By Robyn Banks
I’m in the break room at work choking on my out of date sandwich. I’ve just been informed by two of my colleagues- good, down to earth working class people who probably think I bang on about my degree too much- that Boris Johnson is a “lad”, and I have no idea what to say. But none of us have any money, I want to shout. And he wants us to have less! Before I can respond, the conversation moves on to laughing about his hair, which is much more tolerable. Later, as I complain about Trumps victory, I am told that all I want is for “everyone to sit in a circle and hold hands”.
The results of the US election left many of us in shock. Just like the results of the UKs EU referendum, the left was a little too over confident. Surely the public will be disgusted by Trumps racism, and by the leave campaign’s blatant lies. Surely we won’t vote that way. Surely we don’t live among *that* many bigots, do we?
And then it happened.
Hillary was the establishment. The EU was the establishment.
But I don’t believe we live in a country of bigots, nor that the US voted to elect the walking, talking personification of narrow mindedness as a reflection of themselves. The tone of this election was decidedly anti-establishment. To those of us on the left, especially with the privilege of education on the intricacies of power structures, nothing screams ‘establishment’ more than a billionaire white guy who erects towers as a phallic tribute to himself, and a nationalist, isolationist and xenophobic campaign which blatantly lied to the public and has, apparently, got away with it. But to the rest of the nations, that’s not how it seems. Hillary was the establishment. The EU was the establishment.
Writing for the Harvard business review, Joan Williams points out several misconceptions about the American white working class to explain Trump’s win, with which many parallels can be drawn with the UK. The first is that, while those of us on the far left direct our class anger at the most wealthy, having a lot of money is not enough to stop you convincing a nation you are ‘just like them’. In fact, for many, personal wealth is coveted and respected. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, it’s your attitude that defines your class appeal, which is how a “straight talking” billionaire became a man of the people and how Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the child of an ex-employee of the European commission and a former member of the European parliament who was educated at Eton college and then went on to study at Oxford, can be seen as a ‘lad’.
People like Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, despite refusing to spend public tax money on luxurious transport and living a thrifty and altruistic lifestyle, are not ‘like us’. He’s polite. He’s vegetarian. And he won’t give us easy answers to fix the state our economy is still in by blaming a minority group and telling us it’s not our fault. He is, as my nan put it, “a bit weird”. The working class don’t despise the wealthy 1%, they despise the middle class- our landlords, bankers and managers who have such control over our lives every day.
Enough people seem to think that Bernie would have been able to beat Trump that it has become an internet meme, and I believe there is some truth to that. In choosing Hilary as the democratic candidate, the party chose the very image of the establishment- a career politician with plenty of dirty laundry to hang out, and wife to another career politician. She deserved to win, but she didn’t appeal to that vast and misunderstood section of blue collar America. And we risk making the same mistake here.
Many of the British working class have, understandably, lost faith in the Labour Party, but they remain the most credible opposition to the Tories. This next election will be about the economy, jobs and who to blame when it all goes wrong, not bicycles or veganism. Owen Smith would have been a disaster, but there’s still hope for Corbyn if he can be ‘normal’ in the right way. The papers and politicians are whipping up a frenzy of xenophobia and blame to cover their tracks and to hide the disaster they have made of our economy. With the refugee crisis still ongoing, the left needs to step up their game. It’s time to rediscover our working class anger, to defend and show solidarity with working people wherever they may be from and to start pointing the finger and shouting loud and clear about who is really to blame.
Header image via bfnn.co.uk