Margaret Mullane – Paul Embery, Celebrity and representing the working class

Happy New Year everyone!  I have been meaning to write a piece about politics for a while but have not found the time – until now.

I have not long finished reading a book called ‘Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class’, by Paul Embery. I would encourage everyone to read it. Many of the themes will be familiar to anyone that knows me, has heard me speak or has read my blog posts. The key message running through the book is the need for the modern Labour party to engage and listen to the working class.

Reading this book had me reflect on our relationship with the media, class, celebrities and political engagement.  I wanted to draw to people’s attention something I noticed during the Covid lockdowns. Speaking to politically engaged people, I have often heard the sentiment repeated that, ‘I don’t like Piers Morgan, but you have to admire how he tackles politicians on Good Morning Britain’. I must confess here that I do not watch Good Morning Britain and do not find Piers Morgan likeable or admirable, but it brings me to the question – why is it left to him to hold the Government to account?

Piers Morgan is paid £1.1 million every year for sharing his opinions on Good Morning Britain and has an estimated personal fortune of £15.8 million. While I do not begrudge him his success, Piers Morgan went to Cumnor House Private Boys’ School for his education and is about the furthest thing from the working class that I can imagine short of the Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates of the world. Bear this in mind when he is ‘holding the Education Secretary to task’ and trying to depict himself as the voice of reason.  He presents himself as an ‘everyman’ – creating an unconvincing pretence of distance between himself and many of the Eton-educated Tory MPs and Ministers that he self-righteously tears down.

I like my T.V. as much as the next person, but it is fascinating that Piers Morgan holds such an esteemed place in the world of British politics without holding office. I would not expect to hear Micky Flanagan’s extended opinions on Brexit or social housing, but this kind of political engagement is happening more and more with ‘celebrities’.

It is the politicians that you vote for who should be challenging the Government – your local Councillors and MPs. I feel a void has occurred where political parties have told MPs and Councillors that they will be whipped on decisions and have little latitude to express their own opinions, keeping to the adage that divided parties do not win elections.

Political programmes are in decline. Many programmes, instead of asking politicians their stance on an issue, will go to a celebrity. I recall during the first lockdown seeing TV programmes showing celebrities lecturing the public from their holiday homes abroad to stay at home. This disconnect between their realities and the realities of the average working-class citizen of this country could not be starker.

When the national media decide politicians are boring, they will then turn to those they see as the voice of the people. Nigel Farage is another example; he does not hold elected office and is essentially a failed politician, but he is on many national media programmes playing ‘ordinary bloke at the pub’ when he is anything but. The scrutiny is selective. His followers cry on Twitter that he should get a peerage for all the ‘good’ he has done.

Politics is tough, and politicians need to be able to hold their own against differing opinions. Just because someone has an opposing view does not make them wrong.  In my opinion, political parties are mistaken in asking for celebrity endorsements and it can even be damaging for the celebrity. I never quite felt the same about Gary Barlow after he stated he had voted Tory.

Has anyone noticed a theme in the different people I am speaking about? They are all male and they are all wealthy. The female working class voice is essentially silent in the national discourse, as are regional perspectives. Something I have said before and will say again is that there are not enough working-class MPs in Parliament, and especially in the Labour Party. If the public could hear a voice that sounds like them and has lived a life closer to their own, the world of politics may become more accessible and engaging to them. If the right people do not go into politics, then the wrong people do – those who are hungry for power and money. With this power they can be extremely dangerous due to a short-sighted obsession with playing politics like it is a game rather than an essential public service. Many current politicians have far more interest in serving their career ambitions, their bank accounts and the interests of wealthy donors and business associates than in serving the public.

We are left with a conversation dominated by wealthy celebrities, wealthy politicians and relatively wealthy journalists. Where is the voice of someone who understands what it is like to struggle on Universal Credit through no fault of their own or who has relied on schools to provide their children with vital nutrition when the budget just will not stretch far enough?

I am not saying that celebrity engagement is always a bad thing and can never make a positive impact – Marcus Rashford springs to mind. But the potential danger I see is when celebrity opinions supersede those of elected politicians and are afforded little scrutiny.  Vacuums can occur and the likes of Donald Trump, who claims to have the interests of the workers of America at heart, will step up and fill it. The question is not why America voted for this former celebrity millionaire, but why the voting public saw no viable alternative.

As we enter 2021 and I see the inequalities deepen for our communities, I will continue to highlight the inequality that the Tories have heaped on working class communities and I will continue to work to be a voice for those without one.

Margaret Mullane is Cabinet Member for Community Safety on Barking and Dagenham Council and Secretary of Dagenham and Rainham Labour Party – this post first appeared on her blog

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