Britain’s real working-class voices are not being heard – here’s why

One of the paradoxes of our age is that we are told all the time that we need to do more to listen to communities whose voices may not get heard – but at the same time we seem to have preconceived expectations of what they’re going to say. So, in fact, the myriad voices of the UK working classes in all their diversity are often getting lost because we simply don’t recognise them – or simply refuse to listen to what they’re actually saying.

The stories people hear about themselves and their communities can have a significant impact on the ways in which they think about themselves and their lives. But the lack of ways for working class people to tell their stories means that they are either invisible in literature, or are frequently portrayed in ways that do not reflect their real experiences.

This raises the question of who does tell us about life in modern Britain? Based on an analysis of the 2014 British Labour Force Survey, Dave O’Brien and colleagues estimated that almost half of all authors, writers and translators (47%) had parents in higher professional or managerial occupations, compared with just 10% of those with parents in routine or manual labour – the traditional indicator of being working class.

Who do you think you are? An analysis of social origins of people in creative industries. Dave O'Brien, Daniel Laurison, Andrew Miles and Sam Friedman

In the past few years, there has been an increasing recognition that, as writer and blogger Kate O'Sullivan has said:

Writing that accurately reflects the diverse experiences of everyday life for the working class continues to go undiscovered, unpublished and unseen.

Projects such as Know Your Place from Dead Ink Books, a publisher focused on developing the careers of writers who might otherwise be overlooked by large trade publishers, and activism from writers such as Kit De Waal, author of My Name is Leon and The Trick to Time, are attempting to give a more accurate representation of voices from working-class communities.

But despite all this, the working class is still all too often seen from the outside as a monolith – uneducated, white, racist – whereas the reality is obviously much more diverse and complex.

Using improvisation

In an attempt to find ways to address the problem of most working-class narratives being imposed from “above”, we have been working with a number of groups to explore alternative possibilities for their stories. Our aim is to support people in working-class communities to rewrite their stories in new ways that better make sense of how they view the world and how they view themselves – and also to share these stories with others. We refer to this approach as “improvisation”. This involves the workshop leader stepping back and allowing participants to take control of their own narratives.

Improvisation might take different forms. At its most basic, it could be simply basing the themes for the session on whatever participants happen to be talking about that day. Alternatively, it could be opening the space up to a broad interpretation of what poetry or writing might be, with participants allowed to create visually or artistically, as well as with words, as the mood takes them.

In the Graphic Lives project, for example, we worked with a group of British-Bangladeshi women from Hyde in Greater Manchester. The women met over a number of months with the aim of creating digital comics about their life stories. While the format of the final output was prescribed – the women were expected to create a some form of comic – the ways in which they wished to tell their stories was deliberately left open.

Finding their voices: the Graphic Lives project. Manchester Metropolitan University, Author provided

As a result, the majority of their narratives do not follow the conventional chronological format that we might have expected. Instead, they are focused around themes, feelings or ideas that the women themselves considered important – for example, the role of families or mental health issues. They also combine different languages and different types of images to construct stories in ways that the women felt best represented their lives.

Finding ‘experts’

We also did a project in a secondary school in South Yorkshire which had been in special measures. The Taking Yourself Seriously workshop involved more than 100 students between the ages of 12 and 13. Here, we saw how narratives imposed upon individual pupils can affect how they are seen by staff and their peers.

But turning the focus towards a pupil’s expertise allowed to be repositioned as the “expert”. For example, one boy was on the verge of exclusion and had an unimaginably difficult home life – but he was also captain of the school football team. He stood at the front of the class and confidently explained how to write a poem about football. His should have been a narrative about leadership and strength, and – once we stepped back and allowed him to take control of his own story – that’s what it became.

Another moment took place in a workshop in Stoke-on-Trent with women who had been active in the miners’ strike in the 1980s. One of the participants told us that rather than being a time of struggle and despair as it is often depicted, it had been the best time of her life. Creating space for moments such as this bold rewriting of the imposed narratives of the strike is crucial if workshops are to offer the chance to critique, challenge and rewrite the narratives of working-class communities.

Both these examples demonstrate how, once people take control of their own narratives, they go from being victims to heroes of their own stories.

Our work has shown that, unless people have control of the language and narratives of their own lives, they will never be able to have full autonomy over how their imagined futures will unfold. In a time when we are seeing more discussion around “giving voice” to working class and other communities, this kind of work is showing us that voice is not something that should be given, from the powerful to the not, but rather that voice is something which already exists in the community. The job of researchers and artists is to create space, not to “give other people a voice” but to recognise those voices and listen to them.