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Who even is “working class”?

Keir Starmer loves the term, but its substance is hard to define

Artillery Row

Whilst watching a recent video of Angela Rayner interviewing Keir Starmer, a question occurred to me: what does it take to make someone “working class”?

The Labour leader often uses this term to describe himself — reminding the electorate that his father was a “toolmaker”, as if anyone could have forgotten — and framing his life through Dickensian descriptions wherever possible.

This exchange was no different. Speaking to his deputy, we (twice) learnt that he shared a bunk bed with his brother until he went to university, in a “small bedroom”, with “two little desks” in a house that had been bought “on a mortgage, of course”. If Ken Loach had not been expelled from the Labour party, perhaps Starmer could become the subject of his next film: I, Son of a Toolmaker.

We now have a depressing situation in which young adults are descending the social ladder

Is Starmer actually working class? Nowadays it’s tricky to know what this term even means. Take Rod Stewart, who was born into a working-class family, taking on odd jobs such as working as a gravedigger, before becoming a star. In 2019 he received huge flak when he congratulated Boris Johnson on X for winning the election. “Rod I’m seriously disappointed in you,you came from a working class background,how can you possibly support the Tories its mind boggling” [sic], replied one woman, setting the tone for the thousands of other disappointed comments. In the same way that ethnic minorities are sometimes berated for not having “left-wing” or “progressive” politics, people who moved up a socioeconomic category (or several) are treated as “class traitors” should they not promote a certain kind of politics.

Another complication in defining “working class” is the growing levels of intergenerational inequality in the UK, a modern phenomenon that completely upends our usual understanding of how society should be carved up. Whereas previous generations ascended class categories, we now have a depressing situation in which young adults are descending them. Children who grew up working class, middle class and even higher are increasingly unified by the housing crisis, spending huge chunks of their income on rent. Without sounding Maoist, landlords may even count as a new class category.

Although Starmer emphasises that he is working class, the fact that he owns a house in London immediately makes him unrelatable to most of these souls (as well as older renters), who often see housing as not just a sign of “security” — as Starmer puts it in his interview with Rayner — but making it.

It’s not even obvious what counts as a “working class” policy in the modern era, never mind what makes someone “working class”. After all, there can be huge differences between the priorities of a low-wage trader in London versus the Red Wall. Too often, “working class” comes across as simply a label that Labour applies to things when it wants to make them sound righteous and well meaning, even when people one might consider “working class” are saying the opposite. Take ULEZ. In February this year Sadiq Khan ejected a lorry driver from Dagenham called Angie Donnelly from an event after she questioned his anti-motorist policy. Khan and other “working class” experts tend to bang on about people struggling with the cost of living, whilst suppressing their voices in real life.

Keen to boost his class warrior credentials, Starmer proclaimed, “I grew up working class” in his conference speech in October 2023, adding, “I will fight for you.” He, like countless others, cannot define the “you”. It often feels as though he is talking to an imagined blob of people, who love ULEZ and preferred pronouns and want to rejoin the EU — a hybrid that doesn’t exist, yet is somehow given the umbrella term “working class”.

Either way, “Brexit-hating London-dwelling former Director of Public Prosecutions” might not quite hit the mark.

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