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14 May 2018updated 01 Aug 2021 12:25pm

Is the new left-wing insult “gammon” racist towards white men?

The latest put-down among Jeremy Corbyn supporters is facing backlash.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The new left’s online lexicon has always riled its political opponents.

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn rose to power, young, media-savvy supporters on social media have developed their own slang. Their leader is the “absolute boy”; if you’re a Labour moderate or Corbynsceptic, you’re a “melt”; “centrist dads” whine about Brexit and long for the days of “common sense” politics; and “slugs” – political enemies – can be “salted”.

When I asked those who use this language about it last year, I ended up describing a whole new political culture. The slang has helped to create a united community, but has also been used by Corbyn supporters to define themselves against the general dismissal and mockery from the mainstream political commentariat.

Their name-calling and in-jokes felt alienating to some online (who were at the receiving end), but politics has never been short of idiosyncratic insults (“melts” personally reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s “wets”). The new left lingo grew out of a particularly confrontational time in British politics – let’s not forget Corbyn-backing MPs being called “moronic” by Labour commentator John McTernan on live TV, and the FT columnist Janan Ganesh tweeting (then deleting) that Corbynistas were “thick as pigshit”.

But the latest insult has caused the most backlash. “Gammon” has increasingly become shorthand for a conservative middle-aged man, who is raging and red in the face when voicing his opinions, which are generally unimaginative tropes swallowed straight from right-wing tabloids.

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Going by my memory, “gammon” was first used as a political put-down in columns by The Times journalist Caitlin Moran, who used the term to describe the infamously puce David Cameron when he was prime minister. In 2010, she described him as “a C-3PO made of ham”, and wrote of his “resemblance to a slightly camp gammon robot”.

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Last year, a tweeter pointed out the identical scarlet and irate expressions of Question Time audience members during the post-general election special, calling them the “Great Wall of gammon”. This led to the use of a hashtag to mock over-representation of middle-aged white men: “#wallofgammon”.

But the first person to popularise the term among the new left was Matt Zarb-Cousin, Corbyn’s former spokesperson. He called a man “gammon” who defended Jacob Rees-Mogg, after protestors interrupted the Tory MP’s speech at a university in February.

It was then that some replying to Zarb-Cousin’s tweet online referred to the word as a racial slur  – an accusation resurrected over the weekend by the Democratic Unionist Party MP Emma Little-Pengelly.

“I’m appalled by the term ‘gammon’ now frequently entering the lexicon of so many (mainly on the left),” she tweeted yesterday. “This is a term based on skin colour and age – stereotyping by colour or age is wrong no matter what race, age or community.”

But like reverse sexism, this argument doesn’t wash among the left – particularly not when used by right-wingers who usually reject what they dismiss as “identity politics”.

“It’s funny that it’s the same people who would say ‘oh, it’s political correctness gone mad’ for anything regarding women or queer people or ethnic minorities, who are like ‘oh my God, I am the victim of a hate crime – someone call Trevor Phillips!’” says Ash Sarkar, senior editor of left-wing platform Novara Media.

She rejects the idea that “any observation of skin tone ever is therefore racist. Racism is obviously intimately connected with our material condition”, arguing that it’s unlikely anyone who has been called a “gammon” has been “violently arrested, denied employment or attacked in the street –because that’s not the same as something like the n-word or p**i”.

She feels the main reason the term riles people up is because their claim to having “common sense” politics is being questioned. “If you are a white, property-owning, middle-aged, middle-England man, which is kind of the figure being held up here, you’re used to your politics being universal,” she says. “If you name it and make fun of it, you are really questioning that claim to authority.”

Yet a Times column this morning suggests there is a class-based element to the insult. “It is obviously a statement about culture and class,” writes the columnist Lucy Fisher. “Gammons are backward, provincial embarrassments.” Although she does concede that it has been aimed at “wealthy aristocrats” as well as “unskilled workers” and “small business owners”.

Without a demographic study of the consumption of gammon (get on it, British Attitudes Survey), it’s difficult to tell which class with which it’s most associated.

As a rather old-fashioned, traditionally English food, it rings truer to me as a lampoon of older people who are suspicious of change – stereotypical diners in National Trust property canteens and country pubs. (The only time I’ve encountered gammon while out on the campaign trail was when I had lunch with Ken Clarke in his Nottinghamshire constituency just before the 2015 election.)

One thing certainly up for debate is whether name-calling based on someone’s appearance is where the new progressive culture wishes to be.

Sunder Katwala, who runs the British Future integration think tank, tweeted this morning that “if the left’s project tries to challenge discourse on decency boundaries”, then defending “playground” language is “a massive own goal”.

And Barbara Speed of the i asks “why (in the view of some left-wing people) it’s fine for them to laugh at someone’s appearance, but not fine when other people do it”.

Yet, for all the lack of table manners, taking offence on behalf of politically-engaged white men and the disenfranchised gammon-eating masses in Labour’s industrial heartlands feels like a bit too much to swallow.

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