People like me

Class is still a much more prominent issue in the UK than it is in Canada and the US, not because we don’t have different classes in North American society, but because it manifests itself much more obviously in the UK. You can hazard a damn good guess the minute someone opens their mouth at what that person’s socio-economic background is – those “British accents” North Americans always proclaim to love are typically upper-class, public school educated accents.We rarely express much love for council estate Glaswegian accents.

One of the more common criticisms of the Coalition leadership is that they’re out of touch with “ordinary people” because Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and most of the cabinet are all products of upper-middle and upper class backgrounds who all attended public schools and Oxbridge (either Oxford or Cambridge universities). Permanent thorn-in-the-side Conservative MP David Davies stated as much in an interview on Sunday. (See also Benedict Brogan’s column with some extracts from the interview.)

There are two issues for me here. First, the problem, if it is one, of the politicians being predominantly from a particular social class certainly isn’t unique to the UK. The situation is probably far worse in the US, given how much money it takes to run for public office in that country. It’s simply easier for US politicians to come across as “regular folk” – look at George W. Bush. He was the product of an elite childhood, attending only the best schools – certainly on par with, if not even more upper class than, David Cameron, yet thanks to his homey Texas accent, he struck people as just a regular guy, not one of those high falutin’ “elites”. The situation isn’t quite as bad in Canada – thanks to very strict campaign and election financing laws, it’s easier for people from more varied socio-economic backgrounds to get into politics, but that doesn’t change the reality that the majority of MPs come from professional backgrounds. The difference in Canada, as in the US, is that you can’t automatically guess at someone’s socio-economic status simply by their accent the way you can in the UK.

The other issue I have here is this concept of  “ordinary people”. In the UK, from what I can gather, it refers to pretty much everyone who didn’t go to Eton and Oxbridge (Eton being used here as a generic stand-in for any public school). In Canada, it’s the NDP that tends to refer to “ordinary people” on a regular basis – and I gather they mean everyone who isn’t a representative of some corporate interests. This allows the NDP to distinguish itself from both the Conservatives and Liberals, parties which the NDP assures us all are far more concerned with corporate interests than they are the interests of us “ordinary people”. The Canadian Conservatives have taken to referring to “ordinary Canadians” more and more, however, as they try to portray the Liberals as a party of “elites” – elites meaning anyone who lives in a city – or more precisely, anyone who lives in Toronto.

The problem I have with this appeal to “ordinary people” is that no one ever seems to provide a clear definition of exactly what makes someone “ordinary”. It’s right up there with those ubiquitous poll questions asking if the government or a given political party represents the views of “people like me”. Case in point this article from ConservativeHome looking at poll results from when they asked readers a number of questions about their experience of floating voters. Floating voters being those who aren’t totally committed to one party over another – their vote is, in theory, up for grabs. One of the statements people were asked to respond to was “Cameron doesn’t understand people like me”. I used to regularly complete online polls for a Canadian polling firm, and they always, always asked questions along the lines of “The Government doesn’t care about issues of concern to people like me” or “Party X doesn’t understand the needs of people like me” etc.

These questions always stymied me. I was never certain how to answer them because I simply didn’t know who “people like me” were supposed to be. What aspect(s) of being “like me” mattered here? My gender? My race? Which part of the country I lived in? My level of education? Various unspecified combinations of these and other factors? If the poll asked “The Government doesn’t care about issues that are important to me” – that I could answer easily. I know what matters to me personally. I have no idea what matters to these undefined “people like me”.

No political leader will ever understand or represent the views of every single strata of society. If Cameron were from a more working-class background, he’d probably still score the same result in that ConservativeHome poll question – it would simply be a different group of people agreeing with the statement. I think what’s more important here is that Cameron (and everyone else who gets into politics) does so because they want to serve their country. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they’d all probably make more money in the private sector than they would in politics. Personally, I don’t want “ordinary” people in charge of the country – I want competent, qualified individuals who can demonstrate real leadership. Their backgrounds matter less to me than their willingness to serve.

I am reminded of a passage I read recently in Thurston Clarke’s The Last Campaign, a brilliant account of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for President. Flashing back to 1966, when RFK was campaigning for a senate seat, Clarke recounts how RFK was confronted by a student at Columbia University accusing Kennedy of using New York State as a jumping-off place for his presidential ambitions. Kennedy replied:

“Let me say that I had really two choices over the period of the last ten months. I could have retired – and my father has done very well and I could have lived off him. Or I could have continued to work for government.  I don’t consider it there’s anything sinister in that we’ve all worked for the U.S. Government. Frankly, I don’t need the title… I don’t need the money. I don’t need the office space.” He quoted from Pericles’ funeral oration: “We differ from other states in that we regard the individual who holds himself aloof from public affairs as useless,” and turned the question back on the student, charging that those enjoying greater educational advantages had a greater responsibility to enter public service. (p. 184-5)

I’m not saying the Cameron Tories aren’t perhaps too cozy with “the rich”. I’m simply trying to point out that it’s really a no-win situation. If he moves towards appealing more to “ordinary” people, he’ll risk alienating a large group of core supporters. And then the “people like them” won’t be represented. This is the problem faced by all politicians. Very few manage to appeal to a large spectrum of the societies they represent – across ethnic and racial divides, across socio-economic divides, etc. This is the reality of 21st century politics. Our societies aren’t homogeneous, someone will always feel left out. There aren’t any easy solutions to this, but those who engage in politics should at least be credited for trying.

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