremy Corbyn. The greater use of 'likes' on social media spills over into the world of political preference.
It may even be that constant pushing of hardscrabble, working-class heritage is off-putting: it smacks too much of self aggrandisement, a claim which says – look where I came from and look at me now! For some, as Emily Thornberry, the insistence on her council house interlude becomes a little ridiculous.
Class still defines much in British society, but it no longer carries an assumption of adherence to left policies and attitudes. The SNP has taken most of Labour's working/lower-middle-class base – and it's a centrist, pro-market party. Voters in England's Midlands and North were presented with a relatively radical socialist programme – and tens of thousands voted Conservative. Posturing as a man or woman of the people is much less important than showing what one can do for the people, given power.