Friday, 7 August 2009

“Merely privilege extended”

Harriet Harman claims she wants parliament to be representative. An interesting proposal certainly. Her analysis of the financial crisis is that a small, out of touch elite at the top gambled and lost with people’s futures, and that politicians cut from the same cloth let them get away with it. This, she argues, has to be addressed by root and branch reform.

Now this may very well be the case, and had it been couched in such terms Ms Harman would have rallied many to her. However, she did not. Rather, Labour’s Deputy leader launched the argument that the problem wasn’t the fact that those at the top are almost exclusively the children of the gentry, but merely that they were the sons rather than the daughters.

As the privately educated daughter of two London professionals, with an Earl for uncle and a Lady for a cousin, Harman’s social credentials are little different to those of David Cameron. Now one can’t choose family, but it does make the cries of revolution seem rather hollow. If the aspiration of certain strands of the Labour party is to replace a grammar school boy with a public school girl, at the expense of a postman, then fine but you don’t get to feel progressive while you do it.

This is the critical issue of fairness that pressure group politics does not address. The point isn’t gender, or race or orientation. Of course all these things may play a part. The issue is that society profits when its leaders have a plethora of experiences. That is the argument against Cameron’s Old Etonian cabinet. Not that they’re rich, or should be punished because of where their parents sent them to school. The background doesn’t and shouldn’t disqualify you from any office. But when a group which seeks to lead the country has a set of formative experiences at once almost uniform among themselves, yet radically different from the bulk of the population, one is allowed to question their make-up.

Filling parliament with the daughters of London’s bourgeoisie is not a step towards social justice, any more than packing Oxford with the children of Indian millionaires and the Chinese politburo would be a step towards diversity. The aim of those of us on what used to be called the Left is to help those in need. There are millions who still are, and who need protection from exploitation, poverty, ignorance and violence. It is not misogynistic for me to say that the boy from Burnage might need more of a hand up than the girl from Withington. Harriet Harman does not need special protection, nor Labour’s leadership rules gerrymandered. Bringing your own group into the fold, while failing to tackle the underlying reasons for the political class and social inequality, is not justice. Freedom is merely privilege extended unless enjoyed by one and all.

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