This is the second time the Labour Party under Gordon Brown has launched a “Tory toffs” campaign.
The outcome of the battle of Waterloo may or may not have had anything to do with the playing-fields of Eton but the Labour Party believes that the outcome of the next year’s general election could well hinge on how effectively it is able to play the Eton card against the Tories by portraying them as ‘elitist” and out of touch with the “real” world.The buzz is that the party is set to launch an all-out class war against the Tories in the run-up to the elections, expected next May. And on the face of it, the Tories look quite vulnerable to a class attack. Most of the Tory team waiting to move into Downing Street grew up on Eton’s famous playing fields and their background is far removed from that of the ordinary people they aspire to “serve.”
Not that Labour is entirely without its own “toffs” (some half a dozen of its cabinet members were privately educated) but that’s small beer compared to the Tories. The Tory shadow cabinet, led by David Cameron, is dripping with millionaires and as many as 18 prospective cabinet ministers went to expensive fee-paying schools.
As The Times columnist Janice Turner pointed out: “We are about to elect a Cabinet containing 18 millionaires, to give political power to the already immensely powerful, to draw our government from the narrowest social bandwidth. But to question whether their golden lives might prevent them understanding our lowly lives is frowned on as prejudice.”
And then, of course, Tories have a history of being on the wrong side of Britain’s class war. Which makes it easier for Labour to attack them. Both Mr. Cameron and George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, come from highly privileged backgrounds with considerable family wealth. Both went to Eton; and, at Oxford, they were leading lights of the notoriously exclusive and hard-drinking Bullingdon Club. Much to their embarrassment, the media have dug up an old group photograph in which they appear with other members of the club (including another Tory high-flyer, the London Mayor Boris Johnson ) in bow ties and the club’s trademark tailcoat looking every inch the “Tory toffs” that their Labour critics say they are — and represent.
In a rare rhetorical flourish that surprised his own colleagues and was seen as Labour’s opening shot in the upcoming class warfare , Prime Minister Gordon Brown brought the house down when, during the Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, he taunted the Tories saying that their economic policies were ‘dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton.” Referring to the Tories’ proposal to raise the threshold for inheritance tax, he said: “This must be the only tax change in history where the people proposing it — the leader of the opposition and the shadow chancellor — will know by name almost all of the potential beneficiaries.”
There is an irony here. When the Tories first announced the proposal in the autumn of 2007 it sent the Tories poll ratings soaring and Mr. Brown, who was considering calling an early election, changed his mind fearing that he might lose. Moreover, Labour was to claim later that it was actually their idea but had been stolen by the Tories before the government had a chance to make the announcement.
But that was two years ago. Since then public mood has changed because of the economic crisis and any concession to the rich is now seen as an insult by ordinary people struggling to cope with the recession. Labour believes that it can tap into the current anti-rich mood in the country by branding Tories as the party of the rich and the privileged.
In public, the Tories are putting up a brave face saying that they have nothing to be “embarrassed” about their educational or family background and that, in the end, what matters is what they have to offer to the country.
“My view is very simple... that what people are interested in is not where you come from but where you’re going to, what you’ve got to offer, what you’ve got to offer the country,” Mr. Cameron told the BBC denouncing the Labour strategy as “petty” and “spiteful.”
But privately the Tory leadership is reported to be concerned about the apparent success of the Labour strategy. According to one poll, Mr. Brown’s portrayal of the Tories as a rich people’s club resonates with a majority of voters.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that many leading privately-educated Tories have pointedly failed to reveal their school background in their biographical sketches posted on the party’s official website. Only four out of 17 who went to private schools mention their schools while in sharp contrast out of the 15 state-educated shadow ministers all but one name their schools.
Mr. Cameron has been forced to deny that there is an attempt to suppress the class character of his shadow cabinet.
“I don’t think it’s any secret where I went to school... as far as the Conservative website is concerned, I’m sure we can sort it out,” he said.
This is the second time that Labour under Mr. Brown has launched a “Tory toffs” campaign. Its previous attempt during a key bye-election last year when its activists in ridiculous “top hats” trailed the Tory candidate boomeranged. But, buoyed by a string of new polls showing that Tories are losing momentum, the party is hoping that it might just strike lucky this time.