Last month Louise Mensch wrote a column for The Sun on Sunday berating the speculation that Benefit Street’s star White Dee might pursue a career in politics. The piece was entitled “White Dee MP? So, not too sick to work”, eyebrows raised I read on. “Get a bloody job, after that then you can run for parliament”, Mensch spits. But hold on minute, she’s saying being an MP isn’t a job? Our government is full of people who we could argue have never had a ‘proper’ job, Old Etonians and the like who are so disconnected to the needs of real people. Why is this silver spoon brigade not supposed to do their time being someone who works in “a factory, men who drive cabs, school dinner ladies, builders and plumbers”, as Mensch prescribes to Dee. The reason is class, pure and simple. The frustrating thing is that it probably isn’t just this ‘tough, outspoken and sharpe’, former Tory that feels this way. Time and time again our media and the ruling classes scrutinize and set standards to working class people that they would never impress on their own. This assumption that working class people need to aspire to ‘working class jobs’ before even considering a career somewhere that is dominated by the upper middle classes, leaves me lost for words.
Dee and the other unemployed members of her street are described as “basically lifting from their neighbours and undermining the welfare state”, Mensch does her job as controversial columnist. She is writing for a very specific audience with a very clear voice and she will know that this will send heads nodding along to the same old stories of scroungers and laziness. But sorry Louise, it doesn’t wash with me. The welfare state is there to protect our most vulnerable, it’s there to look after people like White Dee who have struggled to find work or who are suffering from an illness or disability. White Dee has been quite open about her struggles with mental health problems, something you can’t see when you look at her. The psychological effects of press like this cannot help, nor does this mean we should write her or anyone else off from taking on a political career if she felt well enough.
There is a lot of talk at the moment about privilege. About how some people can fail to recognise the barriers placed in front those who may not be as fortunate as themselves. This is a conversation had within the circles of the left, scrutinizing each other and calling each other out. Which I truly believe is a good thing. It’s something that is done without even realising it, often people of certain privileges believe that everyone has had the same opportunities they have. I’m turning my attentions here to the rich / poor divide, something that I have encountered for a long time and to be honest it’s time I took a stand against attitudes that I find really damaging.
You know how it goes; you’re introduced to a friend of a friend you’re stuck in polite conversation for most of the night. Normally this can be a harmless and pleasurable social exercise but on other occasions you can be paired with someone who couldn’t be more opposite to yourself. A casual comment on the rate of unemployment and you fall into a whole world of bitterness that you’re not even sure where it come from. And there is one phrase I loath to hear, the short of phrase that you can hear come from a mile away, “Why don’t they just get a job?”. In relation to working class people who aren’t working, never were the middle classes mentioned it was always those seen as poor. Increasingly when communicating with a certain type of person about the rise of food banks and people living under the poverty line, I’m met with that all too familiar reaction. This lady thought that because she had been to university and managed to get herself a high paying job that everybody else is able to do exactly the same thing. As if they were just too lazy to try.
There are so many contributing factors to success such as; class, wealth, social expectations, where you live, personality, disability, family and the community you identify with. We all have variations of this in our lives and no part diversity is wrong but we need to understand with a class structure like we have in this county not everyone is born with a fair shot at the types of career or wealth our society holds so much value on. Our belief in capitalism is so strong we run the risk of disenfranchising people who don’t fit a mould, dictated by people I can’t say represent me or my opinions.
Last year I did a survey with of 50 people, I asked them what they thought was the most important quality to teach our children. I’d originally wanted to ask people what they thought was the best quality a person could have but thought again. I wanted to know ideals, not just traits that would get you by. The most popular attribute was empathy, the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. I was encouraged by this, even people who I didn’t expect to hear it from, it kept coming up. The other suggestions were respect, kindness and on one occasion love. None of these represent the attitudes we hear time and time again about people who are unemployed, the people who labelled as lazy or scroungers.
I’m sick of sitting back and being polite to people who think the rich are rich because they deserve to be, or that being wealthy is in somehow a quality that makes certain people better than others. I don’t believe it is. I think the people I spoke to were right, the qualities that we should value aren’t wealth or class, its empathy.