The language battle

11th November, 2011 10:50 am

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.

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  • Anonymous

    We have always had an under class in the UK, labour brought that home with it work shy and scrounger debates. so feral or scrounger you take your pick, labour stated we did not have a working class since everyone saw them selves as middle class.

    • Anonymous

      “since everyone saw them selves as middle class.” …. Thatcher started this quite explicitly Labour continued … 

  • GuyM

    “surely a class can only exist if people claim to belong to it”

    Badly wrong I’m afraid.

    Classes or socio-economic segments (which describes the old ABC1C2DE type classes for example) invariably get imposed by business, sociologists, marketeers, press and public etc. if they act as reasonably accurate or “useful” methods of classfication.

    So if the characteristics of the underclass are reasonably accurate for a segment of the population that it is fairly easy to assign to those characteristics then that “class” or macro socio-economic segment (because that’s what it really is) is not only going to stick and be used, it will find it’s way into popular venacular.

    An American friend of mine confirmed they have the same sort of grouping in the USA, except they refer to it as “trailer trash”, which is actually worse in terms of image and language.

    Stereotyping and segmenting occurs everywhere, it’s the only way to deal with the reality of 7 billion people on the planet.

  • Mark Cannon

    The “underclass” are those who are poor and cannot sensibly be described as “working class” because they don’t work.  The term draws attention to the phenomenon of workless households.  Trying to help them into work should be a priority for any governemnt.  It is for the present government.

    As for the national debt, the piece to which there is a link ignores the fact that it has risen very rapidly over the last couple of years and will continue to do so even if all of Mr Osborne’s plans and forecasts are achieved.  The plan is to reduce the rate of additional borrowing, not to reduce the amount of the debt.

  • For pity’s sake.

    The phrase “underclass” didn’t take off because of a conspiracy of rightwing linguistists, but because it describes a real phenomena. Sticking one’s head in the sand is not a political strategy. Quibbling over the labels is just a way to avoid the issues.

  • Anonymous

    This issue is well presented in Owen Jones’s book ‘Chavs’. He sets out a well structured argument how the perception of the proud working class morphed into what is now so widely labelled as ‘feral underclass’. 

  • Anonymous

    The ‘chav’ underclass was very much the product of New Labour and its immigration policies.

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