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Paris Lees

We Need More Common Slags Like Me in British Politics

UK's poor kids haven't been conned out of a future – they were never sold one in the first place.

by Paris Lees
30 January 2014, 7:00am

Illustration by Sam Taylor. Photo by Ryan Harding Photography.

I’ve pretty much shat myself twice over the past six months, or at least I would have done if I wasn’t, like, totally cool. The first time was just before I went on Question Time and the second was last Saturday, right before I spoke at the Fabian Society Conference. If you don’t know what the Fabian Society is – and, to be honest, I didn’t before they invited me to their annual get-together – it’s a sort of think tank that helps generate policy for the Labour Party. Yeah, this is about to get sexy. I’m talking politics! Except I don’t talk politics, usually. It’s not my thing. For a start, I’m way too hot to get bogged down by all that boring old shit. But people keep inviting me to things where I’m expected to have political opinions. I don’t. Some friends started talking about Lenin recently and I thought they meant John.

Laurie Penny has political opinions and most of them are ones I completely agree with. She was on the Fabian panel with me and I knew she’d be alright. She even had time to do a little doodle of me, which she passed down to cheer me up. Neither of us had spent much time preparing. On her plus side, she had done an internship at the Fabian Society a few years previously, so she at least knew what it was. She also had this confident way of chatting about capitalism and lost generations and all that stuff. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first but it reminded me of how I felt around one or two of the weird kids at school, those whose mums listened to Kate Bush and had biscuits from Marks & Spencer lying around the house. But it was when she started talking about broken promises that it clicked. I’m paraphrasing, but she said something along the lines of: 'I’m part of the generation that was told if we worked hard and got an education and made sensible choices we’d have homes and stability and good schools for our children to go to.' I didn’t really recognise this particular account of our generation, despite the fact that Laurie and I are about the same age.

Where I come from, no one was brought up to expect life to be anything other than threadbare and shit, played out in council houses, dole queues and parks full of broken glass and empty Coke cans. Round my hometown we didn’t think hard work would set us free, we thought N-Trance would. The thing about me, you see, is I’m dead common. We’re not talking Caitlin Moran common here. Not even Julie Burchill common. Think Shameless. Peter Kay. Shane Meadows. Shoplifting from Poundland. Cherry Lambrini at weddings. I was born and raised on a council estate in Nottinghamshire. My dad built walls in the week and, at the weekend, as a bouncer, he had people up against them. My mum worked in a factory, then behind a bar in a pub full of fat old men before getting herself a fancy job at Boots. Dessert was a Muller Fruit Corner from Spar. Actual spas – you know, where people go for weekend breaks – were unheard of. My great granddad worked down the pit and from what I can gather nobody had anything when they were growing up apart from hardship, outdoor toilets and coal for Christmas dinner. I still know people in my family who wear long johns in winter. And I’ve met people, actual people, who darn socks – though they’re no relations of mine, the scruffy bastards!
 
So no, back where I come from, we don’t do internships at the Fabian Society, we do glue round the back of the youth house. That’s why I've always felt so unsure about having a political opinion. In modern Britain we expect the right wing to come from some sort of moneyed elite, but it seems that even lefties require a modicum of privilege today in order to get their voices heard in public discourse. And I do mean a modicum. I’m pretty sure that Laurie hasn’t led the pampered life her (often sexist) right and left-wing critics suggest. But even people I admire and who are perceived to be ultra left wing have had some help from the establishment in order to establish themselves.
 
Laurie Penny and Owen Jones both went to Oxford and though I think they're both great and they also both recognise the educational privileges they've enjoyed, that doesn't change the fact their education helped them find a voice. Thank goodness they use it to speak out against inequality. Owen even has his own political vision for Britain and it’s rather good, actually. I think we can safely say he feels comfortable talking party politics. For me, party politics means how to steal wine and people’s boyfriends at your best mate’s 21st. Owen went to a state comprehensive, but he is the exception to the rule. Most young people didn’t go to private schools or Oxbridge and would never imagine they could meaningfully speak out about the issues that affect working-class people. Benefit cuts. Lack of affordable housing. Unpaid internships. Tuition fees. Who do these political issues affect most? It’s not the old and rich. It is people like me, people in their teens and twenties from poor backgrounds. Yes, poor. Not disadvantaged or underprivileged or deprived. Poor. There is a widening gap between rich and poor and a widening gap between old and young. It is people who scavenge food from the bins behind Iceland versus old men who bankrupted Iceland.

Working-class people are not like the romantic, politicised proletariat of yesteryear, handing out pamphlets down the pub and joining unions and whatnot. We're an underclass made to feel like we're not clever enough to engage in politics. I always thought politics was something educated people did, proper people, people who wear suits. The sort of people who get invited to talk on television news. What the hell would people like me and my family know about anything?

And what do young people know? Or care? As many people aged 18-40 didn’t vote in the 2010 general election as the overall total that voted Tory. If just one quarter of those young and youngish people had gone out and voted, we could have had a very different set of people running the country today. Who is targeting these huge, non-voting swathes of society who feel divorced from our increasingly privileged political elite? UKIP, that’s who. And they’re not doing too badly out of it either. Labour, where are you? If you want to get into power in 2015 you should get smart and target young, working-class voters. Ideologically it is totally in line with what Labour is supposed to stand for and, if you could actually get those people to vote, you’d probably get into government. What are you waiting for?

You might remember that the Lib Dems tried to court students last time round by promising to drop tuition fees. Then, once they’d done their deal with the Tories, the only thing they dropped was the policy. Will da yoofdem ever trust politicians again? Or will they put their trust in arseholes like Russell Brand telling them not to bother voting? Who knows, but as Laurie pointed out on our panel, many of the voters who were "young" last time round won’t be by 2015. (That's right, it doesn't last long, bitches.) So how are we going to get those people excited by politics? They’re already lost, last seen browsing BuzzFeed.

James Bloodsworth writes about the swing to UKIP in a piece for the New Statesman and blames the shifting provenance of our political class: “When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, 40 per cent of Labour MPs had done some kind of manual or clerical work before they entered parliament. By 2010, that figure had dropped to just 9 percent. Changes in the labour market undoubtedly account for some of this change, but the extent to which parliament is rapidly (once again) becoming the talking shop of the upper middle classes is evident in other data too. An astonishing 91 percent of the 2010 intake of MPs were university graduates and 35 per cent were privately-educated.”

So come and get me. I’m a woman of the people here, a common slag – longing to be embraced not just by drunken lager louts in grotty chippies, but politics too. I can’t be the only one.

Follow Paris (@parislees) and Sam (@SptSam) on Twitter.

Previously – How Life Can Improve for Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans People in 2014

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