‘Blue Collar’ Fabulists

Arianne Shahvisi

‘Blue Collar Conservatives’ is a caucus of Tory MPs chaired by Ben Bradley, the MP for Mansfield, who self-identifies as working-class even though he went to a private school where the fees are nearly as much as the annual salary of someone earning minimum wage. Bradley’s misrepresentations don’t stop there. For such a young politician (he was born in 1989) he has an impressive record for dishonesty. In 2016, he claimed that a nearby council had spent £17,000 employing call centre workers in Mumbai. When challenged, he admitted the claim was pure invention, contrived to convince people the council was wasting money. (And if you’re going to tell a fib, why not build in a racist dog whistle?) In 2018, he tweeted that Jeremy Corbyn had ‘sold British secrets to communist spies’, a lie that cost him £15,000 in damages. Luckily for this ‘blue collar’ fabulist, two wealthy Conservative donors swept in to cover the cost of his blunder. Corbyn asked that the money be divided between a homeless charity and a food bank in Mansfield.

Bradley shamed himself again last month by claiming that the free school meal vouchers championed by Marcus Rashford would go towards funding crack dens and brothels on crime-ridden estates. Alongside this outlandish assertion, he pulled out the hackneyed claim that providing lunches to the poorest children during the school holidays ‘passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents, to the state. It increases dependency.’ (Is there a connection between the Tories’ insistence on ‘self-reliance’ and their love of hunting?) Meanwhile, Rashford continues his campaign against food poverty, and recently launched a child literacy drive.

Last Thursday was International Men’s Day. Bradley made a speech in parliament, lamenting that men are ‘told those things they thought were virtues – their good manners, wanting to provide for their family, wanting to be a man’s man, wanting to go to the football at the weekend and have some banter with the lads – are toxic’. He also wrote of his commitment to ‘white working-class boys … told by some that they are privileged, but who will struggle to tell you how or ever see the benefit of their so-called privilege. I couldn’t tell you either. I think it would take the most accomplished Gender Studies professor to explain it to me.’

But would he listen? (This week he managed to interpret Martin Luther King Jr’s words as implying the non-existence of racism; Bernice King rebuked him and he deleted the tweet.) The muddle is Bradley’s own doing. Those who fixate on the gerrymandered category of ‘white working-class boys’ foment confusion to undermine the moral claims of working-class girls and children of colour, and instead present them as threats. The difference in educational performance between white students who receive free school meals and those who don’t is around 16 percentage points, twice as big as the gap between white working-class students and their minority ethnic working-class peers. Class is a more important factor than race.

As for the gender gap, striving to be a ‘man’s man’ tends to clash with taking an interest in education. Prioritising ‘banter with the lads’ often translates into clowning around in class. In Educational Failure and Working-Class White Children in Britain, Gillian Evans emphasises the tension between the behaviour that schools expect of learners, and the broader ideals of masculinity that many boys aspire to. The ‘virtues’ that Bradley fetishises are precisely the things that hold boys back, which is one reason – among many – that some of us call them ‘toxic’.

It is their poverty that hurts white working-class boys, but they are more likely to attach their resentment to being white and male: in part because those are the grounds on which they were promised something better than the women and people of colour around them; in part because elites have deliberately eroded working-class cohesion.

When, in 2019, Jacob Rees-Mogg lolled on the benches of the Commons like Aesop’s hare, he reminded me of the boys at my comprehensive school, slouched in their chairs, listless and truculent. It isn’t that white working-class boys are worse off than working-class girls and children of colour; it’s that they were sold a bigger lie. Middle-class white boys can ride their mediocrity all the way to the top: Ben Bradley is a case in point. All too often, they then espouse ideologies that understate class and overplay a baseless solidarity between white men. It’s a mean trick. Poor white men can roam the streets without fear of racism or sexism, and that is no small thing, but it won’t fill their pockets or their children’s stomachs.

As the American TV presenter Jimmy Kimmel (not even a ‘gender studies professor’) said in June, ‘white privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard. It just means the colour of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder.’ Among communities of colour in the UK, 45 per cent of children live in poverty, compared with 26 per cent of white children, and unemployment is almost twice as high. Women are more likely than men to live in poverty, and have borne 86 per cent of the burden of austerity since 2010. Bangladeshi and Pakistani women in the UK are poorest of all.

Poor white boys don’t need the weasel words of self-serving politicians; they need better access to such basic goods as food and literacy. Ben Bradley will never be the working-class hero he thinks he is, but Marcus Rashford just might be.


  • 27 November 2020 at 8:24am
    andrewjohnson says:
    Excuse my ignorance but can you run the self-reliance/hunting nexus past me, please?

    • 27 November 2020 at 10:33am
      P Eluard says: @ andrewjohnson
      We now know that hunting is where you go out and shoot helpless animals for fun, but it used to be the case that people did it in order to get food they needed and thus, it was part of a self made diet, or a self reliant diet, if you will. So ideologically it often comes up in a kind of twisted self-reliance nexus, which is particularly strange given the massive amounts of tax money that go into preserving it as a thing (over £10m just for grouse shooting last year). The question of why it could come up in a self-reliance conversation, is an interesting one, probably involving the strange aristocratic norms

    • 27 November 2020 at 10:50am
      P Eluard says: @ andrewjohnson
      'aristocratic' norms, I should have said. Hang-ups from a bygone age. (This site's comment system is built to annoy me.)

  • 27 November 2020 at 11:19am
    Charles Evans says:
    Thanks, Arianne, for so eloquently deconstructing the bullshit of Ben Bradley et al. He and his fellow travellers don't give a toss about helping anyone - white working-class boys or otherwise - their only interest is in classic divide-and-rule politics for their own advantage.

    • 28 November 2020 at 7:08pm
      Graucho says: @ Charles Evans
      Reminiscent of the current, though hopefully not for much longer, leader of the free world, except that he has no class at all.

  • 27 November 2020 at 2:21pm
    R Bunting says:
    I suggest 'aristocrats' hunting cult is about the relentless need to dominate, enriched by more than a dash of the cruelty that's a core conservative value

  • 27 November 2020 at 6:56pm
    Greencoat says:
    Mr Bradley doesn’t ‘self-identify’ with anyone. He does, however, sympathise with a now almost voiceless British working class long abandoned by the Labour Party.

  • 29 November 2020 at 10:15pm
    Sam Bell says:
    This is a strangely imprecise article. How is white working class boys a ‘gerrymandered’ category? I think this needs a lot more explanation, as it seems to ignore the realities of the education system.

    • 30 November 2020 at 12:29pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Sam Bell
      I took it to mean that just as gerrymandering a political district deliberately divides a large area into districts in a way that's designed to accentuate the power of one subset of the population, the phrase 'white working class boys' has the effect of implying that the problem for these schoolchildren is that they are white and/or boys, rather than that they're working class. Chop the 'working class' into these race and gender subsets and you can, if you're Ben Bradley, ignore the fact that class is the real issue. Indeed the author states this explicitly, so I don't see the same imprecision you do.

  • 2 December 2020 at 10:46am
    recover says:
    " elites have deliberately eroded working-class cohesion"

    this is followed by a lengthy piece of prime whataboutery, citing the greater neediness and impoverishment of other groups more deserving than working class white males. it's a fascinating illustration of the human condition that the author, an oxbridge graduate now teaching at a prestigious university, seems blind to her own role as an elite deliberately fracturing the working class into multiple competing factions. Robert Hewitt has written well already on this but I' couldn't help but comment!

    Also, her comments on hunting indicate deep ignorance of working class culture. fishing (which is really a specialised type of hunting) is wildly popular among working class men. in the countryside, working class men frequently shoot, and often follow the hunt. If the left wants to pick up working class votes, they would do well to make an attempt to know them beyond vague stereotypes

  • 2 December 2020 at 7:23pm
    Elizabet Harris says:
    And in the US, our own version of Ben Bradley (hint: initials are DJT) has animated angry white boys into mini-squads and given them permission to belittle, insult and beat up at will those identified as threats to their superiority.

  • 3 December 2020 at 11:17am
    Jane Hyde says:
    Reading the comments, all from white men, one asks: what is it about white men that makes them so shy to simply take a point?

  • 8 December 2020 at 12:29pm
    olywood says:
    That Bradely has been able to gain any traction at all, I would argue, is less to do with class, as it is the rhetoric this article seeks to defend. It really isn't sensible to lecture people on white privilege. I know people in northern towns who have been switched on to alt-right nonsense out of little more than indignation: they're tired of being told they're doing well when every metric tells them they're not. This polytechnic lecturing, as we've seen countless times, only serves to play into the hands of predatory politicians like Mr Bradley. Bombard people with nonsense and it only
    takes a half-wit with sense enough to call out that nonsense to be hailed as the second coming of common sense. See: the lunatic currently squatting in the White House. The rest of the article appears to be little more than statistical slight of hand to prove that, actually, it's non-white people who have it worse, which only serves to play into the current culture of competitive suffering and "I think you'll find I have it worse" self-victimhood. Covid, to some, is due to reset our economy. Can we please have a reset on this kind of poorly thought out rhetoric?

Read more