“I think there’s a really big difference in saying certain factors support the reproduction of class power and saying these things determine what class *is*.”
So declared the public-school educated, Oxford University graduate Grace Blakeley earlier in the week: “No matter what your accent or education, if you’re forced to work in a call centre, you’re working-class.” Which is staggering to those of us who, unlike Blakeley, are of working-class stock.
But how can I, a journalist living a comfortable existence in a nice house in North London, possibly be working class? Good question: there is no way today I would suggest I am living anything other than a fairly comfortable middle-class lifestyle. However, is that the same as having been born into privilege? Absolutely not.
I was born in the north-east of England; my dad was a steel worker and my mum a shop assistant. I was raised in a two-up, two-down terraced house with an outdoor toilet (yes, they still existed in the Sixties) and no bathroom. The only books in our house were the odd Harold Robbins or Catherine Cookson, and there were no trips to concerts or the theatre, or any form of so-called “high culture” either among my family or anyone I knew. No doubt a different upbringing from the one experienced by Blakeley.
When, in 1968, we moved to a new-build council housing estate in Darlington, it felt like total luxury. We had a bathroom, which meant an end to tin baths filled with hot water from the kettle, and central heating, which was so much better than huddling around a coal fire.
But despite the improvements, expectations were low. The local comprehensive school was more of a holding pen for what the teachers saw as feral children, with the very limited ambition of teaching us to read and write and put us on the road to a factory or cleaning job.
My parents, alongside my younger brother and nephew, neither of whom can afford their own place, still live in that small, three-bedroom house. I am the only person in my entire extended family with a higher education.
I was told by teachers and school career advisers that what was available to me after leaving school was factory or shop work and, if I was really lucky, marriage to a well-paid tradesman. My confidence was nil, and the idea of going out into the big bad world and meeting people from different class backgrounds was terrifying.
Thanks to feminism, however, I found a different world at the age of 17. Meeting middle-class educated women, I decided to go to university and be a writer. It took another ten years before I enrolled on an Access Course and subsequently a polytechnic. My accent, poor education and lack of confidence among the middle classes all held me back.
But before I met the feminists, I looked for lesbians among my own tribe. I found a nightclub, rough as a badger’s crotch, in nearby Middlesbrough where the lesbians were so butch they looked like they could donate to a sperm bank. This was at least in part because they didn’t have the support and protection that the middle-class lesbians did — there were no hippy alternative tree-huggers around to join in solidarity with these women.
As proud as I am of my working-class origins, and of doing well for myself against all the odds, I am not sentimental. From a very early age I was well aware of my perceived inferiority to those born into families that can afford books, trips to the opera, and holidays to far-flung places. My parents worked hard and had no access to domestic help, which meant they were less able to help us with homework than those parents who had the privilege of childminders. And my working-class origins still make a huge difference to how I am viewed and how I move in the world — inevitably.
In 1988, a year into our relationship, I took my partner Harriet to Darlington to meet my family. Harriet is from a well-off secular Jewish bourgeois home. Raised in Hampstead, she grew up with music, literature, and the confidence and expectation that she would get a good degree followed by a career.
During that visit, my mum brought out the monstrosity that is Concorde Peach Wine and showed Harriet the hostess trolly, proudly telling her that we were the first house on the estate to get one. While my dad went to the pub, which he did every Sunday lunchtime with the same religiosity as others attended church, mum had cooked the dinner by 8am, vegetables and all, and it would sit festering in the trolly, perched by the fake stone fireplace adorned with ornaments, further cooking the overcooked offerings.
I recall Harriet buying a very nice bottle of Chablis, into which my mum poured a good slug of diet lemonade.
Pretty much everything from food to what TV you watch gives your class background away. I often play the “salad game” with new acquaintances. Middle-class kids will have had croutons and olives in theirs, working-class ones will tell you about pickled beetroot and a slice of gala pie. Then there is the issue of dinner time – 5pm “teatime” for the commoners, “dinner” for the middle class, and “supper” for the super posh. Meanwhile middle-class households hide the TV like it’s a dirty secret, and only put it on to watch something educational, whereas our family telly was almost on fire by the time we went to bed.
Blakeley’s comments were posted during a discussion about the desertion of “Red Wall” voters from the Labour party. She followed up her post, which had attracted a lot of derision and anger, with: “Clearly, I’m not working class. Clearly, my education and upbringing are what allowed me to reach the position I’m in now. But these things don’t *define* my class position, my relationship to the production process does.”
Blakeley is but one in a long line of super-posh leftists who lecture the proletariat on the class system. For example, public school educated journalist Shon Faye who bragged about working at a call centre while a student before being sacked for smoking. She wrote an article entitled “The fight for trans equality must be recognised as a class struggle”, which would be met by anyone on the council estate where my family live with wide-eyed astonishment or derision.
Despite what the privileged kids of journalism might think, a working-class woman in a call centre, trying to raise a couple of kids and having to negotiate with her manager about time off when her childcare lets her down, might have a different experience than a posh young MA student who is “forced” to take a job in a call centre because daddy has pulled the plug on the monthly allowance. Working-class mothers cannot afford to put a foot wrong, which often leads to them being targeted by sexual harassment and unfair treatment. It is not a game or an “experience” for them; there is no way out.
“Class is a social relationship rooted in production,” tweeted Blakeley in response to criticism to her first post. “Either you own resources critical for the production process, or you sell your labour power to those who do. If the latter, you’re either a professional with some autonomy and some assets, or a worker with little of both.”
This analysis seems to emanate directly from the writings of Karl Marx, but it lacks credibility in a post-industrial society and completely fails to grasp the British class system, which has created significant cultural distinctions depending on where your family come from and how you were raised.
My working-class roots have never really left me, in fact they still have an impact on my life, despite having left the Darlington council estate more than four decades ago. I have been assumed to be an administrator by a male interviewee whilst heading up a major research project; I’ve been asked by an academic whether I would ever “consider doing a degree” in response to me telling her I attended a sink school; I’ve been laughed at when I have no idea of key historical facts that most would take for granted. It’s not the greatest injustice in the world – but the idea that education and upbringing does not define a person’s class is ludicrous.
For Blakeley to say, “Class has nothing to do with: your accent — where you live — where you grew up — what your parents do — where you went to school,” is the epitome of middle-class ignorance. If we need to look anywhere as to why Labour is losing so many working-class voters, this mindset is not a bad place to start.
What we are seeing now is a version of the strange colonisation of working class life that we saw in the 1970s, when Oxbridge educated students joined a version of the Socialist Society and ended up interloping as factory workers post-graduation in order to identify as one of the “workers”.
When I first heard this I thought about my dad, coming home after a gruelling shift at the mill, working in 100-degree heat, often with injuries sustained from being hit by bits of screaming hot metal. I wondered what he would have made of some plummy-voiced rich kid raising his fist in solidarity, masquerading as one of them.
Class disadvantage is not a costume that can ever be really discarded, and nor is it one that the poshies can put on to score points. In the meantime, in my nice middle-class household, the arguments rage between Harriet and me as to whether to watch Gavin and Stacey or some worthy, intellectual sub-titled documentary. In such arguments, “common as muck” sounds like a badge of honour.