You can’t just decide who is working class

Earlier this week, Guido Fawkes brought back it’s occasional spotlight on the Twitter bitch fight of the week. This is not always a gendered affair, but in this case it pitted two women against each other: Grace Blakeley and Faiza Shaheen.

Blakeley is a leftwing academic and pundit, currently writing for Tribune magazine. Shaheen is an inequality wonk and former Labour parliamentary candidate. In theory they are on the same team.

Both are even linked to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, putting them on the far left of British politics. But their squabble on Twitter showed a rift in their understanding of that favourite British subject: class.

“Class has nothing to do with your accent, where you live, where you grew up, what your parents do, where you went to school,” Blakeley wrote. “These things remain important in supporting certain individuals to change their class position, but they don’t come into the definition of class.”

Shaheen was rather upset with this. “What does one even say? Thank her for ignoring all the lived experience of working class people?!” She added a pouting face emoticon for good measure.

The debate rolled on for several more tweets, egos bruised, fascism cited and misunderstandings abounding. It is unclear whether either person left the exchange more enlightened. Another day on Twitter then.

From the outside, it is obvious what the problem is. Blakeley, in common with other Corbynite pundits and a long tradition of lefty writers, wants to define class in terms of your relationship to production. Put another way, it’s about whether you own stuff that makes money, or have to work to get paid.

Shaheen takes a less academic view. Class for her is about all those experiences that Blakeley dismissed as irrelevant. To quote Pete Doherty, of Libertines fame, “We’ll die in the class we were born.”

As mentioned, arguing about class is a favoured British past time. But on the left the debate about what defines it is especially painful, as the Labour party is having an existential crisis over who it stands for.

As implied by the name, Labour was set up to represent working class people in parliament, even if middle class intellectuals have always been involved. The allegation is that they have abandoned the traditional working class, pandering to fashionable obsessions like racial justice or transgender advocacy.

Ash Sarkar, another Corbynite pundit, previously tried to settle this argument by claiming that it was the working class that had changed. University grads facing long-term educational debt, precarious employment and little chance of buying property were effectively redefined as the new working class.

There is something to the argument that young people are drawn to redistributive politics because of the threat to their material interests. Ed West, an editor at UnHerd and conservative writer, has often raised this idea while fretting over conservatism’s long-term prospects.

The trouble with Blakeley and Sarkar’s position is that it is out of step with how normal people talk and think. Many attempts have been made to come up with new class labels that better fit the modern economy, but the industrial terms endure.

I suspect this is because it accords with how social status works in this country. Alan Sugar might be an ennobled multimillionaire, but anyone who compares his accent to mine will perceive me as posher.

And perceptions of your class affect how you are treated, however deep your graduate debt. It’s why Julie Bindel wrote so witheringly about Blakeley: class is a matter of personal identity and experience.

Blakeley could find new words to describe the categories she’s identified. But I’d guess appropriating them has a political point, allowing her to more credibly claim the socialist mantle and stand up for the little guy or girl. For now the weight of history, culture and habit makes it unlikely she’ll succeed.

Jimmy Nicholls
Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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