Voices: The Angela Rayner row isn’t just sexist – it’s classist, too

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This is further proof – if any was needed – that the classism running like a thick vein through Britain’s public life is still healthy indeed (AFP via Getty Images)
This is further proof – if any was needed – that the classism running like a thick vein through Britain’s public life is still healthy indeed (AFP via Getty Images)

Claims by unnamed Conservative MPs in the Mail on Sunday that Labour deputy leader, Angela Rayner, tries to put Boris Johnson “off his stride” by crossing and uncrossing her legs in the House of Commons – like a fully-clothed Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct – isn’t just disgusting misogyny. It’s deeply classist, too.

One MP is reported as saying: “She knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks. She has admitted as much when enjoying drinks with us on the [Commons] terrace.”

There’s no hidden inference here – the classist snobbery is right out in the open, plain for all to see. Angela Rayner didn’t go to Oxford University, she wasn’t in the elite Oxford Union debating society – and so she has to rely on shifting her working class, womanly legs about in PMQs in order to fluster the erudite and much better educated Johnson. Or something.

It’s enough to make anyone heave into their lunchtime Pret. As if Angela Rayner, by far the better PMQs performer, needs to rely on her “feminine wiles” to defeat the Oxford graduate across the despatch box. The Mail goes on to describe Rayer as “a grandmother who left school at 16 while pregnant and with no qualifications before becoming a care worker”, just to really hammer the point home.

This is further proof – if any was needed – that the classism running like a thick vein through Britain’s public life is still healthy indeed. Oxford graduates and those who attended private schools are vastly overrepresented in parliament, in the judiciary, in the diplomatic service, in the House of Lords, and among civil service permanent secretaries. People from similar backgrounds to Rayner are in the minority.

In 2020, members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet were nine times more likely to have attended an independent school than the general population – 65 per cent were educated at fee-paying schools. A massive 70 per cent of all Tory MPs went to Oxbridge. As we’ve seen over the last six months, the intense privilege of those holding political power tends to ooze out in all sorts of unpleasant ways. Is it any wonder, one might ask, that the Conservatives are the party of sleaze and second jobs and boozing, while people died alone? The party of “one rule for us, another for them” is entitlement at its most striking – and ugly.

In the Elitist Britain 2019 report, the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission found that “power rests with a narrow section of the population – the 7 per cent who attend private schools and the 1 per cent who graduate from Oxford and Cambridge.” The report describes a “pipeline” from fee-paying schools, to Oxbridge and then into top jobs.

The media isn’t exempt either – the report found that of the 100 most influential news editors and broadcasters, 43 per cent went to fee-paying schools. Among newspaper columnists, 44 per cent were privately educated and a third (33 per cent) went to private schools and Oxbridge. Class bias in media careers has been exacerbated by a culture of new starters cutting their teeth on unpaid internships, the importance of contacts and parental support – and regional snobbery.

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The thing about privilege – any kind, really – is that those who have it tend to be extremely unwilling to let it go. In jobs where elitism and class privilege is rife, there is often a “club” mentality, where those deemed “outsider” or “other” – due to the kind of school or university they went to, or what accent they have, or how well-off and well-connected their family is – are made to feel different and unwelcome.

This is, in part, what the snide comments about Angela Rayner are doing. She’s not like the 70 per cent of Tory MPs who graduated from Oxbridge, and they’re reminding her – and every other working class woman with the temerity to get involved in public life – of that. This isn’t new territory for Rayner. She’s already faced classist accent policing as deputy Labour leader, and been compared to Catherine Tate’s “Am I bovvered?” character Lauren.

This most recent row is an attempt to reduce Rayner to some sort of uneducated, unskilled, working class temptress. Unfortunately for the unnamed Tory MPs involved, it shows them for what they really are: threatened by someone who has overcome class obstacles they have no understanding of, to achieve a position where she faces the prime minister as deputy leader of the opposition – and does bloody well at it, too.

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