The vajazzled middle.

by Dan Hodges

Harriet Harman or Katie Price. Who is the most compelling role model?

To us, it’s an easy answer. The glamorous, media savvy stunner was always going to edge out the artist formally known as Jordan. Alex Reid? Tough? Has he ever met Jack Dromey?

Sadly, our view is not shared by the producers of Today. Seasoned BBC journalists are up in arms at news that the retired page 3 empress will guest edit their program. “It is showing a certain contempt for the audience”, said one BBC source. “They are quite a high-brow lot”.

The BBC aristocracy may cringe. But we sneer at our peril. Because whether we like it or not, for a significant proportion of young working class women, Katie Price is their Harriet Harman. Tough. Successful. Empowering.

My wife recently attended a debate on the “Pricey phenomenon”. One contributor described her as “Vichy France with tits”.  Katie Price that is, not my wife.

It’s a great line. But whether we regard Price as an appropriate ambassador for post-feminism, or a Trojan horse in a g-string, is irrelevant. We’re not her market. They are: “Bernadette and Keilly McCrory, 26 and 24 respectively, who think she is “brilliant, just dead down to earth, just a really nice, normal girl”. Ashley Ribair, 22, who says: “She’s just someone you can relate to. She’s been through such a lot but she’s just a real role model in the way she’s dealt with it”. Kayleigh Sansom, 19, who said she’d read her first book “when I was pregnant and was going to be a single mother and I just thought if she can cope, then so can I”.

That’s not some ad blurb. That’s from the Observer: “she inspires the kind of devotion that will inspire nearly 1,000 women to queue in the freezing cold outside Borders in Wallsend on a Wednesday morning in February”.

Katie Price may not be our cup of tea. But her constituency is our constituency. And if we can’t start to connect with her audience, we’re not connecting with our own.

The big dividing line in today’s Labour party is not between left and right, relevant though those definitions remain. Nor is it between old and new Labour, however much the corpses conduct their St Vitus’ dance. The gap is between those who wish to construct our narrative around a liberal and intellectual political prospectus, and those who seek a dialogue grounded in the language and identity of Labour’s lost working class. Do we speak to Today listeners? Or do we speak to Katie’s?

Earlier in the week I caught my first glimpse of another cultural juggernaut, The Only Way Is Essex; TOWIE to those in the know.  Part soap, part documentary, it follows the lives and loves of a “typical” cross-section of Brentwood youth. As an illustration of working class culture, it’s about as representative as Dallas would be of life in the American south. But while a caricature, it is instructive in its perception of identity and aspiration.

To me, the world of fake tans, furious club nights and a staggering form of self adornment known as the “vajazzle”, were incomprehensibly inaccessible. But, again, I’m not the audience. And, again, how do we as a party start to engage with generation vajazz?

Through community organising? Occupations of Millbank Tower? Vodaphone demos? Come between a TOWIE cast member and their mobile and you’d be taking your life in your hands.

For years we operated in the complacent belief that because we identified with the working and lower middle classes they identified with us. But the growing disconnect – not just in terms of ability to share an outlook, but even to share a common language – has cost us dear.

This is lazily attributed to the advent of New Labour. But the seeds were sown well before then. I remember Johnny Speight, the creator of Alf Garnett, describing how he was canvassing for the party in the East End in the early eighties. He knocked on the door of council house which had a patch of grass outside, too small to be described as a garden. The occupant took one look at Speight and growled, “Get off my land”. That exchange didn’t simply represent a shift of support. It presaged the construction of a sociological Berlin Wall.

A wall New Labour then supplemented with guard towers and machine gun nests. Though not at first. Tony Blair was very adept at engaging with the working class. Because he was personally so divorced from working class culture he carried no preconceptions. Blair’s idea of what working people wanted was what his constituents in Sedgefield said they wanted. He had no other point of reference.

But that process of engagement was ultimately subordinated to the needs of the project. It is commonly perceived that Labour drifted apart form its traditional support base. There was no drift. Once defining Labour against its past became the political imperative, Checkpoint Tony was deliberately sealed off. “The fact is”, one of Blair’s Downing Street officials told me, “our traditional base has nowhere else to go”. For a while that was true. Then Nick Griffin showed up.

Blaming Blair is cathartic. But too easy. Look at the recent Unite general secretary election. Turn out was sixteen percent. Nearly eighty five percent of trade unionists – not Blairite paper activists, trade unionists – couldn’t be bothered to express a preference over who leads them. In the Labour leadership election, that apathy among trade unionists rose to ninety percent.

This is not just about disillusionment or betrayal. At least betrayal is indicative of a fire that still smolders. What we’ve witnessed is the depoliticisation of entire swathes of Labour’s constituency.

Scrapping CCTV. Lenient sentencing. Opposing the migration cap. Criticising benefit reform. Anti-consumerism. Increasing petrol duty. Targeting cheap flying. These are just some of the policy areas that threaten to drive the wedge deeper.

That doesn’t mean we should pander. Totemic policy gestures will be quickly identified and dismissed. On some areas, such as immigration, our engagement should be honest but robust. But we need to start a process of engagement that speaks not just at people, but to them. And we, not they, need to learn the new language of that discourse.

Some of us may feel they’ve got their party back. But it’s not the people who queue in the rain to meet Katie Price, or get two for the price of one at happy hour in the Sugar Hut. The route back to power doesn’t lead past burning police vans in Whitehall. It snakes down Brentwood high street, and a thousand other less rarefied locations where those Labour voters with no where else to go are getting by pretty well without us.

Meanwhile, of course, we have our own TOWIE branding.  The Only Way Is Ed. It’s young and fresh. But does it vajazzle?

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.


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6 Responses to “The vajazzled middle.”

  1. Andy H says:

    Very well written.

  2. Super Bees Fan says:

    Once again Brentford and Brentwood are confused. One is the home of West London’s best football club – run by the fans, for the fans; the other is the home of Eric Pickles.

  3. Richard Scorer says:

    Interesting piece. The benefit reform issue is a real challenge. There is a pretty widespread perception amongst many working class voters that many benefit claimants are lazy spongers , girls having 6 kids with 5 different fathers and getting a freecouncil house etc. Polly Toynbee on Radio 5 this morning kept pointing out (in her posh voice) that the actual figures belie this perception, but the callers were having none of it. It would certainly help in this debate if we had some working class MPs who sound like they know and understand real life. ie instead of former SPADs.

  4. Londoner says:

    Excellent article. I was absolutely glued to the Only Way is Essex, watching in horror and amusement every time. If we don’t reconnect with people like that we’d doomed at the next election…

  5. Dan,

    You do know she is a Thatcherite? On the record wants a crack-down on benefits scroungers, lower taxes and is a neighbour of Mad Frankie Maude?

    Don’t think she’ll be voting for socialist Red Ed any time soon.

  6. Good piece.

    I don’t think the problem is Griffin so much, however. He resonates in some sections, but frankly in plenty of areas beating the BNP is one of the few lines that works at getting people to vote. They had nowhere else to go, but the result was that they didn’t go to the polling station.

    All that said, the notion that the road to victory goes via Brentwood is lunacy. It’s the heartland of the middle-class Essex Torydom and has been for at least 90 years. Harlow or Basildon is more what you’re talking about.

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