"I'm surrounded by people who have no idea what it’s like to live on benefits"—what it's like being a working-class woman in Westminster

Seeing old Etonians like Boris Johnson and David Cameron fail upwards feels like a punch to the gut

July 25, 2019
Women with signs depicting Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson as Laurel and Hardy during a rally in Parliament Square after the "Put It To The People March". Photo: Stephen Chung / Alamy Live News
Women with signs depicting Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson as Laurel and Hardy during a rally in Parliament Square after the "Put It To The People March". Photo: Stephen Chung / Alamy Live News

Modern British politics is turbulent at the best of times for women. This week’s events shine light on a particular intersection of that struggle. For working-class women in Westminster, the elitism and sexism they experience at work merge to create a climate of hostility, and they feel caught in a constant loop of abuse and patronisation. That is if they manage to get through the revolving Portcullis doors to begin with.

We watch on this week as an Old Etonian with a less-than-illustrious record that includes racism, abandoning a £53 million garden bridge project, and getting trapped on a zipwire, has been anointed Prime Minister. When working-class women feel they have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously in Westminster, constantly seeing bumbling, aristocratic men evade accountability for continuous mishaps and horrific behaviour feels like a repeated punch in the gut.

Britain has always been obsessed with eccentric aristocracy. Boris Johnson is the 20th prime minister to come from Eton. As a comparison, only nine prime ministers have attended non fee-paying schools throughout history. The prestigious all-boys boarding school has been governing the country for centuries with no sign of loosening its grip. The private schoolboy remains seemingly beloved and all-powerful, shaping the public perception of a ‘strong leader’ to mean men who look and sound like them.

Our obsession with public school graduates is as old as parliament, and they dominate powerful society. The Sutton Trust’s new ‘Elitist Britain’ report found that 44% of the nation's news columnists, 52% of junior ministers, and 65% of senior judges attended a fee-paying school. At the very top of these institutions, women and BAME people also become sparse: 10 of 11 Supreme Court judges are white men, as are 53 of 55 prime ministers throughout history. Boris’s new Cabinet may be more diverse, but it is still 64% privately educated. There are few working-class women around his table.

But what strikes most is how utterly incompetent and destructive successive posh old Etonians in particular have been, while still emerging victorious in our modern public and political life. David Cameron led us into a disaster, launching a referendum he thought he could win with no contemplation about the beast he was about to release, and then whistled his way out. Boris Johnson paved his way to Number 10 with a dash of buffoonish bigotry. When Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks, the aristocratic confidence he exudes is unavoidable, even when he’s deeply wrong.

For instance, when Rees-Mogg appeared on BBC Question Time earlier this year, he sat next to journalist Grace Blakeley and announced that Boer War concentration camps killed no more than people who died in Glasgow in the same period. Blakeley tweeted after: “Even though I know exactly what happened during the Boer Wars, Rees-Mogg’s measured tone and deep self-confidence made me second guess myself.”

This feeling of persistently second guessing yourself is familiar to many women in politics. They bear the brunt of scrutiny and abuse: a recent study from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue shows that female politicians disproportionately receive threatening abuse online. What’s more, those not from posh backgrounds find it harder to be outspoken or to show their competence without being abused or asked why they are involved at all. A shining example, one all too familiar to those of us who are loud and happen to have accents, is that of Faiza Shaheen, the Labour candidate for Chingford and Wood Green. After her television appearances, she receives repeated abuse on Twitter in comments demanding that she change her accent or pipe down. She tells me she is unsurprised. Power is still only seen as legitimate if it is attached to posh men. “It is telling that I get so much hassle for sounding like where I’m from”, she says. “It’s a reminder that we have a very narrow idea of what power and politicians look and sound like.”

Constantly having to prove your worth in politics as a working-class woman, particularly if you are BAME, remains a constant battle even when, in Shaheen’s case, you successfully run a think tank.

I asked Faiza what she would say to young women watching today. Why should they fight for their place in such a hostile, elitist, sexist system? She replied, “If we’re going to make a break from Etonian PMs, we need to speak up and be proud. I’m constantly surrounded by people who have no idea what it’s like to live on benefits, live in substandard housing, to be personally affected by the Tory and Lib Dem cuts – this is why they get policy so wrong. We need a huge injection of people who get it.”

Britain must learn to fall out of love with incompetent and chaotic public schoolboys, and our parties—including Labour, whose lack of a female leader is more obvious than ever before—must begin to lead by example: by nurturing and actively choosing working-class women to lead. It has never been so important.