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13 June 2024

Keir Starmer, toolmakers and the death of the working-class hero

Why his story of individual aspiration has failed to resonate.

By Jennifer Jasmine White

Do working-class heroes still exist? Judging by how Keir Starmer carved out his personal brand on Sky News’s leaders’ special last night, Labour’s speechwriters certainly think so. The campaign is trundling on, and those playing “drink every time Starmer drops a class-conscious cliché” may find themselves inebriated for much of June. Once again, the Labour leader reminded us that his dad was a toolmaker, though he didn’t get round to telling us his mum’s phone was cut off, and he was the first in his family to go to university.

For a knight of the realm, and the man once rumoured to have inspired the ultimate Noughties middle-class dreamboat, Mark Darcy, this kind of forced relatability is an essential strategy. Faced by an opponent with more personal wealth than the King, it should also be a winning approach. But something about Starmer’s aspirational narrative has failed to land. Voters remain confused about his origin story. Few are inspired by it. And yet his biography is genuine and inherently sympathetic. Why is it, then, that nobody seems to care?

The problem isn’t the idea of a working-class hero, so much as the specific brand of social mobility that Starmer represents. In referencing the eleven-plus, his time as a “superboy” student (as his siblings called him), and the against-the-odds degrees from Leeds and Oxford, Starmer appeals to a sacred tradition of scholarship-boy supremacy. More Paul McCartney than John Lennon, it’s a tradition of nice-boys-done-good, with hard work as the ultimate class passport.

This is a trope with an established vintage. The love affair between the left and its grammar-school boys dates back to the aftermath of the Second World War, when many of modern Britain’s creation myths were spun. The 1944 Education Act would make many like Starmer the first in their families to go to university. His language is a legacy of that moment, of self-made boys exchanging redbrick terrace or crowded tenement for quadrangle and honeyed stone. Suddenly, an ossified class system turned into something that looked like a scalable ladder. Since then, though, that ladder has been largely kicked away, and working-class success stories along with it.

Some may suggest this is a product of cultural levelling: that, after decades of demonisation, underfunded state education, and endless hypnotic whispers that we’re all middle class now, it’s no longer cool to consciously identify as working class in Britain. Finn McRedmond has already argued that Starmer’s Labour is almost entirely bereft of cultural backing, a result of the malicious erosion of working-class culture in recent decades. It’s not that Starmer wouldn’t want to invite today’s equivalent of Noel Gallagher to Downing Street; the depressing reality is that figures like Gallagher are now much harder to come by. Put simply, many of the paths taken by kids like them, be it to a first-class degree, or headlining Glastonbury, are rapidly being closed off.

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While it might not be cool, Britain remains a country that is made up of low-earning, working people. The majority aren’t engaged by Starmer’s story because they’re intelligent enough to know that the mechanisms by which they and their children might replicate his path are limited. We could take university education as one example – my own student debt weighs in at around £75,000, and I’m one of the lucky ones.

Yet if we think the problem is purely outdatedness, we might want to listen a little more closely to the original scholarship boys themselves. The New Left of the Sixties featured the rise of public academics like Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams. They used their experiences of class transition as inspiration for their academic work. These men were pioneers, celebrated for the emotional nuance they brought to the recounting of social mobility. Sixty-six years after Hoggart described working-class kids on their way into a middle-class world as “anxious and uprooted”, the continuing relevance of works such as his The Uses of Literacy or Williams’ Border Country shows how depressingly little has changed. Yet these are the tales from which dreams are still made: work harder, working-class kids, and you too might find yourself feeling alienated at an Oxbridge high table.

I did, twice over. I had great teachers, even better parents and, after a brief boost from a grammar sixth form, found myself knocking back bottles of room-temperature wine with Britain’s elite. It’s a story that both the right and the left love, but it’s a deeply flawed one: it is unfair, outdated and simply uninteresting for the 29 kids in my class that didn’t come down the M1 with me. In fact, if that experience taught me anything, it was that, ironically, social mobility is a big fat lie. The sanctioned entry of a handful of poor kids into elite institutions does nothing to challenge the structural inequalities that are rampant in this country. It doesn’t now, and it didn’t in postwar Britain.

If the scholarship boys were our saviours, why does it feel like so little has improved since they were catapulted up to the ivory tower? Because, we might finally admit, Starmer’s scholarship-boy parable is built on a myth. To suggest as much isn’t to deny his personal integrity, but to diagnose and deconstruct the empty narrative of democratised mobility – a narrative that it’s time the Labour Party stopped peddling. The scholarship-boy model has always served a conservative agenda, prioritising individual liberation over meaningful social change. And for the working-class people that have long known this, it’s hard to be inspired by superboy Starmer, and the paternalistic fictions of individual boys-done-good that he grounds his biography in.

[See also: What Raymond Williams taught me]

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