“How come you sound like you’re on EastEnders?” This was a question I was asked in my first few weeks at Oxford University. I was reminded of this ignorance when a prominent broadcast journalist mocked me on Twitter for sounding like where I come from, while simultaneously accusing me of putting on my accent to “send a signal”.
I don’t have a complex about my slightly diminished east London twang – why would I? I’m proud of my background and want to hear more regional accents on our tellies. However, British class snobbery tells me frequently that how I sound is not OK. Almost every time I go on TV someone will comment negatively. Mostly I ignore it but when Adam Boulton, the presenter of All Out Politics on Sky News, decided to retweet someone making fun of me for not saying my Ts and then added that dropping my Ts was done because “you are embarrassed about being posh”, I saw red.
For one, I’m not pretending not to be posh. My dad was a car mechanic. I went to my local state school – the same school as David Beckham and Harry Kane. I went to a further education college for my A levels where I met my husband. I worked in the local Greggs bakery on Saturdays. I still live near where I grew up. So here’s a thought – maybe I sound this way because I’m genuinely from a working class background? Yes, I did manage to get the grades to go Oxford, and yes I did do a masters and PhD and now I do run a think tank. But are the working class not allowed to get educated?
If I was feeling charitable I could say that maybe he was drawing a logical conclusion. After all it is probably statistically true that it is more likely that I was purposely not saying my Ts than that I am an actual working class commentator on his news programme. Although maybe he didn’t recognise me as working class because he’s swallowed the narrative that the working class are only white.
Secondly, by retweeting class prejudices positively, Boulton was condoning classism and giving viewers the licence to make fun of other working class people in the future. Sky recently had an “inclusion week” – clearly they didn’t remind him that making fun of the way someone talks does not foster much of a sense of inclusion. When he noticed I’d retweeted him, he quickly offered an “apology” saying it “was a lighthearted comment”. What is lighthearted about a £6,200 class pay gap? Or the fact that he went to a school that made it 94 times more likely to reach an elite position than all the talented people I grew up with? Or indeed being told on a regular basis that you sound stupid and uneducated?
Obviously, it’s not just him that has a problem. Last week a Conservative MP, Paul Beresford, twice remarked that he couldn’t understand an SNP MP’s Glaswegian accent. Privately educated people like him dominate the top of so many of our sectors – just under half of our top journalists, more than 70 per cent of our judges and half of the Conservative Party went to private school. When you don’t take the issue of the class system seriously there are real consequences, including an inability to listen and understand among decisionmakers at the top.
Last year in a BBC green room, while I was nervously considering how best to drive home the point that we were being shortchanged by Philip Hammond’s budget, the two Tory panellists were discussing what the best private school to send their kids to was. It made me feel sick but also made me feel more determined to make my voice – Ts or no Ts – heard.
I’m genuinely excited about many of the new and prospective Labour MPs who, like me, draw their motivation and politics from tough life experiences – watching your mum desperately looking for money for the electricity meter, having no housing security, working in our beleaguered public services, campaigning for fair tips, being a single mother on the receiving end of universal credit chaos. But we need many many more working class people across sectors to get some semblance of fair representation.
So yes Adam, I am sending a “signal” by the way I talk – it’s be yourself, bring your passion, bring your experience, and yes bring your working class and regional accents because we need to drown out all the many people who sound the same but don’t have a clue about the real world, and don’t seem to care either.
Faiza Shaheen is the director of the think tank Class and Labour candidate for Chingford & Woodford Green
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies