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  • Dave Drysdale

Fighting Negative Narratives

Being proud of your working class roots is common in older generations. Proud of your hard graft in heavy industry, proud of being ‘one in a long line of’, and proud of what you added to society as part of a workforce. Somewhere along the way this pride in being working class was lost, replaced with negative narratives laying out bleak futures fuelled by past hardships and current personal failings.

But these negative narratives we construct for ourselves don’t appear in a vacuum, they share common themes with stories that are told about us. The working class are reduced to Chavs, living on sink estates, uneducated, uncultured, and unrefined [1]. Being proud of being working class is just not how things are done any more, in fact it is actively frowned upon. Ashamed of your background? Yeah? That’s how you’re meant to feel.

Combatting these negative narratives requires a quick look at why they exist in the first place and, as with many things in life, it comes down to power. The solidarity of the working class enjoyed by the older generations was, in part, due to their ability to control their destiny through unionisation. Union membership peaked in 1979 [2] and the power wielded by the unions was viewed as an obstacle to economic growth by Thatcher’s Conservative government[3]. Part of the legacy of their time in office was a significant reduction in union power and an air of crass individualism that came along with their adoption of neoliberal economic policy.

That ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality fostered an atmosphere devoid of responsibility to others and painted everyone’s own situation as solely their responsibility. The benefit of this is two fold: it gives people the moral high ground to look down on those below them, promoting infighting, whilst distracting from structural issues. It also created a situation full of individuals, where no-one had enough power of their own to challenge the status quo.

The negative view is set up by those at the top, and when we aspire to ‘have class’, ‘be classy’, or ‘be a class act’ we aspire to be like them, and part of that is sharing their worldview. It is that view, from above, that casts the working class in a poor light.

All this feeds into the negative narratives we tell ourselves and to break that cycle we need to recognise that it is based on a value judgment, that we should place value on our lives based on how those at the top value them.

To combat them we need to start disassembling the tropes, have discussions about what we value and why, identify structural problems and start to make real world changes. In 2020 a Bored Panda article listed answers to the question ‘what’s classy if you’re rich and trashy if you’re poor?’. The answers were humorous if unsurprising and really show how deep the problem runs. (As an aside, if you need an opener for a discussion about class you’ll find one there.)

When the mainstream media, pundits or politicians present working class communities it’s often as a group to look down on. So called ‘red wall’ communities with ‘white working class values’ who are weaponised against progress. An overwhelmingly ‘anti-woke’ mass uninterested in the rights of muslims, trans people or other marginalised groups. This contrasts somewhat with the realities of a diverse working class which includes people who are: muslim, black, female, trans, and foreign born [4,5,6,7,8]. These people are often exploited because their demographic doesn’t enjoy the power that comes with ‘mainstream’ acceptance. Nevertheless they are invested in change and this shows us how vital it is to tell our own stories. By establishing our own voice, one of a proud, diverse working class, we can re-establish pride in our communities and lay the foundations of real change.

Whilst some of this work needs to be done face to face, and on an individual level, we also have to recognise that individualism doesn’t actually give us power or real freedom. We can be better equipped to take meaningful actions to improve our outcomes, at home, in our communities, and in the workplace if we work together. Collaborating, sharing our stories, supporting each other will help us break the cycle of negative narratives and stop us basing our value on how those above value us.

Remember that neither ‘being a class act’ nor ‘having class’ specify which class we should aspire to, maybe it’s time to start believing that working class is a class worth having.

Dave is a Working Class writer and activist, who can be found on twitter at @omniscientdave.

[3] Neil J. Mitchell, "Where traditional Tories fear to tread: Mrs Thatcher's trade union policy." West European Politics 10#1 (1987): 33–45.


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