“We, not the north London intelligentsia, are the party of working people.” So rang the stinging retort issued by a government minister to an upstart Labour MP last week.
It’s a standard attack line from the Tories’ grab-bag of cliched dismissals. What made it notable this time was that it was being deployed against Dennis Skinner, the ex-coal miner who has been the MP for Bolsover in Derbyshire since 1970, and the minister was Claire Perry, whose CV includes Harvard Business School and Credit Suisse. Skinner has all the standard markers of working class authenticity and Perry has almost none, with a significant exception: Skinner is leftwing, and Perry, a business minister, is rightwing.
Moreover, the Bolsover MP had raised the issue of the prevalence of zero-hour contracts, which directly affects low-paid workers. Perry’s point that “many people on zero-hours contracts actually choose that level of flexibility” was a carefully picked phrase designed to avoid acknowledging that many workers do not choose zero-hour contracts – and that low, variable incomes can force people to rely on food banks.
Perry’s retort was both remarkable for its absurdity, and unremarkable because it’s such a regular catch-22 of a scam, whose logic goes like this: everyone from a working-class or poor background really cares more about national identity, nuclear weapons and protecting the border than they do about economics – even economics that would materially improve their own circumstances; so caring about this sort of economics automatically disqualifies you from being a credible person to care about it.
We saw another example across the Atlantic earlier this month following the shock ousting of Joe Crowley, a 10-term congressman and one of the most senior figures in the Democratic party, by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old outsider from the Democratic socialist wing of the party, in a primary election for New York’s 14th district. John Cardillo, a host at the rightwing Rebel Media site, found a picture of the single-storey home Ocasio-Cortez and her mother lived in while she attended school. He tweeted that its location in the “very nice area” of Yorktown Heights was “a far cry from the Bronx hood upbringing she’s selling”.
The background to this childhood home is illuminating, because it establishes the ease with which the signifiers of working-class authenticity are granted or withdrawn according to political utility. Ocasio-Cortez’s mother picked up extra work so they could afford to move into a single-storey, two-bedroom house in a nice neighbourhood, so that their daughter could get access to a good school. Had she come through this learning the ideologically correct lesson that you just need to work hard and keep your nose down and you’ll succeed, she would be lauded unreservedly on the right as an example of someone from the “aspirational” working class making the system work for her.
However, the lesson she learned was, in her own words, “how the zip code one is born in determines much of their opportunity”. Ocasio-Cortez observed from her own life that talent and hard work counted for more if you were in the right place and around the right people. It was this politically incorrect conclusion, not the details of her upbringing, that led to her being categorised as “fake” rather than “aspirational”.
The point here is not to say that Skinner or Ocasio-Cortez are genuinely “working class”, but rather to point out that it’s irrelevant for the purposes of this new “common sense” – according to which the former Labour peer Alan Sugar’s background counts because he is to the right of the Labour party, but Skinner’s does not because he is a socialist. This is the kind of thing one can get away with simply by asserting it, rather than reaching a conclusion you have to support and argue for – although it helps if you don’t draw attention to the con quite so starkly as that.
As Joe Kennedy says in his new book Authentocrats, the abstracted conception of the working class is instrumentalised by those who have little real interest in those living in post-industrial heartlands or flyover country, but who appreciates the usefulness of a framework that pointedly looks away from the economic systems that led us here: it was in fact the “real” people of Britain who chose a life of zero-hour contracts, low pay, crumbling public services and food banks. And taking it from them would be elitist.
Something can be common sense and still utterly fatuous. Now we’ve reached the point where we don’t even have to muck about with the symbolism any more – and are just straight up asserting that the working class only exists as an abstraction to ventriloquise conservative millionaires – can’t everyone stop pretending that they can’t see how ridiculous this is?