Comment: Working class people are the victims of kneejerk prejudice

By Symon Hill

Attacking working-class people in general, and the poorest in particular, has become a routine activity for many mainstream politicians and columnists in the UK – as the response to Labour MP Emily Thornberry's ambiguous tweet shows.

The Tories and Lib Dems have slashed public services that are most needed by those who can't afford to go private. Labour is so scared of appearing left-wing that it's offering no meaningful alternative. The right-wing press carry lurid stories of benefit cheats, ignoring the evidence that less than one per cent of benefit claims are fraudulent. Faced with a lack of social housing and vicious private sector rents, the party leaders fail to challenge the rhetoric that blames lack of homes on immigrants.

It seems to be acceptable to attack working-class voters, destroy their services and remove their benefits. What appears to be unacceptable is to criticise working class people who may be nationalistic – or even post a tweet with a photo of a house decked out in large English flags, with a white van in the drive.

Of course Thornberry's tweet was silly and ill-judged. Some might have taken it as an implication that the household was racist or associated with Ukip. It turns out that the house's owner, Dan Ware, doesn't believe in voting and had displayed the flags at the time of the football world cup. Displaying three large flags on your house to show which football team you support may, to some people, look slightly ridiculous, rather like houses decked out with over-the-top Christmas lights. But that's up to Dan Ware and his family; there is no reason to think they are racist.

Surely it would have been enough for Thornberry to apologise for any offence caused and to clarify that she was not accusing the household of being racist. But this would not have been enough for those bent on peddling some twisted – and commonly accepted – ideas about class, race and nationality.

When I joined the Labour party as a working class teenager in the 90s, I discovered that snobbery could be just as common on the left as on the right. As a student in Oxford, I found my class background triggered prejudice from wealthy socialists as well as wealthy Tories.

One of the most common prejudices against working class people is that they are racist, sexist, homophobic or at least very nationalistic. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard middle class liberals imply that working class people are more likely to be racist. This displays a prejudice against working class people that is just as bad as the racial prejudice they are trying to attack. Some go further, making excuses for those working class people who are racist, suggesting it is because they are not "educated". Such excuses – from supposedly progressively-minded people – promote racism and anti-working class assumptions at the same time. They also let middle-class and upper-class racists off the hook. You only have to see the number of former Tory voters defecting to Ukip to see that racism and xenophobia can find supporters in all classes.

Many of those criticising Thornberry's tweet have suggested that laughing at nationalistic imagery is somehow anti-working class. In an interview on the Today programme, Labour MP John Mann said: "England flags: They're Labour values and actually pretty routine Labour values for most of us." Really? It seems that 'routine Labour values' do not involve standing up to prejudices about working class people's attitudes.

His colleague Simon Danczuk told the Sun: "It's like the Labour party has been hijacked by the north London liberal elite." We do not have a liberal elite in Britain but a neo-liberal elite. They are attacking the working class and lower middle class through austerity while using nationalistic feelings to blame problems on migrants and to justify the sixth highest military budget in the world.

Austerity policies represent an assault on the mass of the population in the interests of the rich. To resist them effectively, we need to challenge all that divides us, including class prejudice and racism. We cannot do this by running scared of the Daily Mail, Tory ministers and nationalism. We can do it only by standing up to them.

Symon Hill is a tutor for the Workers' Educational Association and an associate of the Ekklesia thinktank. His books include The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age, both published by New Internationalist.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.