A Rebel Rant With Janet Street-Porter; A Class Act

A Rebel Rant with Janet Street-Porter: A Class Act.[1]

Does class still matter in Britain today?

03 05 2013 at The Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool.

Val Walsh

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 Janet Street-Porter started her opening sentence with a judicious, adverbial “fucking”, testing the Liverpool water. Having seen that this was a button that elicited instant and uncontrollable laughter, she punctuated her talk with several more adverbial “fucking”s. It was a significant early clue as to how the evening would proceed. (It worked every time.) She had been billed as “media personality, journalist and broadcaster”, and that was the order for the occasion.  She knows how a ‘joke’ can distract or disarm an audience, invite them to take their eye off the critical and political ball, and just sink back into feeling comforted, reassured. And maybe she knows this is especially true in Liverpool, where great value is placed on having a laugh and being entertained, no matter how dire the prevailing social and political circumstances.

 Street-Porter’s approving references to UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, were another clue, as she aligned herself with someone else who practises this strategy, which is actually politically manipulative and cynical, unless you are professionally performing as stand up. By contrast, rather than going for the easy laugh, stand ups Eddie Izzard, Rich Hall and Reginald D Hunter bring the full weight of their creative and intellectual power together with their political conscience and intelligence, to produce humour that challenges and disturbs audience comfort zones, and extends and enriches our understandings as social beings in the neoliberal disaster area we call ‘society’ or life. I make the comparison because this had not been billed as stand up, but it bore comparison to other male stand ups, products of the neoliberal years, who ply their craft in a very different way to the three mentioned above. The shock titillation brigade who do us no favours.

 As well as endorsing Farage, she cited Esther McVey approvingly, thereby backing two of the UK’s most rightwing politicians, who would take us even further to the Right than the existing government. This was another clue. A third MP she approved of was a doctor who simply hitched herself to the Tory party “because it was the quickest way to get elected in her area”. How opportunistic and instrumental: how very ‘modern’ and neoliberal for career advancement to provide the only guiding ‘principle’ for political action. Another clue. (I wouldn’t hitch a ride with a Tory-driven car, even if it were the only car on the road.)

 On the other hand, she made a mocking remark about Labour MP, Ed Balls, and in response to a question from the audience, a contemptuous dig at Ed Miliband re. his use of the term “hardworking families”. This is Tory language, which the LP should never have ‘borrowed’ for its own purposes. But if she thinks Labour’s two Eds are the real enemy at the moment, what price her political judgement or her social and political values? What does she stand for actually? She was keeping that under wraps for the occasion, but, as indicated above, these clues kept slipping out as the evening progressed. And my feminist, left-inclined heart just kept on sinking after that first “fucking”. . .  .

 Back to basics: education.
In  2013, faced with a government waging an all-out class attack on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, including both working-class people and people in the middle; a government hell-bent on dismantling as fast as it can, the social institutions that were established in the postwar period to improve people’s lives (such as the NHS, state education, social care, social housing) but which had most impact on working-class lives, it is clear that social class issues in the UK and in Liverpool must count as urgent and serious matters of public and personal concern. Instead of doing a forensic trawl through Street-Porter’s talk, I will focus on a couple of key ‘absences’ and some revealing contradictions.

She appeared to reiterate the importance of education for working-class children and young people, but this amounted to an emphasis on literacy and communication skills for working-class and poor people. She recommended a return to the postwar demarcation between academic education and vocational training, the latter to improve the lot of a working-class seen as unable to benefit from an education that provides research and critical thinking skills, as well as a broadening of social skills via meeting and mixing with people from different educational and social backgrounds and regions to yourself.

Part of her argument stressed the need for more electricians, plumbers, etc., to service the homes of (mainly) richer people (like herself). (She used her own problem in finding a plumber to support this strategy.) So her ‘vision’ for education was limited to its purpose as preparation for paid employment only. Yet she failed to mention the significance of the ConDem’s withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, introduced by New Labour for poorer students entering FE: a small weekly sum that made a crucial difference to those students and their parent(s).

Turning her attention to HE, she derided Media Studies and said that most university courses are irrelevant, crap, apart from the classical university curriculum, such as philosophy, politics, economics (useful for journalists apparently, unlike Media Studies). My question at the end (too late) was: Would you also bin Women’s Studies, Gender Studies, Post Colonial Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, Cultural Studies, Social Geography, for example? Those new disciplines, the ‘Studies’, that Thatcher so hated (even more than Sociology).

The evidence from working-class lives that have been transformed by education, in particular FHE, suggests that the transformative effect is equally if not greater regarding the whole person: their interests, knowledge and the general widening of horizons as well as skills, and those key skills are imaginative, intellectual and social (awareness).[2]  It’s about development not instruction. Pleasure is afforded by these transformative journeys (empowerment), as well as from utilitarian skill acquisition. Learning to think and question, to interrogate experience and society’s institutions is seen as as vital as being able to make and repair things.[3]  And these skills and dispositions are also not that separate and different from each other.[4] This binary opposition, of thinking v making, mind v body, intellectual v manual, is itself a classed and gendered cultural construction that has served the historical interests of the white western male ruling class.

Although Street-Porter spent two years as a young student at the Architectural Association, before dropping out to become a journalist, it seems that she has not experienced these positive features of HE, including the fact that higher education is not just learning to critique and challenge, to form an argument, but also about being challenged and having to think through your own views and assumptions with a view to revision or accommodation, and doing this as a member of a group or team.[5]

There is humility and compassion developed in these (facilitative, non-competitive) pedagogic environments, as part of social and political understanding, where we can learn to ‘”talk dialogically rather than combatively about experience”,[6] and these are skills and dispositions useful (essential?) for everyone (beyond FHE) – plumber, musician and academic – not least because we are all social beings and citizens. “Cooperation enhances the quality of social life”,[7] and “practising cooperation”[8]  involves “dialogic practices which are skilled, informal and empathic”.[9]

Street-Porter’s comments implicitly condoned Tory teacher bashing; and can be seen as an expression of the familiar anti-intellectualism of the English conservative establishment. This stance does young working-class people no favours. It’s not-too-subtle code for: ‘stay away’ from education, ‘you are right, it’s not for the likes of you’. In this sweeping dismissal, she was also ignoring the huge social changes that have been partly driven by greater working-class access to FHE during the last 50 years (largely facilitated by Labour governments): women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, concerted anti-racism and anti-homophobia; the greater diversity of our communities as we intermingle and get on; despite the lingering resistance to challenging misogyny and the social practices associated with conventional heteromasculinity.

Education, especially FHE has been a vital part of these changes in our society, and most recently, it has been students who have led the way in opposition to the ConDem agenda.[10] The recently noted statistic that UKIP is attracting a significant percentage of non-graduate, older white working-class males is food for thought. . . . and concern.

The neoliberal attack.
Society and politics were both largely absent from Street-Porter’s Rebel Rant in any coherent or critical way. She took no risks on the night, apparently aiming to be studiously uncontroversial, while sounding ‘rebellious’ and getting that laugh. In addition to her contradictory (and ill-informed) rightwing views on education, one further example serves to demonstrate how lacking in relevant political analysis this talk was, especially given that our society is in meltdown, and a lot of people in Liverpool are feeling that, on both their nerve endings and in their pockets.

There was no mention of the impact of the 30+ years of the neoliberal project on working-class communities and individuals, especially young people. The neoliberal years have intensified poverty and inequality in the UK beyond what has happened in other developed countries in Europe, undoing the gains of the previous postwar years. This process has been neither accidental nor incidental: corruption, greed and individualism have been unleashed and institutionalised, and the already wealthy have been favoured via deregulation and tax re-arrangements. At the same time, multiculturalism and diversity have been compromised by both the ‘muslim as terrorist’ trope and scaremongering regarding immigration, asylum, refugees and the EU. Incitement to hatred has become normalized in some quarters as rightwing, neo-fascist political discourse.

The ConDems’ essential scam has been to declare that it is only fair for the poorest to pay for the corruption (not mistakes) of the richest working in and/or benefitting from, the finance industry, and its key strategy has been to set one identity group against another, hoping we will tear each other to pieces, thereby doing their work for them: reducing the ‘burden’ we represent, and any chance we might organise as an effective political alliance / opposition. The statistics on the extreme and sudden intensification of inequality and income differences during the neoliberal years, between those at the top and those at the bottom and in the middle, have been described as “signs of zero-sum competition veering toward the winner-takes-all extreme: the capitalist is becoming an apex predator”.[11]

Street-Porter did not allude to any of this, despite the fact that the impact on working-class people is immeasurable and wholly destructive, already engendering despair and a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. As a public figure and as a journalist, she has a responsibility to address these issues in ways that engender more than complacency or defeat. Or a laugh.

The ConDem government has deliberately created massive unemployment in the public sector, where a high percentage of people from working-class backgrounds have increasingly found employment since the 1960s, and especially after the huge injection of funding by the previous New Labour governments, for example into the NHS and education. These jobs were also concentrated in specific geographic areas, e.g. the NE and the NW, with devastating consequences for unemployment and poverty in these communities, together with the fallout, such as relationship breakdown, homelessness, mental heath issues, etc.. In addition, a high percentage of these jobs were held by women, who have therefore been disproportionately affected by these government policies. These are significant class and gender issues, being brushed under the political carpet.

And finally, if there is one institution set up as a founding driver for the welfare settlement of the postwar years, it is the NHS. This, perhaps more than anything, has changed working-class lives and life chances since its inception. Without the NHS as conceived by Nye Bevan, most of us will find our life chances, our health and wellbeing, greatly reduced. We will not be able to afford health and wellbeing. These are already fast becoming a privilege, rather than a basic right. We need a national, cross class, cross community insurrection to bring this process to a halt.

Street-Porter’s impressive cv, provided at the start of the event as part of the introduction, provided a list of what she has done, posts and positions she has held, but in itself gave little clue as to her values or political priorities. And despite being introduced as “the best person” to provide a Rebel Rant on class, she proved lightweight, even frivolous in this regard, choosing to combine the anecdotal with swearing, and obvious attempts to make us laugh instead of think. Intellectual avoidance was combined with political sleight of hand.

She failed to acknowledge and engage with contemporary social class issues or offer any political analysis regarding the relevance of what are momentous political and economic upheavals in working-class lives (and others not in the top 2%) now; changes inflicted by the most rightwing government in living memory, with more on the way. Her rant was politics-lite, which also rendered it ethics-lite. Whereas I have friends who describe the government’s actions as “ethnic cleansing”, as Etonian class action designed to destroy the public sector and its values once and for all: to put working-class people in particular back in the box, and destroy any sense of affiliation beyond and across class and ethnic stratifications.

The winner-takes-all-society of the apex predator described by Richard Sennett, is the desert created by Neoliberalism, which promotes the mantra that “there is no other way”. In its short life (after all it is historically quite a new thing), it has succeeded in promoting individualism as the virtue, a sign of ‘success’ and power, while at the same time cultivating a sense of powerlessness and/or complaceny in its victims (the 98%). And “when complacency is married to individualism, cooperation withers”:[12] society crumbles, nature dies back.

There was no sense that this was the real life context of Street-Porter’s 2013 Rebel Rant for Liverpool’s WOW festival.[13] Instead, she came across as a model product of these neoliberal years, and offered up both complacency and individualism on the night, in an ‘entertaining’ format,[14] designed to distract the audience from these social and political issues and crises. How patronizing.

As I was putting my coat on at the end, the male stranger in the next seat turned to me with a smile and said: “Aren’t you glad she didn’t go into politics?!” I laughed out loud in agreement. (I think he may have been aware of my sharp intakes of breath, and heard me muttering to myself and my friend during the talk.) So a shot of (Liverpool?) humour and solidarity saved the day, and sent me away with a rueful smile on my face. I wasn’t, it seemed, the only rabbit blinking in the headlights that evening.

                                                                                                            07 05 2013


[1] The Rebel Rant series is a highlight  of Liverpool’s annual Writing on the Wall (WOW) Festival, in which a noted public figure is invited to stir up discussion and debate on an important and controversial topic or issue.

[2] See for example, Val Walsh (1996) Terms of engagement: Pedagogy as a healing politic in Louise Morley & Val Walsh (eds) Breaking Boundaries: Women in Higher Education; also  (1997) Interpreting class: Auto/biographical imaginations and social change in Pat Mahony & Christine Zmroczek (eds) Class Matters: Working-class Women’s Perspectives on Social Class;  and (2007) From tangle to web: Women’s life histories and feminist process in Cotterill, Jackson & Letherby (eds) Challenges and Negotiations for Women in Higher Education.

[3] See Richard Sennett (2003) Respect in an Age of Inequality;  (2008) The Craftsman ; (2013) Together: The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation. And his early book with Jonathan Cobb (1972) The Hidden Injuries of Class remains powerful and relevant..

[4] See Sennett (2008) and (2013) ibid..

[5] See Sennett (2013). Part 2, Cooperation Weakened, 133–195, and Part 3, Cooperation Strengthened. 199-280.

[6] Sennett (2013): 166.

[7] Sennett (2013): 173.. This is the central theme of Sennett’s wise and beautiful book.

[8] Sennett (2013) is discussing the contribution of French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), to his theme of cooperation (ibid: 275.).

[9] Ibid..

[10] And many of the students protesting on the street in 2011 against the abolition of the EMA were university students, not themselves affected by the change.

[11] Ibid.: 134. The dominance achieved by the apex predator uniquely eliminates the conditions for future competition or cooperation. It amounts to ground zero for the economy, for society, for our environment, as benign and beneficent.

[12] Sennett (2013): 187.

[13] As someone who did not attend put it to me afterwards: “The Rebel Rant is nothing more than a distilled version of the ‘ cult of celebrity’, tinged with a leftist façade”. Surely something for the WOW team to think about.

[14] Of course any Media Studies or Communication Studies student worth their salt would be able to spot that ‘entertainment ‘ vibe and its purpose; not least in the context of a neoliberal economy that aims to commodiify everything , and package it /us as  entertainment, news included (or perhaps especially), with a view to anaesthetizing us masses..

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