How a lad from Hull got above himself

Locals say Prescott has betrayed his roots. By Decca Aitkenhead
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The Independent Online
"SAY the posh word, Paddy, go on."

"No, I'm a school caretaker."

"Go on."

"All right, then, I'm a site manager."

"Hah! Look at him. Does that make him middle class now, then?"

Patrick Geraghty does not think so. His father never had a car, he doesn't have a car and his brother is a Labour councillor. He is, he says, proud to be working class - and if he won pounds 1m tomorrow, he would still say he was working class: "John [Prescott] may be middle class on wages, but not in his ways. You know who you are. And you never change where you come from."

Not everyone in the Hull Traders and Labourers Club, late on Friday night, is so certain anymore. The club dates back to the 1930s - an impressive, if subdued, piece of the city's long trade union history. A plaque at the entrance reminds us of its support for the miners, and local labour and union meetings are held here. Arthur Scargill spoke just a few weeks ago. But over snooker, cards and drink, talk of class meets both with real feeling and quiet doubt.

When John Prescott, MP for Hull East, declared himself a member of the middle classes on Radio 4 this week, did he know that the remark would make front-page news the following morning? "Only in England could you have a big argument about class," he later grunted, and he is probably right. To the members of the Traders and Labourers club, class remains a matter of important and instinctive certainty. But it is also a source of great confusion.

"If I think about the middle classes, I just picture them as earning a decent wage and buying their own house. But then, we do that too, some of us, don't we? So maybe we're not so different. But I know I'm working class." Robert Turner, 51, works for British Gas. He also has shares in the company.

"It's just like an investment, isn't it?" he says. "It would never up my status in class. That's why I would never take a job in an office. I've been offered it, all right. But I wouldn't want to get above myself."

The suggestion that Mr Prescott has got above himself is echoed angrily around the bar. He is, one scoffs, just "showing off".

"John Prescott? We all know what he is and we all know what he pretends to be. He's working class but unfortunately he's gone up the ladder and got pretensions and forgotten. Ask him where he went for his union meetings." Yvonne Hodgins bends down, cues up, glances back from the table, and winks. "He came here."

"Aye, maybe, but it used to be bread and jam sandwiches, and now it's steak and chips," mutters a tiny white-haired man. Alan Raywood, 60, was a shop fitter until three years ago, when he was made redundant: "They all go on about tax these days, for the middle class. Well it won't affect me, 'cause I don't work. Probably never will again either. It's still bread and jam for us."

For many, Mr Prescott's class conversion is beyond dispute.

"Of course he's middle class. The Labour Party hasn't been a real labour party for years now. I can't think of a single politician who speaks for the working man anymore - they drive home at night in big cars to big houses, and think about their own nests." Gary Turner, 38, has a wife and three children. He earns pounds 5,000 a year. He has voted Labour all his life, "but it won't change my life for the better anymore. What this country wants is a revolution by the working class."

But what does working class mean - and can an MP, or a lottery winner, or even someone who has moved to London, still be said to belong? "Under pounds 200 a week makes you working class," is one definition, but Dennis Skinner, argues another, "must be on pounds 25,000. And you wouldn't say he was middle class, would you?"

For Philip Jackson, 31 and unemployed, class is indistinguishable from the north-south divide. "John Prescott - does he live in London permanently now? Well then, there you go. It can't be a working-class country anymore, 'cause it's run from London, and everything's all right down that way."

The tale of the local jackpot lottery winner who continued going to the local club every Saturday night, and was booed out of bingo after winning pounds 280, is retold in scandalised tones by one woman. The man next to her frowns: "Aye, but you're not telling me the money wouldn't change you, are you love?"

The great trap, when talking of class today, is to mistake blurred distinctions and vague uncertainties for an anacronism. Mr Prescott's class may be a matter for disagreement here, but nobody would dream of dismissing it as trivial. "The beautiful thing about this club," explains one of the staff, "is you can have a drink in here, and there are no distinctions." Tony Blair's glib joke about his colleague's slick step from "class warrior to class act" singularly fails to take this into account.

On the train from London to Hull, three good-looking lads sit surrounded by shopping. The seats are buried in bags bearing the names of Dolce & Gabbana, Vivienne Westwood and Versace. Between them, they say, they have spent nearly pounds 1,000.

"I'm working class and I'm proud of it," says one. "This just ties in with the working class ethic of the modernist value - for the workers to look better than the bosses."

Tony Blair and John Prescott must ask themselves whether this modernist, and the moderniser, are necessarily the same.