In recent years I have noticed a tendency on the part of mainstream politicians and the media to make blanket generalisations of the working class. For them, the working class is uniformly illiterate, ignorant, racist, xenophobic, eat Big Macs and slob around in tracksuit bottoms that have been purchased from Sports Direct. In reality, these supposed characteristics are nothing less than middle class prejudices that have been projected onto an entire social formation. These views have been helped along by the appearance of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary series like Channel 4’s Benefits Street, which depict the working classes as feckless and indolent.
Middle class anxieties about the subaltern classes are nothing new. In the 19th century, Music Hall, which was popular with the urban working classes, was seen as a site of class conflict because it was created from below by the people (qv. Kift, 1996). Some Music Halls, like Hoxton Hall, were shut down on police advice, while other halls began to appeal to middle class audiences. By the 1920s, Music Hall was dead and had been replaced by the more respectable genre of variety theatre. The working class performers who played the halls were eventually forced out to make way for respectable middle class performers.
We expect the Tories to approach the working class through fictional characters and their view to be informed by a handful of tropes. This is in spite of their continued claim that there is no class war or that class “doesn’t matter” or “doesn’t exist”. When John Prescott infamously remarked “we’re all middle class now” he was unconsciously acknowledging his party’s abandonment of the working class. His party leader, Tony Blair, left working class communities to the predations of UKIP and the far-right. Indeed, the party under Blair helped to foster an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred that has now been given a voice in post-EU referendum Britain. Instead of facing down Michael Howard’s racist dog whistle election campaign in 2005, it started mimicking them by producing its own version in Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” speech in 2007.
A few years ago, a blog written by Daniel Hannan for the Telegraph used an image of Wayne and Waynetta Slob to provide a visual representation of the working class, who it also suggested were ‘intergenerationally workshy’. This theme, it would appear, has been enthusiastically adopted by the right-wing Labour politicians and their allies in the Murdoch and Rothermere press. They heap trope upon trope by making unsubstantiated claims about working class culture. One such claim is that McDonald’s, the American fast food chain, is universally appreciated by working class people. When Labour banned the chain from its conference last year, the right-wing of the party saw an opportunity to indulge in some slack thinking.
Defending McDonald’s, right-wing Labour MP, Wes Streeting, claimed.
“McDonald’s may not be the trendy falafel bar that some people in politics like to hang out at, but it’s enjoyed by families across the country,”
Streeting would possibly deny that he was referring to the working class in this statement to The S*n (also seen as a working class institution by out of touch parliamentarians) but the signifiers are there for all to see. “Falafel”, for example, is seen as a middle class food by lazy-thinkers, but on what evidence is this view based? None that I can see. Don’t working class people eat falafels? Of course they do. How about middle class people? Don’t they eat McDonald’s burgers too? Yes, they do and they shop at Sports Direct. But who are these “families” of which he speaks? They are no more than line drawings of a group of people who have been observed at a distance through the lens of bourgeois privilege. The mention of “families” is also deployed to add ballast to a weak argument.
But Streeting’s words also dovetail into the notion that working class people don’t support Jeremy Corbyn, who is generally depicted by his detractors as a middle class out-of-touch metropolitan intellectual that fails to “connect” with the working class. Yet, there is no evidence to support this view and it is likely that the Streetings of this world are projecting their own prejudices onto the working class. They are supported in this by the media, whose lazy-thinking hacks are more than happy to adopt this view uncritically and spread it about like so much muck on a field.
In an article in The New Statesman, Streeting wrote:
First up, a declaration of interest. I used to work in McDonald’s. Serving customers helped me pay my way through my A-levels. I enjoyed it, for the most part.
Unlike those legions of working class people who are forced to accept jobs at McDonald’s by the Jobcentre, Streeting’s time at the food chain was a relatively short one. His path to a political future smoothed by being a middle class young man from a middle class family. Once he completed his ‘A’ Levels, he was off to Cambridge University and eventually the House of Commons via his presidency of the National Union of Students. For those working class people unable to find jobs that pay well or go to university, they were abandoned to the likes of ruthless sweatshop employers like Sports Direct or forced into ‘self-employment’ and other forms of insecure employment. Their condition is blamed on immigrants – regardless of where they come from.
We have been told by the media and politicians that the working class voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the European Union and this was seen, on the one hand, as evidence of their insularity, ignorance and xenophobia and on the other as “two fingers up to the establishment”. This sentiment was uttered, without a trace of irony, by same establishment that has exploited them for generations. It is true, however, that working class fears were manipulated and exploited by superficial postmodern politicians, but if we look at parts of Southern England, it would be reasonable to suggest that the middle class also voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. So what’s going on?
Postmodern politicians are seeking a mandate to ram through short-sighted policies that propose further cuts to public spending. To do this, they claim that we “must listen to the working class’s fears” and limit immigration numbers. Yet when it comes to demands for more council housing, proper wages, equal access to education and healthcare, a decent standard of living, the working classes are completely ignored. Instead, the politicians play to xenophobic class fractions that buy into the narrative that foreigners are taking jobs and being advanced up council house waiting lists over long-term residents. Only a month ago, Labour right-winger, Rachel Reeves attempted to exploit these fears by channelling Powellite rhetoric. No doubt this middle class woman would claim a ‘mandate’ from the working class too.
Labour politicians like Reeves, Streeting and Woodcock and their friends in the media subscribe to the bourgeois view that the working class en masse are illiterate and ignorant. Yet, there is a long history of an educated working class, who placed great emphasis on reading and study. My own family, for instance, is part of this working class fraction. My grandfather, who worked as a boy miner and joined the army as a young man, was a self-educated historian. My mother was an amateur Egyptologist, while my father was a mostly self-taught linguist. I was the first in my family to go to university. Yet, the very institutions of working class education that my family and those like us took for granted: the public libraries, trades unions and mechanics institutes have been systematically eroded or destroyed. Libraries were actually closed under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. One Tory even claimed (and I paraphrase) that “if you can’t afford to buy books, then why should we provide them for free in public libraries”? The unstated aim of this philistinism is to keep working class people in the perpetual darkness of ignorance and superstition. If people are denied access to knowledge and learning, it makes them easier to manipulate. Hack politicians know this only too well.
For all the talk of a universally ignorant working class, there is no mention of middle class ignorants. The middle class and the aristocracy contains just as many xenophobic, reactionary and anti-intellectual elements as the working class, but no one dares to ascribe these characteristics to those classes as a whole. It’s past time that the generalisations made of the working class were challenged.
Kift, D. (1996). The Victorian Music Hall: Culture, Class, and Conflict. Cambridge University Press.