Tristram Hunt, one-time media candidate for Labour’s leadership, has claimed that Oxbridge students in the Labour Party – the “top 1%” – should take the lead in fomenting “creative dissent”. He writes:
“You are the top one per cent. The Labour Party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.”
Time to declare an interest. I read PPE at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1980 to 1983; many of my contemporaries have gone on to exercise real political and economic power; I spent most of my working life in the Civil Service. Moreover, I abused my membership of the “top 1%” by strongly backed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, on, among other things, the grounds that Labour needed to move away from the consensus politics on economics – in particular on deficit reduction – that served both our Party and our country so badly; that we needed to stop making excuses for economic ideas and institutions that were, palpably, failing.
It’s difficult to know where to start in deconstructing Hunt’s comments. The simplest point is that the tiny minority who attend Oxbridge are not, by any means, the “top 1%”. It’s not that they’re dim – far from it – or undeserving, but that, rather than being the most able, they are often the most fortunate, the most supported, the best coached. And, quite simply, it’s hard to see why a Labour MP can’t understand that. At a stroke, this Labour MP is dismissing the life experience of people who perhaps have not had those advantages; the mature student, perhaps; the autodidact; the person who struggled to get themselves through a less glamorous university after doing poorly at school. Some of the most insightful and inspiring people I have met in Labour politics fall into those categories; I want to be part of a movement that respects that diversity of experience (mine included) rather than sneering at it.
Perhaps Hunt is, inadvertantly, letting the cat out of the bag. What the Corbyn victory was partly about was the rejection of a consensus view of economics and politics: one that clearly bears the imprint of Oxbridge. I’ve written before about how the Oxford PPE degree can easily become a rite of passage for the intellectually incurious; what Hunt seems to be saying is simply a rehash of the bad old “people like us” argument, a nostalgic yearning for a time when politics was about the sharing of unspoken assumptions.
But life isn’t like that any more – not since the 2007-8 crash brought the edifice tumbling down. Perhaps that’s the worst thing about Hunt’s comments: not that they’re elitist – although they are – but that they reek of nostalgia; nostalgia for a time when the right sort of chap made sound decisions about a world that just doesn’t exist any more.