Rereading Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard’s 1997 book A Class Act: The Myth of Britain’s Classless Society, illustrates quite how little 13 years of Labour government changed the language of the class debate. In the book’s introduction Adonis and Pollard write:
“This book aims to explode the fashionable notion that Britain is becoming a ‘classless society’ and to describe…the rise of what we call the new Super Class of top professionals and managers, centred on the City, who are as far apart from the ‘middle class’ of white collar workers as are the latter from the misnamed ‘underclass’ at the bottom.”
Adonis and Pollard could well have written this in 2011 – particularly the ‘underclass’ part. The word has been used frequently since the riots in the summer with Ken Clarke in particular referring to the ‘feral underclass’ wherever possible.
Underclass is a word tailor made for Conservative use, as it identifies certain people without naming them. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as meaning: “from the lowest social stratum in a community, consisting of the poor and unemployed”. Clarke couldn’t say ‘feral poor’ or ‘feral unemployed’, because that would expose him as animalising specific people, but underclass works because it means both while naming neither.
The media has endlessly repeated the phrase, usually in inverted commas to shield itself from the accusation of social profiling. But by referring to it so often it has helped the phrase enter the common lexicon. Left leaning papers such as The Guardian are just as bad as the right in this respect, as by borrowing the phraseology of the right they inadvertently propagate the myths associated with the language.
Why is this a problem? Well, if you dictate the language an issue is framed by you control the direction of the ensuing debate. So, for example, if Labour allows the Conservatives to beat out the rhythm of the political drum, the public will see it dancing awkwardly to the beat.
A case in point would be when Labour is forced onto the issue of debt. The Conservative debt line is so dominant that it is often accepted at face value. It doesn’t seem to matter that it is mostly cobblers – Labour plays into the myth by using the same language in a slightly different way.
There aren’t many joys of opposition, but one of them is forcing the incumbent government to play the game by your rules. When you’re not in office you can take more risks, shoot from the hip a little more, see what language resonates with the public and then start using it to your advantage. You shouldn’t simply repeat everything the government says but with a slightly different emphasis.
The use of words like underclass has always seemed absurd to me. Surely a class can only exist if people claim to belong to it and I doubt anyone covets underclass status. This is exactly the kind of linguistic ground I think Labour and the left should be dominating.
The only problem is I’m not entirely sure if the top brass in the Labour Party considers this of any importance anymore. 13 years of Labour government should have made words like underclass anachronistic – but it didn’t. And I think I know one reason why. Look again at the paragraph from former Labour minister Adonis and Pollard’s book. Spot any mention of the working class? No, me neither. Adonis and Pollard seem to have subsumed it into the underclass. Disturbing.