Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Maguire’

Owen Jones on the Middle Class Domination of the Houses of Parliament

May 5, 2014

I posted a piece this morning on early trade unionist campaigns to get the vote for the working class and working men into parliament and the local authorities. This was in response to the way working people have become increasingly ignored and excluded by the political class, to the point where many feel disenfranchised.

Owen Jones in Chavs describes the way parliament has become overwhelmingly upper and middle class in its composition:

We’ve seen that prominent politicians manipulated the media-driven frenzy to make political points. Like those who write and broadcast our news, the corridors of political power are deominated by people from one particular background. ‘The House of Commons isn’t representative, it doesn’t reflect the country as a whole,’ says Kevin Maguire. ‘It’s over-representative of lawyers, journalists-as-politicians, various professions, lecturers in particular … There are few people who worked in call centres, or been in factories, or been council officials lower down.’

It’s true to say MP’s aren’t exactly representative of the sort of people who live on most of our streets. Those sitting on Parliament’s green benches are over four times more likely to have gone to private school than the rest of us. Among Conservative MPs, a startling three out of every five have attended a private school. A good chunk of the political elite were schooled at the prestigious Eton College alone, including Tory leader David Cameron and nineteen other Conservative MPs.

There was once a tradition, particularly on the Labour benches, of MPs who had started off working in factories and mines. Those days are long gone. The number of politicians from those backgrounds is small, and shrinks with every election. Few than one in twenty MPs started out as manual workers, a number that has halved since 1987, despite the fact that that was a Conservative-dominated parliament. One the other hand, a startling two-thirds had a professional job or worked in business before arriving in parliament. Back in 1996, Labour’s then deputy leader John Prescott echoed the Blairite mantra to claim that ‘we’re all middle-class now’, a remark that would perhaps be more fitting if he had been talking about his fellow politicians. (p. 29)

It would be easy, but lazy, to portray parliament as a microcosm of the British class system. It isn’t, but it certainly showcases the gaping divides of modern society. When I interviewed James Purnell just before the May 2010 election that brought the Tories and their Lib Dem allies to 10 Downing Street, I put to him how unrepresentative Parliament was: two-thirds of MPs came from a professional background and were four times more likely to have attended a private school than the rest of the population. When I referred to the fact that only one in twenty MPs came from a blue-collar background, he was genuinely shocked. ‘One in twenty?’

When I asked him if this had made it more difficult for politicians to understand the problems of working-class people, he could hardly disagree. ‘Yes, indeed. I think it’s become very much a closed shop …’ For Purnell, this middle-class power grab was the result of a political system that has become closed to ordinary people.

In the build-up to the 2010 general election, a number of excited headlines claimed that trade unions were parachuting candidates into safe seats. ‘Unions put their candidates in place to push Labour to the left,’ bellowed the Times. And yet, in the end, only 3 per cent of new MPs were former trade union officials. There was no similar outrage about the number of prospective candidates with careers in the City – the sector that, after all, was responsible for the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. One in ten new MPs had a background in financial services, twice as many as in the 1997 landslide that brought Labour to power. Politics has also increasingly been turned into a career rather than a service: a stunning one in five new MPs already worked in politics before taking the parliamentary oath. pp. 104-5).

He then contrasts with the great political figures from Atlee’s cabinet of 1945 from the working class: Nye Bevan, Ernest Bevin, and Herbert Morrison. They were a miner, farm boy and grocer’s assistant, respectively. He contrasts this with the Tory jeers about John Prescott’s working class origins.

When he entered the House of Lords, that retirement home for the ruling elite, the Telegraph’s chief leader writer scoffed: I’m not sure ermine suits John Prescott.’ the comments left by Telegraph readers on the newspaper’s website were a class war free-for-all. One passed on a friend’s hilarious description of him as ‘the builder’s bum-crack of the Labour Party’. ‘Baron Pie & Chips’ and ‘Prescott is a fat peasant’ were other witticisms, as was ‘John “here’s a little tip” Prescott’. Someone has to serve the drinks between debates!’ guffawed another. Prescott was ridiculed because some felt that by being from lowly working-class stock, he sullied the office of deputy prime minister and then the House of Lords. (p. 106).

We desperately need more working class people in parliament. And as for the Telegraph, Buddyhell over Guy Debord’s Cat has posted a long series of pieces on just how frighteningly far-right the commenters on their website are. Very many of them post horrendously racist and overtly Fascist messages. One even suggested that the Nazis were being demonised out of ignorance (!) and that this would not happen if people knew more about them. (!)
No, the Nazis are demonised because people know exactly what they are like. Hence the attempts by Nazi apologists to deny the Holocaust ever happened, or played down the number of people who were murdered. The Cat has noted that the Telegraph uses the excuse that it can’t be held responsible for what it’s commenters post, and it is therefore not responsible for the ravings of the assorted stormtroopers that post there. This won’t wash. Other website are modded, and stopping genocidal racists from advocating mass murder is one of the few infringements to the right to free speech that most people would applaud. But not, it seems, the Torygraph. Either – God help us! – the editors secretly agree with these rants, or else they are following the old tactic Enoch Powell adopted with his supporters from the Far Right. Powell actually personally wasn’t racist. He spoke Urdu, and had served on various official bodies promoting civil rights for Blacks and Asians before the infamous ‘River of Blood’ speech. See the section on him in Bloody Foreigners: Immigration and the English. He actually hated the NF, but cynically used their support.

As for the Times, this is the quintessential paper of the establishment. I’ve got a feeling it was edited for a time by the very blue-blooded Peregrine Worsthorne. Under David Leppard, it saw fit to publish the lie that Michael Foot was a KGB agent. No wonder it printed scare stories about a coming union left-wing takeover.

Michael Bakunin on Privilege, and the Modern Privileged Hatred of the Working Class

March 14, 2014

Owen Jones devotes a whole chapter in his book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (London: Verso 2012) to the way the media has also contributed to the demonization of the working class as feckless, drunken, drug-addicted promiscuous and violent wasters. He quotes expressions of such class, and also racial prejudice towards the White working class, not only from Right-wing columnists, such as James Delingpole, Amanda Platell and Janet Daley, but also Liberal anti-racists such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. He quotes Boris Johnson’s sister, Rachel on the very narrow class basis of the journalists now sneering at the underprivileged and the working class, stating

As Rachel Johnson (editor of the Lady and sister of Boris Johnson) puts it: ‘What we’re having is a media which is run by the middle classes, for the middle classes, of the middle classes, aren’t we?’ She is spot on. The journalists who have stirred up chav-hate are from a narrow, privileged background. Even papers with overwhelmingly working-class readerships join in the sport. Kevin Maguire told me of a Sun away day in which all the journalists dressed up as chavs. Chuckle at their venomous columns by all means, but be aware that you are revelling in the contempt of the privileged for the less fortunate. In the current climate of chav-hate the class warriors of Fleet Street can finally get away with it, openly a flagrantly: caricaturing working-class people as stupid, idle, racist, sexually promiscuous, dirty, and fond of vulgar clothes. Nothing of worth is seen to emanate from working class Britain. (p. 119).

He then goes on to describe how such hatred and contempt for ‘chavs’ has become an amusing pastime for the privileged members of the Middle Classes, including Prince William, at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

This chav-hate has even become a fad among privileged youth. At universities like Oxford, middle-class students hold ‘chav bops’ where they dress up as this working-class caricature. Among those mocking the look was Prince William, one of the most privileged young men in the country. At a chav-theme fancy dress party to mark the end of his first term at Sandhurst, he dressed in a loose-fitting top and ‘bling jewellery’, along with the must-have ‘angled baseball cap’. But when the other cadets demanded he ‘put on a chavvy accent and stop speaking like a Royal’, he couldn’t do it. ‘William’s not actually the poshest-sounding cadet, despite his family heritage, but he struggled to pull off a working-class accent,’ one cadet told the Sun. Welcome to twenty first century Britain, where royals dress up as their working-class subjects for a laugh.

To get a more detailed sense of what the ‘chav’ phenomenon means to young people from privileged backgrounds, I had a chat with Oliver Harvey, an Old Etonian and president of the Oxford Conservative Association. ‘In the middle classes’ attitudes toward what you would have called the working-class, so-called chav culture, you’ve still got to see class as an important part of British life,’ he says. ‘Chav’ is a word Harvey often hears bandied around beneath the dreaming spires of Oxford. ‘You’d think people would be educated here, but it’s still something people find funny.’ Unlike other students, he dislikes the term because of its class meaning. ‘I think it shows a patronizing attitude and is rather offensive. It’s a word used by more fortunate people towards less fortunate people… Unfortunately it’s now a popular term that has been transplanted into people’s everyday consciousness.’

A place like Oxford is fertile ground for chav-hate. Nearly half of its students were privately educated, and there are very, very few working-class people attending the university at all. It helps unlock the truth behind the phenomenon: here are privileged people with little contact with those lower down the scale. it is easy to caricature people you do not understand. And indeed, many of these students owe their place at Oxford to the privileged circumstances that brought them a superior education. How comforting to pretend that they landed in Oxford because of their own talents, and that those at the bottom of society are there because they are thick, feckless or worse.

Bakunin Book Pic

Michael Bakunin: aristocrat and Anarchist revolutionary. Probably wouldn’t have been a fan of David Cameron

All this seems to bear out what the great 19th century Russian Anarchist revolutionary, Michael Bakunin, had to say about the corrupting effects of social privilege:

It is the peculiarity of privilege and of every privileged position to kill the intellect and the heart of man. The privileged man, whether he be privileged politically or economically, is a man depraved in intellect and heart.

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IDS: Just about everything about him corroborates Bakunin’s comments on privilege.

Clearly not everyone in the upper or middle classes is a mass of seething hatred and contempt for the working class, despite the efforts of the columnists of the Daily Mail and Telegraph. And very few would wish to see present society destroyed rather than reformed in the wave of apocalyptic violence Bakunin recommended. ‘Even destruction is a creative act’, as he described his attitude to the exploitative state and contemporary society. But it does describe the class attitude, and privileged hatred of the poor and disadvantaged shown by the very upper class members of the Tory front bench. After all, with Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and IDS presiding over an administration determined to destroy the welfare state, reforms that have resulted in as many as 38,000 deaths per year, it’s difficult not believe that Bakunin had a point about the corrupting influence of privilege. This needs changing, and fast. And it must be through the ballot box that such class hatred, oppression and exploitation must be removed.