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Why Is Speaking Up For Working Class People A Middle Class Job?

26/09/2017 12:04

As parties' annual talking shops get into full-swing where are the working class voices?

I don't expect the next CEO of the Fawcett Society to be a man, or the next head of Operation Black Vote to look like me. Thanks to decades of toil by people in the women's and BAME empowerment movements, most of us now understand the importance of a place at the table being taken by those traditionally denied a seat. But when it comes to Britain's working class, we too often find the job of representing our reality has gone to some sharp-elbowed middle (or even upper) class dude who seems to think we can't speak (or write, or organise) for ourselves.

New NatCen research out this week shows that despite a return to two party politics, Britain's political tribes are increasing split along lines determined by age and degree of social liberalism, not class and the economics of left versus right. And yet class remains the dominant story in much of the commentary about this election and listening to it has, for this child of a council house, increasingly felt like watching a Pathe newsreel talking about an exotic lost tribe.

While all sides are concur readily and noisily on the need to take working class people more seriously, you're unlikely to find this in practice during the party conferences. Over the next fortnight, two parties whose membership is predominately middle class will listen to their privately educated leaders make appeals to working people who'll be minorities at the events. Notable exceptions aside, the voices politics will amplify this next fortnight will predominantly be those who grew up middle class. This isn't to have an especial go at the current leaders; both parties have had their own class issues for some time now.

The disappearance of class in our politics wouldn't be such a problem if it no longer shaped so much of what happens to us, but The Social Mobility Commission's work clearly demonstrates how being from a modest background anchors all but the fortunate few to the low pay of our parents. Meanwhile, the very top jobs are still the preserve of people who went to private school, with the privately educated accounting for 71% of judges, 55% of civil service heads, 43% of newspaper columnists and 33% of MPs.

That this is the case partly explains why recent electoral surprises have led to a whole new market for people with privilege explaining those who don't to those with even more. Enter 'the prole whisperer', Phil McDuff's term for those who make me swear in the vernacular whenever they pop up on Newsnight to explain why the natives are restless.

This is not to say that class is the only diversity measure that counts - far from it. Every disabled or LGBT or BAME or female (or frankly non-London) voice that gets a hearing is getting cheered to the rafters in our house too. But I do hope I've finally been able to empathise with what women mean when they talk about mansplaining, given what happens under my skin every time I get a lecture about understanding Britain's working class from somebody who had more spent on a half a year's worth of their schooling than my family lived on for a year, despite my single mum working every hour.

The lack of diversity in general around the country's top tables means those missing get patronised and stereotyped. With class this means being portrayed by the right as one-dimensional beer and bingo lovers who live next door to benefit cheats. From the left, the language too readily has the air of philanthropy rather than solidarity. To give an example, I've regularly heard working people refer to themselves as struggling or hard-up, but the language of weakness and dispossession is solely used by some well-meaning colleagues in the charity sector. I suggest you ask my mum about her 'vulnerability' having raised two kids solo having been widowed in her 20s and see how far you get.

It's not all bad; our clumsy handling of class does bring some light relief. My favourite genre is the anecdotes every middle class northerner, Scot or BAME person seems to have about meeting a middle class white southerner. How are they supposed to explain they got in to Oxford after a brilliant education paid for by doctor or lawyer parents when their new friend is giving them a face that says 'well done on how far you've come Billy Elliot'?

I don't want to seem unkind. It's great we're discussing class more. I also don't want to suggest for a second that middle class people shy away from helping the causes of working people. Any progress that has been made has typically been due to working and middle class people working hand in hand for change. And crucially I don't want to indulge this idea that class politics and 'identity politics' are in competition. The portrayal of working people as all white, straight and bigoted is one of the more idiotic and dangerous stereotypes about.

Instead, we just need to ensure working class people are visible and audible at every level of our political debate. To do that we need to learn from the great campaigning on gender, race, disability and LGBT issues, and start treating class like a diversity question.

That means measuring it and holding employers and media outlets to account. It's harder than measuring race or disability but not beyond our wit. Here, organisations whose missions or mandates encompass poverty, representation or public policy have a particular responsibility to take a lead.

Next we need to call out the worst of those playing the #prolewhisperer. Borrowing from the campaigns to stop all-male discussion panels (#manels), should we really still be holding debates and studio discussions on working class issues that don't actually feature someone who knows about it personally as well as professionally?

Finally, people raised on low incomes need to cheerlead each other into speaking about their experiences. It won't be easy - it's taken me until my mid-30s to clock that having 'a chip on their shoulder' is how we tell working class kids their anger isn't legitimate, just as we warn women about being seen to be bitchy or dislikeable.

Class was largely missing in the election, like it's absent from our politics and our public life. It's time to shine a light on it, but we have to do that by giving working class people a platform and not a lecture.

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