The real problem with champagne socialism & a lesson for the church

Angela Raynar, deputy leader of the Labour Party, was described by Dominic Raab as a “champagne socialist”. What, exactly, is meant to be wrong with a socialist drinking champagne has always been lost on me. Surely, if we do believe that workers should own a stake in their labour and own the means of production, having shares in champagne production – and probably bottles of the stuff to take home – would be exactly the sort of thing you might expect a socialist to advocate for on behalf of champagne production workers.

Let’s be honest, George Orwell nails what Socialism means for the average person. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he says: ‘To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.’ Whilst you may get a few of the details changed in 2022 – though probably not less than this in practice – that statement remains essentially true. As Angela Rayner has said herself to the New Statesman, coming very close to Orwell’s concise definition of Socialism for the ordinary man: ‘Everyone should be able to have nice things. I want you to have a lovely house where you feel pride in it, not “I’ve got a roof over my head, so I should be thankful”. Why should you have the minimum?’

If Socialism is about anything, if the Labour movement was ever about anything, it was about improving the lot of ordinary working people. It existed, in co-operation with the Trade Union movement, to represent working class labour in parliament. It existed to advocate for their interests and to improve their living and working conditions through parliamentary representation. The claim that some are ‘champagne socialists’ is silly because most socialists want to see working class people’s lot improved so that everyone can enjoy nice things; be it champagne or whatever.

The fact that champagne – or, sparkling wine – is not even expensive to acquire these days makes the point even more fatuous. When you can go into the local supermarket and buy a bottle of wine for a fiver – and champagne of some sort for not vastly more – the whole imagery loses its potency anyway. It simply isn’t the elite drink it once was. Which is, when all is said and done, one of the aims of socialism isn’t it? To bring what is only enjoyed by the elite within the grasp of the masses; champagne and all.

But you know you have really lost it when the Spectator sides against their natural Tory bedfellow. In response to Dominic Raab’s particular jibes about champagne and the nerve of Angela Rayner daring to go to the opera, Alex Massie said: ‘Why should champagne be reserved to those with the right credentials? Why, for that matter, is there something self-evidently ludicrous about a working-class person enjoying opera? Should she know her place and appreciate that somewhere such as Glyndebourne may never be her kind of place? If so, why?’ As he ended his piece, he said: ‘The assumptions behind the jibes made at Rayner’s expense are as obvious as they are odious. They are also miserably revealing.’ Since the Tories have enjoyed claiming to be the party of the working classes these days, I wonder how they convince even themselves it is true when they say such things in public.

The fact is, it shouldn’t matter whether working class people enjoy champagne and opera or beer and football. These things are ultimately just about tastes and entertainment at the end of the day. I was joking with a friend just the other day that they must be middle class because they like olives. Which, no doubt, would come as something of a surprise to all my Middle Eastern asylum seeking friends who can’t get enough of them. It’s easy for me to say because I don’t like them, but then my Dad – who grew up in as working class a family in inner-city Liverpool as you can get – really like them. Sometimes, these things are just about what you like in the end. Football is not really a working man’s sport any more when it costs sizeable amounts to get into games. And some people just aren’t bothered by it at any rate. I can watch some matches of cricket for £10, and watch England internationals playing, making it appear less elite than a Premier League game with no England players on the field. Where you are from in the country will no doubt change your view on what is posh or not too – some of these things are inevitably regionally defined.

The point is not what any given person is into or not. What they enjoy or not. And let’s be honest, maybe some people do those things because it’s nice to feel like your enjoying something posh every now and then. I’m not into dressing up in suits, fine dining and that sort of stuff – I genuinely prefer other things – but who is to say that my working class friends who enjoy that stuff oughtn’t to do it, that they can’t be working class (when they evidently are) if they do and that they ought to be sneered at for daring to do so? It is just elitism and snobbery writ large.

The church would do well to take notice of this too. It is easy to communicate to certain people in churches that certain things are not for them. Whether it is the asylum seeker, the working class person or any other group. We can be in danger of creating our own elite groups, for whom theology, pastoral ministry and other things are appropriate and where others ought to stay in their lane telling testimonies of how the Lord saved them from the grim depths of wherever they have come from. It is not a good look in our politicians and it is an even uglier feature in the church. Let us not keep people ‘in their place’ and sneer when they dare to put themselves forward for ministry for which they are clearly qualified. There should, in the end, be neither middle-class nor working-class, educated nor uneducated, native or foreigner, but all should be one in Christ Jesus. All saved to serve and all capable of great things by the power of the Spirit who equips them for the work Jesus would have them do. Let’s not sneer them out of doing what Jesus has called them to, eh? Because the only people who have ideas above their station are the sinful people who can’t remember where they have come from themselves as they say, ‘this probably isn’t for you’.