Brendan O’Neill

Who will speak for the working class? Everyone, apart from the working class

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It’s funny how the new left’s rule against speaking on behalf of groups to which you do not belong never applies to class. If a white man ventures his thoughts on the best way forward for Britain’s black community, he’ll suffer social death by a thousand tweets. Woe betide any bloke who holds forth on women’s issues. ‘Dude, let women speak for themselves,’ people will chide. Yet when it comes to the needs of working-class communities, everyone gets to have a say.

So last week, Newsnight featured a discussion about the crisis of working-class representation in the media between Owen Jones of the Guardian and Sarah Baxter of the Sunday Times. Newsnight, come on: you couldn’t find a single journalist from a working-class background? Or maybe you were worried they would spill their flasks of PG Tips on the Beeb’s settees. To have Jones explain — class-splain? — what must be done to help working-class writers is like inviting David Starkey to talk about how hard it is to be a Muslim in 21st-century Britain.

As a journalist who comes from the working classes, I have found the past week’s discussion about social class and the media incredibly frustrating. It is all a spin-off from Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Edinburgh television festival. Much of Corbyn’s speech felt chilling, a reminder of how much this old Labourite left despises the press — primarily because these leftists hold the press responsible for warping what they view as the putty-like brains of dim, poor Brits and making them do unspeakable things like vote for Margaret Thatcher or revolt against the EU.

Corbyn’s proposal to tax big-tech firms so that the government — his future government — might fund ‘independent’ public-interest journalism was a testament to his disdain for press freedom. Corbyn, government-assisted journalism would not be independent journalism. It would be the opposite. It would undermine the relative press freedom we have enjoyed for the past 350 years, following the victory of English radicals — actual radicals, not Corbyn-style roleplay radicals — against the Crown meddling in the press.

And yet there is one thing Corbyn is right about: the British media world is not very diverse. It is dominated by the posh and well-connected. The stats are stark: 51 per cent of Britain’s leading journalists are privately educated, where just seven per cent of the population is privately educated. In his State of the Nation survey, Alan Milburn found that whereas 60 per cent of Brits define themselves as working class, just 11 per cent of journalists come from a working-class background. That is shocking, and sad.

Yet even here, Corbyn’s proposals are unhelpful. He wants a social-class breakdown of the BBC’s employees. This would just be a bureaucratic exercise that would do nothing to address the problem. There is also talk of clamping down on unpaid internships. Another act of mere tinkering. ‘Why has social mobility stalled and how can we trigger it again?’ — that’s the question we must ask.

And there is a reason the Labourite left, this public-sector milieu, is unwilling to confront this question: it’s because these people are at least partly responsible for this crisis of egalitarianism.

The working classes are underrepresented in all the influential professions. The proportion of Labour MPs from working-class backgrounds fell from 37 per cent in 1951 to 13 per cent in 1997. In 2015 just seven per cent of Labour MPs came from a ‘manual occupation background’. A 2014 Policy Exchange study found a crisis of working-class representation in ‘many public offices’. More than three-quarters of people in the creative industries are from middle-class backgrounds.

Such a staggering absence of working-class people from the political, media and creative worlds, such a slowdown of the positive egalitarian moment of the 1950s and 60s, cannot be explained by posh people’s sharp elbows alone. Rather, it speaks to the systematic lowering of the working classes’ expectations.

Ours is a society which doesn’t expect much from its working-class communities, especially the white section. In fact it views the white working-classes as a problem to be managed. Their culture and habits are demonised, their beliefs ridiculed, their capacity to learn called into question. Consider the fact that white working-class boys are now doing worse in the education system than any other group: this represents the institutionalisation of low expectations. And much of this is down to a left-ish public sector that thinks addressing gender and racial disparities is far more important than addressing class disparities, and which tends to treat white working-class communities as prejudiced, unhealthy and stupid.

I’m sorry, but you cannot spend years telling the less well-off that they aren’t up to much and then express surprise when they don’t aspire to much. If Corbynistas want to know who is at least partly responsible for the evacuation of the working classes from much of public life, they should stop bashing the Eton-educated guy who waltzes into a job at the Times and invest in a mirror.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

Topics in this articleSociety