A class act

Adam Bushby and Alex Douglas examine Ed Milliband's use of the "class" card

It's telling that the main accusation levelled at Ed Miliband following his speech at the Labour party conference was of playing the "class card".

The Labour leader remarked that he was merely outlining what makes him "tick", rather than cynically using his background as the son of Jewish immigrants and his state school credentials to position himself in direct contrast to his Etonian rivals on the opposite benches. It can't hurt, however, to squeeze as much political capital from modest backgrounds as possible.

But underlying discussions of class seems to be a rather gruff assertion. "Whose side are you on?" it seems designed to ask. Working class v middle class. Labour v Tory. Left v right. The problem is that it seems the lines have blurred.

Because New Labour's twin aims of expanding and reforming the welfare system required significant investment, they also required a liberalisation of the economy, and the greater tax revenues that went with it. More money from free market capitalism means investments in the national interest, without which Labour would not be able to follow through on its ambitions.

However, it wasn't just economics that kick-started New Labour's shift to the centre but also a fundamental political ideology held by Tony Blair, who never wanted to be anywhere but the centre. But he wanted to change the centre, moving it inch by inch to the left.

That was what Blair always understood as progressive politics. This sort of piecemeal change has had some winners, such as the minimum wage, but lacked the overarching reforms that could have been achieved had Blair been more radical and ambitious. Positioning yourself like this means that you pitch for the middle-class votes and rely less on the working-class strongholds that you built a mandate upon previously. For this, you could also read '"took for granted".

It is not simply a matter of ideology, though, but also political pragmatism. The working-class isn't what it was. Last year, a study found that only 24 per cent of people in Britain considered themselves to be working-class, compared with 67 per cent in the late 1980s.

We have now reached a point where Labour cannot position itself as a party of the working class for fear of an electoral mauling. Add to this the dwindling union membership and you find a party that is at an ideological crossroads.

But class doesn't just present an issue for the Labour Party. We have a coalition government for the first time in recent memory because of a political culture where everyone is battling to win the votes of the same people.

Couched in language such as "ordinary", "decent" and "hard-working", Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are now desperate to seize Middle Britain and make it theirs. But all of those terms are code for something that feels like the working class, but is in fact everybody except the very top earners.

So Miliband and Labour need to move on too. If they are canny, they can make this not a war on class terms, but the necessary attack on naked greed from the richest in society.

By marrying an attack on the highest earners with tangible and populist measures to ease the pain for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid (more like a diamond these days), Labour could force the agenda. If Miliband is serious on shrinking inequality, rather than just blasting out sound bites during prime minister's questions then he needs to get tough on "those at the top".

The successes of capitalism have driven our country to relative prosperity and lifted millions out of poverty in the process, but there remains an acute problem. The class elite has been replaced with a new economic elite. The gap between the richest and the poorest is growing, and the squeezed middle are struggling.

There needs to be a recalibration of our economy and our values to lay the path for a more prosperous future that encompasses the many, not the few.

It couldn't hurt to propose a return to the 50p tax rate, or even upping it (see Hollande in France and his 75 per cent rate), or to end to the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes for retired millionaires, or to actually close tax loopholes rather than just talking about it. Those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden.

In an era when "we are all middle class now", there is nothing more sobering than double standards. Especially in these austere times when millionaires see their bank balances swell, while millions couldn't feel much further from the middle.