Classless: Stop trying to make ‘Greggs guys’ happen or why the press pretends it didn't undermine Labour

A central creed of the commentator class is to boast about their insight while pretending media coverage has no effect

British reporters, columnists, and commentators love to have easy shorthand for describing political trends or even for creating political trends. In the 90s, the big one was Essex Man — formerly Labour voting blokes who went Blue for Thatcher — which metamorphosed into Mondeo Man as Tony Blair successfully attempted to convert them to New Labour (all the familiar taste with 0% socialism).

Blair recounted his meeting with the real Mondeo Man — actually a Sierra owner but that wouldn’t have been alliterative — in his 1996 Labour Party conference speech. He said:

I recall vividly the exact moment that I knew the last election was lost. I was canvassing in the Midlands, on an ordinary suburban estate. I met a man polishing his Ford Sierra. He was a self-employed electrician. His dad always voted Labour, he said. He used to vote Labour, too. But he had bought his house now. He’d set up his own business. He was doing quite nicely. “So I’ve become a Tory,” he said…

… In that moment he crystallised the basis of our failure… People judge us on their instincts of what they believe our instincts to be. And that man polishing his car was clear. His instincts were to get on in life. And he thought our instincts were to stop him.

It’s extremely likely that Sierra Man was a fictional construct, perfectly polished up to justify his radical changes to the Labour Party. But it was part of New Labour’s claim, crystallised in the 1997 manifesto, to be “the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole”.

That’s almost exactly the same rhetoric now peddled by Boris Johnson’s Tory Party, which insists it is “the people’s government”, and the disdain that Blair had for the failings of the Kinnock-era Labour Party are echoed by columnists writing about Keir Starmer now.

There have been other political ‘guys’ since Mondeo Man; most recently Workington Man (“a northern male over the age of 45 without a university degree, who enjoys rugby league, and who had previously supported Labour but voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum”) who was created by the Tory-supporting thinktank Onward and described as a “just the latest depressing political caricature,” by the Financial Times.

But Workington Man didn’t cut through in the way another two-word descriptor coined for the 2019 General Election did. “Red wall” analysis is everywhere now because it sounds a bit Game of Thrones, political hacks are lazy, and Labour under Starmer foolishly accepted the framing.

Still, book chomping thinktank goon and academic, Professor Goodwin, is obviously sore that while his book with Robert Ford — Revolt on the Right — about UKIP eating into Labour’s traditional voter base fed into the ‘Red Wall’ narrative, he didn’t coin that particular bon mot. That was pollster and Onward board member James Kanasooriam.

Goodwin has a go at creating his own ‘working-class guy’ archetype in a piece for The Sunday Times today. Behold, the Greggs Guys:

Johnson, the Old Etonian and Oxford graduate, is the beneficiary of the realignment, tapping into the “C2” skilled workers — factory workers, mechanics, plumbers and the “Greggs Guys” — who desperately want to believe in Britain and not be told on a daily basis they are ignorant racists.

Are the Greggs Guys a patronising construction of Goodwin’s fevered imagination? Almost certainly. Could the alliteration mean you’re about to hear about Greggs Guys in every report on Labour’s problems and Boris Johnson’s ‘triumphs’ for the next three years? That’s also depressingly likely.

Goodwin — who is also director of the ludicrously-named Centre for UK Prosperity at the right-wing Legatum Institute thinktank — shockingly diagnoses Labour’s problem as being that it is insufficiently right-wing and should do more to stamp out any vestiges of left-wing thinking in its policies.

Under the headline What’s the point of the Labour Party? he writes:

Labour’s humiliation in Hartlepool is a powerful reminder of a simple point: there is no guarantee that a political party will live for ever. Reduced to its lowest number of seats since 1935, plagued by infighting and now losing one cherished heartland after another, the strange death of the Labour Party is unfolding before our eyes.

…. in the 1960s, one unknown academic — Frank Parkin — suggested that the real puzzle in British politics was not why one-third of the working-class consistently voted Conservative but why so many people voted for socialism, which was fundamentally at odds with Britain’s conservative roots. The only Labour leader in recent history to buck the trend was the only one who accepted and worked with this basic reality: Blair, who also shed Labour’s socialist clothes. And so its election record over the past 40 years, as Peter Mandelson pointed out last week, reads: lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose.

Today, Labour’s disconnection from the wider country is being amplified by a new fault line separating “cosmopolitans” and “traditionalists”, which has little to do with class and much more to do with people’s age, level of education and also their geography: it is values that are now doing the heavy lifting.

Cosmopolitans are the young, university-educated, middle-class Londoners and university-towners who think that Brexit is disastrous, support rising diversity, are passionate advocates for Black Lives Matter and other worthy causes and lean toward feeling ashamed, rather than proud, of Britain’s history. Traditionalists are older, working-class, lack degrees, live in small towns and industrial heartlands and want to see a far more robust defence of the nation, its history and culture.

Now, why might an employee of a right-wing think tank, writing in a right-wing newspaper like The Sunday Times, want the Labour Party to become the Tories with a different colour scheme? And why was that the deal with the devil that Tony Blair effectively signed with Rupert Murdoch all those years ago?

In Goodwin’s piece — and in all the pieces we’ll look at in today’s edition of the newsletter — there’s a major puzzle piece missing: The role of the print and broadcast media in British politics. While hacks still — secretly or otherwise — like to think of themselves as having an “It's The Sun Wot Won It” power, they simultaneously play dumb about the role the media and its proprietors play in defining public opinion.

The inclusion of the infamous picture of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich in Goodwin’s article is instructive but not for the reasons his editor’s think. The image was chosen because, at that moment, Miliband looked silly. And it was amplified and analysed because it allowed hacks to take something trivial and elevate it into something symbolic — an indication that this guy was weird and not the sort of bloke who could share a beer with Mondeo Man.

There have been plenty of times when Boris Johnson has publicly made a tit of himself; getting stuck on a zipline and hanging there waving limp Union Jacks like a National Front Christmas tree ornament springs to mind. But the moment did not rise beyond the trivial to the level of symbolic because editors and their proprietors didn’t choose to push it that way.

The same selectiveness applies to statistics and polling. In his piece, Goodwin asserts without caveat that:

The Conservatives are more popular than Labour among people on low incomes while Labour is more popular among people on high incomes.

The right is no longer the party of the rich and the left is no longer the party of the poor.

That’s brain-meltingly simplistic and ignores who funds the Conservative Party and why. Goodwin also — as so many columnists and commentators do — acts as if young, city-dwelling graduates are not also part of the new working class — stuck in precarious work, with little prospect of owning their own homes, and with far lower salaries than some of the “traditional voters” he fetishises.

In the same paper, Rod Liddle opens his column with a grotesque portrait of the very same voters:

Handing out leaflets for the SDP in Hartlepool last Wednesday, I saw a bloke with a face so blue I thought he must have dyed it in support of the Conservative candidate. But then I looked again and it was plainly some awful affliction available only to northerners — maybe TB or rickets, or a surfeit of skag or spice.

He looked about 55 but the rule up here, if you’re from the comfortable south, is to guess the age as you would normally and then deduct 30 years. Or examine their teeth. None at all — over 50. Four or five — anything from 25 to 49…

…. [they] love their country and believe in a sense of place and belonging [and hate] the secularism; the lack of respect for the traditional family.

Once he’s got his usual reflexive offensiveness for money out of the way, Liddle hammers away at the same theory as Goodwin:

Labour did well-ish in affluent cities, especially university cities. If Starmer were to embrace the mores and aspirations of the people his party once represented, all those gains — the only ones the party has experienced recently — would vanish. So would his party membership, which is no longer made up of horny-handed trade unionists but the well-orf, the comfortable, the impeccably right-on.

Of London’s 33 boroughs, 14 are classed as deprived. The Index of Multiple Deprivation rates them as some of the poorest places in the country. But that’s a little too complicated for the columnist worldview — so if Labour does well in London, it’s because of “the well-orf”. While Conservative Party gains in the North and Midlands, among people with well-paid jobs, mortgages, and stability are signs that it appeals to “horny-handed” salt-of-the-earth folk.

Matthew Syed, writing in the same edition of the paper which includes Liddle mocking Hartlepool voters, entreats his readers to not “belittle the red wall” as “its constituents have a sound grasp of the big issues facing us all”. And why is that? Well, because he concludes they think the same things as him:

They are right on cultural issues, for a start. They distrust those who tarnish British history and who spend their time engaging in public self-flagellation, for they know that in the broad sweep of things this nation has been a force for good in the world. They are also right to distrust the “my truth versus your truth” vapidity that has become endemic in the Labour Party’s youth wing — the idea that “lived experience” counts for more than objective reality.

British history doesn’t need any outside tarnishing. It’s already so filthy from undeniable facts that a lifetime’s supply of wire wool wouldn’t scrub it clean. Syed is arguing is that the people of Hartlepool are as exorcised about these issues as Times columnists when the paper can — and does — as easily argue that they, in fact, don’t care about them at all and that’s also Labour’s problem.

He continues:

They are right to distrust cancel culture. The social-media-obsessed left believes that the culture wars are an all-or-nothing fight to the death and that it is therefore obligatory to eviscerate opponents for minor heresies. Most right-minded people, on the other hand, wish to eradicate racism and other forms of discrimination, but in a way that leads to reconciliation, not hatred. The concept of forgiveness is central to the western tradition and, by implication, the British psyche.

Both the incessant discussion of “cancel culture” and “the social-media-obsessed left” are constructions of the right-wing press. I’d be willing to bet that professional columnists spend a lot more time agonising about their chances of being cancelled than the “normal people” they love to claim to speak for.

As has been the case previously, the most honest of The Sunday Times stable is Robert Colville — one of the authors of the 2019 Tory manifesto — whose piece states frankly in the headline It’s not the Tories’ ideology that’s luring voters, it’s their big promises — so they’d better deliver. He writes:

… a striking thing about Johnson, as I’ve pointed out before, is that he is not actually that popular, at least to judge by the polls. He is certainly a perfect fit for the Tories’ new coalition of elderly, Eurosceptic, home-owning, culturally conservative voters. But outside London and, in particular, in Scotland, roughly the same number of people dislike him as like him.

In other words, the chink of light for opposition parties is that most voters’ relationship with the Conservatives is transactional rather than ideological. One Tory strategist explains the situation simply. English voters do not blame the prime minister for the Covid death toll. They reckon the government made some mistakes but was trying its best in the face of an awful crisis. They are grateful for the flood of cash that kept them and their businesses afloat — and for the extraordinary success of the vaccination programme, which contrasts so sharply with the situation across the Channel.

But this isn’t just about the pandemic. Voters like the idea of levelling up (and of more nurses, police, hospitals and so on) and feel the government deserves a chance to deliver on those promises. And the very dislocation of the Brexit crisis means they do not see this as a Tory government approaching its fifth term, but a Johnson government embarking on its first.

My view is a little more roughly stated than Colville’s — I think the Conservatives have offered a carrot and stick protection racket to voters: “Get yourself a Tory MP and we’ll invest in your local area. Don’t and you can rot.” — but we essentially agree. The keyword is “transactional” but for columnists who want to see Labour dead in a ditch, it’s more appealing to see the election results as proof that everyone buys into Boris Johnson’s bullshit and we’re on course for 10 more years of bumbling and bluffing.

One such Boris Johnson fan is serial stenographer and hyperventilating gossip hound Tim Shipman, who delivers one of his trademark fairy stories in today’s Sunday Times under the headline Will Boris Johnson’s election-winning bubble ever burst? and trailed with a breathless intro:

Demonised by the chatterati, Boris Johnson keeps on winning by appealing to the man in the street. Sleaze scandals don’t seem to stick but the prime minister knows he’s still on probation…

Shipman’s prose is so delighted that I suspect he owns a waterproof keyboard to deal with all the drool. He writes:

Tony Blair once said that politicians outstay their welcome with the public after ten years. Johnson has been a public figure for two decades and a top-tier politician for 13 and in that time has won four big electoral victories — twice seizing the London mayoralty in an ostensibly Labour city, the 2016 EU referendum and his landslide victory in the 2019 general election, the biggest Tory win since 1987. On each occasion, he outperformed the expectations of Westminster conventional wisdom — and in 2008 and 2016 achieved a win that had seemed unlikely.

This is another example of a political hack simplifying history to the level of one of the book’s you give to toddlers to chew on rather than read. The Johnson who offered himself up for election as Mayor of London was quite different to the one he presented in the Brexit vote and far from the one who pitched himself to first the Tory Party voters then the electorate as a whole.

Shipman continues…

… like Blair and Clinton in particular, Johnson has shown himself able to appeal outside his party’s traditional base. And he stands comparison only with Clinton as someone with an almost magical connection to the man in the street.

… and I suspect that’s meant as a compliment, but I reminded of the title of Christopher Hitchens’ book on the Clintons: No One Left To Lie To. It’s also worth taking the usual critique of Corbyn’s unexpectedly strong performance in the 2017 general election and retooling it to discuss Johnson’s success now:

The argument is often put that Corbyn nearly prevailed in 2017 because Theresa May was such a humourless, stiff, boring and charisma-free presence on the campaign trail. And there’s merit to that. She survived because she was the incumbent and had the threat of “not getting Brexit done” to wield.

Keir Starmer is the Theresa May of the Labour Party but without the ability to make promises of investment as a government can do. He is a charisma vacuum, a suit being held up by some inert flesh. But seeing Boris Johnson as the equivalent of a flabby boxing champ triumphing over a no-hoper journeyman is never going to be the story someone like Shipman tells. He needs Johnson to be an astounding history-defying titan, so he writes him like one:

Those who work with Johnson every day say that his mischievous personality is authentic and on display even at grave moments. On Thursday, when the Royal Navy was sent to monitor a blockade of Jersey by French fishermen, prompting headlines of “war with France”, Johnson suggested in one meeting that they deploy the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the navy’s new aircraft carrier, which is preparing for a mission to the Far East, to take on the French. “We think he was joking,” another aide said.

If Johnson wasn’t winning that anecdote would be framed as the glibness of a clown at a moment of political seriousness. But this is ‘Boris’ so it’s a cheeky aside from our ‘beloved leader’. Johnson is a leader for the banter timeline, the hero of the provisional wing of the cheeky Nandos tendency.

And on the subject of odd tendencies — woof woof — let’s look at what Lord Austin — a Labour turncoat rewarded for his disloyalty with a seat in the House of Lords and all the newspaper bylines he can eat — has to say in The Sun.

Beneath the headline Labour’s finished until it finds a cure for Long Corbyn – it needs wholesale root-and-branch reform, Austin writes with the obsessional tone of a man who checks every night to ensure that Jeremy Corbyn is not hiding under his bed that:

Complaining about so-called sleaze made no difference either. It was always going to be difficult to recover from the damage caused by Jeremy Corbyn and the hard Left… As the pits and potteries, factories, foundries and steelworks closed, Labour lost touch with Britain’s hard-working lower and middle-income majority.

As you’d expect there’s no mention of the working-class in cities, working cleaning jobs or dragging around the green lunch hunch of the Deliveroo bag because for Austin the working-class is all pit ponies and coal dust. He surrounds himself with strawmen in the absence of real friends:

[Labour] became the party of woke students, trendy graduates, public-sector professionals and the inner cities.

And as Austin and the other commentators we’ve heard from and have still to hear from today are so keen to make you realise — young people, public sector workers and, in fact, anyone who lives in a city isn’t a ‘real’ or ‘normal’ person and their votes are meaningless.

Reusing the rant he usually reserves for shouting at those damn kids with their skateboards and funny haircuts, Austin continues:

Today’s trendy Lefties really do think they are better than the rest of us. Instead of listening to people who switched to the Tories after a lifetime of voting Labour, they tut at them like exasperated teachers dealing with children who keep giving the wrong answers.

Lord Austin was ennobled for his services to the Conservative Party and he’s still paying off that debt. Elsewhere in The Sun, Tony Parsons, who would no doubt enjoy being Lord Parsons at some point in the future, joins in the game with a column headlined Labour ditched working class voters…and now they’ve ditched Labour for good.

After writing about his dear old mum, Parsons offers up the same patronising and dated notion of what and who the working class are. He writes:

Labour will not die. But Labour are more of a debating society now, sneering at the poor dumb peasants who are so stupid that we actually love this country and wouldn’t say no to a selfie with Boris…

… The cruel truth is that the working men and women of this country no longer share the same values as this miserable excuse for a Labour Party.
Labour squirm with disgust at our history, our traditions, our flag.

It’s the same game as Syed and so many other columnists are playing — making the Hartlepool win about culture war rather than, as Colville rightly identified, a transactional wish from voters for some of the money that’s being thrown around to be spent on them and their community. Parsons is screaming, “See! They agree with me! I’m not racist and neither are they!” I’m less than convinced.

And so we come to our final paper of the day — The Mail on Sunday — where the same arguments and analysis are being offered up, just madder and badder than anywhere else. The paper’s leader column uses that reheated Blair rhetoric about serving the British people with the headline The Tories, especially Boris, are now the REAL People's Party.

While the British press and its writers have repeatedly chided young people for not “picking up a paper” over the past few years, the truth is they’re not interested in what they think.

They’re as unbothered about getting young people to read what they write as the Conservative Party seems to be about getting the young to vote for it. Neither believes they need young people right now and assume that the idealism of youth will fade into the pragmatic selfishness of middle age.

When The Mail on Sunday talks about the “people’s party” what it actually means is the “people like us party”. It’s not bothered about the people who pack the Amazon boxes it receives daily or make the magic Deliveroo button work. It writes with no hint of irony:

And we are also correct when we stated that the real divide in this country no longer runs between Labour and Tory, but between the metropolitan elite and the men and women who live and work in the real Britain – hard-working, patriotic, close to the ground.

That paragraph is in The Mail on Sunday, a paper owned by Lord Rothermere, a billionaire non-dom who lives in a stately home in Wiltshire. When Paul Dacre — still the spiritual godfather of the Mail titles — was editing the daily paper, he was driven from his home to the offices every day without his foot touching that ground the Mail on Sunday is so excited about.

The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and MailOnline are all created and sustained by people who are the metropolitan elite. They live in London or other well-to-do locations and write about working-class people as either their long-dead relatives or their cleaners. The people they claim are the “metropolitan elite” live far more precarious and underpaid lives than many of the Northern traditionalists they fetishise and caricature from a distance.

It’s beyond ludicrous that cabinet minister’s wife Sarah Vine can write a column today headlined Want to meet a real bigot? Try talking to a liberal or that Oscar winner’s son Dan Hodges, the country’s most consistently awful political commentator whose most recent ‘hit’ was hammering on about the “red mole” at the heart of government, is crowing that Boris Johnson's enemies are so blinded by Brexit hatred they still can't grasp the truth that ordinary people really like him! Of all the people in Britain, Daily Mail columnists are the furthest from ‘ordinary people’.

Vine writes in her column today that:

Many have been left scratching their heads as to why ‘Wallpapergate’ had little or no effect on Boris’s polls performance. 

My theory is that his behaviour actually makes him more relatable, not less. 

Spending beyond your means and borrowing to pay for it is a familiar pattern. 

Messy relationships, love affairs, fallibility: it’s how humans actually live. 

It’s a patronising perspective on ‘ordinary people’, dragging them down to Boris Johnson’s level and also takes a tone that Vine often uses which pretends that she doesn’t actually know ‘Boris’ very well and isn’t, in fact, married to one of his most powerful frenemies.

It’s not that Keir Starmer isn’t bad at his job and a disaster for Labour but that the story the British newspapers are largely telling is partisan, partial and puffed up beyond belief. The reason for the Tory win is clear — money — but that’s a little too obvious and wouldn’t allow columnists and commentators to revel in the drama or push the angle that Labour is dead. Look for the voices of young people in this cacophony and you’ll find they’re barely there at all…