The most annoying thing about Angela Rayner’s branding of the Tories as ‘scum’ was not that it offended some Tories, though no doubt it did. It wasn’t even the sad story it told us about the calibre of left-wing politicians in the 21st century, who seem more adept at reaching for playground insults than at making a cool, rational case against their opponents.
No, it was the implication made by some that Rayner speaks like this because she is working class. That’s what working-class people do, right? They bark the word 'scum' at everyone. Such larks! When they aren’t gathered around a piano belting out hilarious songs they’re hanging around on street corners yelling the S-word at passers-by. Gawd bless ’em.
This aspect of Scumgate has infuriated me. It looks like a defence of one of the few working-class women in parliament, but in truth it is an insult to the broader working class. It is classist prejudice masquerading as a rallying around Rayner.
I have news for these left-leaning poshos who cooed over Rayner’s ranting and probably said to their partners, ‘Darling, she’s just like your favourite character from Shameless!’: working-class people don’t actually go around hurling invective at everyone they dislike or disagree with.
Rayner rattled right-wingers and titillated the ABC1 millennials who make up much of the radical left by saying ‘scum’ at a reception for Labour activists at the party conference in Brighton. She said of Boris Johnson’s government:
“We cannot get any worse than a bunch of scum, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, absolute pile… of banana republic… Etonian… piece of scum…
Charming. And she was holding ‘back a little’, she says.
Many have said her language is unbecoming of a parliamentarian, which is true. Others have asked how Keir Starmer hopes to win back those Red Wall voters who defected to the Conservatives when his deputy is calling the Conservatives ‘scum’. Good question. But others essentially said that we shouldn’t judge Rayner too harshly. She’s just being ‘authentically’ working class.
Such patronising twaddle was offered up by Sean O’Grady in the Independent. Scumgate is a sign of Rayner’s ‘authenticity’, he said.
Cathy Newman was likewise gushing over Rayner’s ‘authenticity’ a few days ago. She reminded us of Rayner’s working-class origins and then cheered her core qualities — she’s ‘aggressive, cheeky and (speaks) with a knowledge of the real world’. Salt of the earth, one might say. Cringe.
John McDonnell defended Rayner’s utterance of the S-word by saying she is more real than the rest of the stiff inhabitants of Westminster.
‘What I like about Angie Rayner is that she’s human’, he said.
Paul Mason said Rayner’s ‘scum comment reflects exactly how working-class people talk’. No, it doesn’t. It is a figment of the fever dreams of the bourgeois left that working-class people up and down the country are forever shouting ‘scum!’.
Rayner herself said ‘scum’ is part of the ‘street language’ of her northern working-class roots. ‘We’d even say it jovially to other people’, she said. As if everyone in the north is going about saying ‘Hello, scum!’ for a laugh. Rayner is playing up to a caricature created for her by the middle-class leftists she is now surrounded by.
This is what concerns me about the left’s love for Rayner — or ‘Angiemania’, as the Independent calls it. Rayner has become a posh person’s idea of a common person. Gobby, strident, that fiery hair, the throwing around of words like scum — this is what the common folk are like, right?
You can picture the overeducated middle classes who formed the backbone of the Corbynista movement squealing with delight when Rayner issues a stern, sassy insult. ‘She’s SO authentic!’ There’s a shade of ‘noble savage’ thinking in this patronising praise for Rayner’s alleged realness.
But most people aren’t like this. They don’t casually say the word 'scum'. A YouGov poll found that just 19 per cent of Britons think it is acceptable for a senior politician to call her opponents scum; 70 per cent think it is unacceptable. And higher numbers of middle-class people (21 per cent) thought it was acceptable in comparison with working-class people (17 per cent).
I wager that the fifth of middle-class folk includes the kind of comfortably off southern lefties who fantasise that Rayner is the epitome of the northern working class.
The danger now is that Rayner will start conforming to the image of her created by the middle-class left. The more they praise her apparent earthiness and rudeness, the more she will feel tempted to big up those traits in order to consolidate her position in the party and on the left more broadly. We could end up in a situation where a rare working-class MP becomes a performer for the radical middle classes rather than a true representative of what working-class people think and want.