'Behold the honourable northern Hobbit!' How the British press treats reporting on the working class like an ugly safari

The Daily Telegraph prints a paid government advisor pretending to be an independent commentator.

British national newspapers — from The Daily Telegraph to The Guardian — love to go on safaris from London to discover what the real working class think about the state of politics and the world in general.

These real working class people tend to be a) white b) living in former mining villages and towns, and c) disgruntled. It’s important that your working class person vox pop doesn’t feature a non-white person in Tower Hamlets who is perfectly gruntled with immigration, their child’s school, and their general place in the world.

Though Labour under Corbyn had significant support among the urban working class — who are young, poor, and largely not white — the British press in general preferred to speak about the loss of the so-called ‘red wall’ and amplify the concerns of people in those locations above all others. The message was clear and remains clear:

The working class live in the north surrounded by pit ponies and the remnants of Arhur Scargill’s ‘phoney’ war.

In The Daily Telegraph yesterday, James Frayne — who runs Public First, a policy and research company which is based in Tufton Street, home of many right-wing think-tanks — wrote a piece about his research into the beliefs of the working class in ‘red wall’ seats and across a handful of towns in the North.

What the Telegraph neglected to mention in describing Frayne as “founding partner of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to public opinion” is that in June, the Cabinet Office awared an £840,000 contract to Public First for research into public opinion about government policy.

It also ‘failed’ to mention Frayne has worked with the Prime Minister’s senior advisor, Dominic Cummings, on and off since the Eurosceptic campaigns in the 1990s. Rachel Wolf, who runs the firm with Frayne, is a former advisor to Michael Gove, while a third partner, Gabriel Milland, former head of communications at the Department of Education during the Gove-era was seconded to Downing Street for several months earlier this year. His contract with Number 10 only finished at the end of June.

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Frayne’s Telegraph article, focuses heavily on the results of focus groups he has conducted — for whom (the government) and for why (to give intel to Dominic Cummings) are not mentioned — and what they ‘tell us’ about the working class:

In the hundreds of focus groups I have run in working class towns like Walsall, Rotherham, Preston, Crewe, Oldham, Darlington and Whitehaven, I can think of only a tiny handful of people who expressed a desire for an end to all immigration. I have never heard anyone reminisce about the Empire. And I have also never heard working class people spew bile about middle-class Left-wingers in London; thankfully, because they are essentially apolitical, they do not know how much they are despised by these elites.

To be clear: the English working class will neither support nor sustain a populist political party (they talk fondly of David Cameron, for goodness sake). This supposed threat is all in the minds of middle class Left-wingers; people who equate “Brexit and Trump” are delusional.

Far be it for me to cast aspersions but might a paid consultant for the Conservative Party perhaps be inclined to paint his employer as very reasonable and certainly not authoritarian?

Furthermore, do you think maybe that Frayne might shape his research to push the conclusion that ‘the working class’ — and by that he means a small sample of one section of the working class — is a centrist mass that just loves Boris Johnson’s lovely hair and is never racist?

Frayne starts his column with a series of generalisations that suggest that he knows how the working class — seemingly a monolothic, homogenous mass of people in his view — thinks about the key issues and… shock! …he has a counterintuitive conclusion:

Metropolitan commentators and politicians used to idolise the provincial English working class. Now these same people are ashamed of them. The working class were once the inspiration for literary classics, from DH Lawrence to Alan Sillitoe.

They were voters Labour courted, and their decency and hard work were considered the backbone of this country. Now they are blamed not only for Brexit and Boris Johnson, but for something more fundamental: the creation of a nationalistic, intolerant, and illiberal nation. Who would want to write the equivalent of Sillitoe’s Nottingham classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning today?

This is wrong on substance: the working class of England are highly liberal. It is also rooted in misdiagnosis: the fundamental value that motivates working class people is not nationalism, but an obsession with fairness. Working class people in this country are uninterested in group identities, but cannot bear the idea of people being unfairly treated. That, in turn, means they treat people as individuals in their own right.

But for all the press and media’s focus on a tiny subsection of working class voters and, in the case of The Guardian’s Helen Pidd, pizza shop owners who are far from working class, continues. It wouldn’t allow for the kind of wild generalisations that Frayne uses in his article if he admitted that working class culture and attitudes in East Anglia differ greatly from those working class people living in the heart of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, or the rural poor in the Highlands and islands of Scotland.

Despite framing himself as a dispassionate facts-slinger, Frayne indulges in the usual culture war posturing:

Hostility towards the English working class is also behind the BBC’s recent pivot Left, most obviously in its temporary decision to ban the singing of Rule, Britannia. At one level, who cares? But it reflected a fear in the corporation that they might be aligned, somehow, with the lunatics they assume frequent Northern towns.

The Rule Britannia story was a confection of the right-wing press and the BBC’s ultimate response represented how Tim Davie, a Tory in spirit and actuality (he stood as a Conservative council candidate) will capitulate to the government at the drop of a hat. Does Frayne really think the BBC which produces many of its programmes from a base in Salford — which, when I last checked was… in the North — really despises people from the North? Of course not, it’s culture war crap.

Frayne’s conclusion takes the article to a really farcical level:

Coronavirus got in the way of the Government’s practical plans to improve life in working class towns; they were washed away as the virus took hold. But there was something holding them back, in any case.

This was the residual fear among middle class Southern Tories that, just maybe, the English working class might drag them to the cultural Right – a place they do not want to be. They need to get over this fear. The English working class are not conventionally politically correct, but they provide a liberal bulwark against extremism of all kinds; they are not the facilitators of it.

Southern Tories afraid of being ‘dragged to the cultural Right’? That’s where they are most comfortable. And from the East, where my grandfather — a former police officer who served during the Metropolitan Police’s most racist and rogue years (the 1960s and 70s) eyes immigration suspiciously despite living in a county that is still ovewhelmingly white — to the South-West where my uncles — who make very good livings in trades like electrician and plumber — talk about the biased BBC and why Nigel Farage has got the right idea, I have rarely met the ‘liberal bulwark’.

Of course, the Working Class is not a homogenous mass. I life within a mile of Cable Street, where different groups of Working Class banded together to fight and defeat the fascists in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.

Working Class leftism has a honourable history and lives on across this country, but by the same token, the dishonourable history of British people craving the heavy boot of the authoritatian on the necks of people that don’t look like them remains similarly strong. But Frayne’s article is barely disguised propaganda for a government that believes the Working Class is stupid and there to be used. I saw through it. I hope other people do too.