‘Blue Collar’ Fabulists
‘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.