The main story on the front pages of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph was about Russian armoured troops continuing to mass in Crimea. But across from the splash a sidebar spoke of a different threat mobilising in working class yards. ‘Working class children must learn to be middle class to get on in life’, the headline solemnly declared. Under which the article argued that unless working class kids disavow their background and erase all trace of anything working class to embrace a middle class world of “restaurants, theatres and offices” then they’ll never amount to anything. This threat is nothing new. There has long been a sinister view that the working classes are their own worst enemy and until they switch from pies to quiche there’s nothing policymakers can do to help them achieve more and get on in life.
This, of course, is patronizing nonsense. The fact that social mobility has completely stalled in the UK and we’re witnessing a widening gap between the rich and the poor is a shameful blot on our politics. But in order to kick start social mobility we’ll need to think much bigger than telling the working classes to frequent posh restaurants and get out to the theatre more.
Listening to Peter Brant, from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, you’d think working class kids were creatures from another planet. “Middle class is a scary place,” he says, “full of unwritten rules that are alien to someone coming from a background where survival is paramount.” This picture of a feral working class living some sort of cave man struggle to stay alive that doesn’t allow for any kind of cultural life is not one I recognise.
I wonder if Brant would have told the likes of Joe Orton, Alan Clarke and Alan Sillitoe that a lack of middle class experience was holding them back?
The irony here is that as wealth disparities widen so too is a gap of understanding between insulated wonks and the working classes. Far too often policy analysis on the working class and social mobility reads like a scientist studying some unknown species under a microscope. Where working class culture was once treasured by the nation with a rich canon of film, music and sport exported to the world, it’s now been supplanted with haughty disdain. The Alan Clarkes have been replaced by Richard Curtis, Oasis by public school pop stars like Mumford and Sons, Lily Allen and Florence Welch, and football terrace solidarity with prawn sandwiches and corporate boxes.
My worry is that as we continue to culturally coalesce around a dominant middle class ideal then the working class are neither valued, understood or tolerated. This is an extremely dangerous development and will see an increase in prejudiced views that seek to ostracize people based on their social background. I am already seeing plenty of this in my own constituency. In the Rochdale grooming scandal social workers famously deemed poor white victims to be making lifestyle choices when in fact they were being subjected to horrific sexual abuse. And in the Serious Case Review published before Christmas it was acknowledged that girls on working class estates who had complained to police about being sexually abused were let down because of “discriminatory attitudes towards them”.
Public policy cannot work well if it deems one social group to be overly problematic and not worthy of support. If we’re going to encourage everyone to achieve their potential and narrow the gaps in educational outcomes between children of rich and poor backgrounds then we need to vigorously challenge anti-working class prejudice in our institutions. That means in universities, parliament, the media, local authorities and the police among others.
The starting point for this is for policy makers to stop telling the working class to disown their background and try and be more middle class. It requires policy makers to start understanding the working class more and valuing their contribution to our country.
Simon Danczuk is the Labour MP for Rochdale