Oliver Letwin’s gaffe, revealed in the last few days, says plenty about the Conservative attitude towards the working classes – but the response to it also sadly speaks volumes about Labour’s inability to adequately stand up for those same classes.
Letwin, for those who may not have heard, was revealed to have made remarks in a private meeting that even outraged Boris Johnson, who said:
I was absolutely scandalised the other day to hear a government minister tell me that he did not want to see more families in Sheffield being able to afford cheap foreign holidays. I think it is an absolute disgrace that you are seeing a kind of bourgeois repression of people’s ability to take holidays. I really think it is a matter of social justice that we look at aviation capacity in this country.
The unnamed “government minister” was later revealed to have been Letwin.
While Labour supporters have expressed much mirth at the irony of Nick Clegg’s later proclamation to Sky News that Letwin had “become the most controversial politician in Sheffield,” there appears to be little attempt to respond coherently to the content of Letwin’s statement, and what it says about Tory attitudes to the people of Sheffield and other predominantly working-class cities.
The Labour response has been limited to remarks from individual MPs – David Blunkett, who represents a constituency in Sheffield, and Denis MacShane, who represents nearby Rotherham, are both quoted in the Guardian piece linked to – but the silence from the top of the party is deafening.
Given that this incident is indicative of the contempt in which the northern cities and working-class people have been held for decades by the Tories, there should be a concerted effort to tie it into a greater narrative of how the Tories have no empathy for, or interest in, society’s disadvantaged.
When Gordon Brown was caught referring to a voter in Rochdale as a “bigoted woman,” it made news headlines for days and profoundly shaped the direction of the 2010 general election. Yet Letwin’s remarks about the people of Sheffield are hardly registering on the agenda. It should be Labour’s job to make it part of the agenda, to stand up for those Letwin rails against and to point out the danger that the Tory government poses for these people.
What Labour is really afraid of, of course, is to be accused of waging “class warfare” by pouring on the scorn these remarks deserve. It’s a charge that has been levelled at the party many times in the past, usually to their electoral disadvantage. Perhaps Labour, riding high in the polls, are afraid of being seen as dangerously and radically left-wing in the weeks leading up to local and devolved elections that are sure to otherwise result in a damning indictment of this government, or at least the Liberal Democrat part of it.
But are Letwin’s remarks not a declaration of “class warfare” in the first place? I am sure he has no qualms about the people of West Dorset – the rich ones, anyway – being able to take holidays, cheap or otherwise. Labour does not even need to respond in kind; Letwin’s statement speaks for itself – or would, if any effort was being made to highlight it outside of the left-wing blogosphere.
While the government’s assault on working-class people continues, statements that highlight the Tory Party’s contempt for these same people should be seized upon as the bare-faced prejudice that they are, not ignored by an opposition still terrified of what the media thinks of it.