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How society sets us up to fail

The Lead's Reading Room: Read an extract of Dr Faiza Shaheen's debut book, a personal and statistical look at how society and the economy are structured, what really defines your life chances and how our current system keeps us locked into an ugly hierarchy.

July 21 2023, 12.47pm

The Reading Room

Welcome to our Reading Room. Dive into a deeper conversation and find leads for your reading list with our collection of extracts from upcoming books - by writers you know, and writers you should get to know.

(Picture: Simon & Schuster) 


Taking On The Man In The Mansion and Losing

‘Terrorist sympathiser,’ they shouted, ‘you can’t win!’ It felt like a grenade had gone off. I had been standing outside the polling station, happy and hopeful under my umbrella, smiling for the camera. Now, two middle-aged men were moving towards me, arms swinging, veins throbbing in their very red faces. My smile fell, panic filled my lungs and I ran into the polling station. As I looked back out of the window, I could see them still standing there, screaming at me. The polling agent immediately called the police, but I still needed to do what I had come here to do. As I crossed the box for ‘Faiza Shaheen’, I was shaking. It felt like a bad omen, and it was.

The bell had rung on general election day, 12 December 2019. I was standing for Labour in my home constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green in the first winter general election since 1923. It was intense and exciting – and very, very cold. We had worked hard to build a campaign that might finally dispatch the Tory grandee, Iain Duncan Smith. It had been a campaign of major highs. Breaking records on the number of doors knocked, huge US-style rallies and Stormzy – the grime artist whose lyrics had prompted me and a hundred thousand other people to scream ‘Fuck Boris’ at Glastonbury – retweeting my campaign video. Even the still- ridiculously charming Hugh Grant turned out to support me at a campaign rally. Watching him take questions from local journalists in the Tesco car park in Highams Park was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. It was like a weird political romcom – with hundreds turning up chanting my name, local women falling over themselves to meet Hugh Grant, cutting a ‘Faiza and Hugh’ rally cake made by a local baker as if it was an engagement party and my husband getting more than slightly jealous.

Even without big draws like Hugh Grant, we had crowds of people coming to support the cause day after day. We would ask at the beginning of every session who was new to campaigning and dozens would put up their hands. People were stopping me in the street to wish me well, some hugging me, others crying and one even buying me flowers. With this much enthusiasm it felt like I really might win.

For a large part of election day it was raining hard. Not one of those average wet days, where drizzle ruins your hair, but a full-on deluge where even your best raincoat struggles. Yet, hundreds of volunteers still turned up, demonstrating their resolve and commitment by knocking on doors to remind those that had said they would vote for me to venture out in the cold to their nearest polling station. Soaking wet and freezing, they would go out time and time again to ensure we got as many people to vote as possible. They truly believed in what we stood for: kindness, equality, addressing the climate emergency, investing in public services and stopping a hard Brexit.

I started the morning at my old bus stop on Chingford Mount, in front of the beautician’s where I used to get my eyebrows threaded and across the road from the Greggs I’d spent my teenage years working in. Commuters greeted me with surprised faces. ‘This was your bus stop?’ ‘Yes, I lived down that road’ – I pointed to a road with a fish and chip shop on the corner.

It was an unlikely scenario. The daughter of a Fijian car mechanic, someone who had grown up doing the newspaper round and going to the local state schools versus a wealthy man who lives in a mansion and is married to the daughter of a baron. It was the sort of clash that we love to watch in movies.

And for me, it was personal. My mother was one of the thousands of sick and disabled people who had been on the receiving end of Smith’s cruel welfare reforms. She had been harassed by benefits assessment officers knocking on her door and putting her through a series of questions about her health that made her feel like she was a criminal. ‘I want to work, but I can’t’ were the sincere words she kept repeating. It still makes my heart hurt when I think about the stress and humiliation she endured.

My mother had heart failure and struggled with her health for many years. After a heart transplant in 2016 my family thought our hopes of a better life for her would finally be realised. We talked about fulfilling her dream to visit Rome, and she told me she couldn’t wait to be well enough to attend my speaking events. But three months later we were back in an overcrowded, underfunded NHS A&E, and a few weeks later she was dead.

When cleaning out my mum’s house I found files bursting with letters to the benefits office pleading her case and to the council begging for more social care support. Sewn into her lines were her fears, all dignity lost. I cried for hours packing up the house, not just because I missed her, but because she’d suffered more than she needed to as a result of ill-conceived policies designed by people who have very little empathy for those struggling.

This election was also personal because this was the neighbourhood in which I’d grown up, where I’d been born in the local – now crumbling – hospital, where my primary- school teacher hadn’t had a pay rise for ten years, where knife crime was on the rise and where my old high street had an increasing number of closed shutters and charity shops. These were the streets where my dad had punched racist skinheads to protect my pregnant mother. If I could win here it would mark a sea change locally.

Iain Duncan Smith had supported the policies that had gutted my local community over the last decade, that had decimated the public services that had lifted me up and given me support when I’d needed it. His policies had directly made my mum’s last years of life a misery and the added stress had likely contributed to her early demise. This was more than a political battle, it was a fight for justice for me, my family and all those who found themselves stung by Tory austerity.

Early on in the campaign I was told that the odds were against me. Various betting companies had sided with the Conservative incumbent. This was not a surprise. After all, as someone completely new to politics, I was doing something audacious – taking on the ex- leader of the Conservative Party. And in Chingford and Woodford Green of all places! This seat had been Conservative since the dawn of time; it was once the seat of Winston Churchill, as well as Norman Tebbit. And here I was, a Muslim brown female, the type that Churchill had termed ‘beastly’ and Tebbit, aka the ‘Chingford skinhead’, had never wanted here. And to top it all off, the Tories had so much more money to spend on their campaign than we did. It was a classic David versus Goliath scenario, with the added dimension that Goliath had tormented David’s dying mum.

But the odds didn’t bother me. In front of a crowd of supporters I arrogantly proclaimed that I had beaten the odds my whole lifetime: my school grades, my entry to the University of Oxford, my PhD and professional positions. ‘My mum called me Faiza because it means winner in Arabic,’ I said at one Saturday rally to loud applause. ‘The betting odds mean nothing.’ I had done everything that those from privileged backgrounds had done; I wasn’t going to let statistics stop me now. Yes, going up against the machine that entrenches power and inequality was daunting, but surely after playing and winning the game for so long, I’d earned my place.

And then came election night.

‘Things are looking good.’ My campaign manager Mick called me at 1 a.m. from the count. ‘Start making your way here.’ My heart skipped a beat. How was it possible that it was looking good for me when the exit poll showed things were dire for the Labour Party?

As I walked into the count at Waltham Forest town hall, I could feel the tension. I hadn’t been in this high- ceilinged, oak- panelled hall since coming to a colourful Pakistani wedding twenty years ago. I took a deep breath and stood up tall. Stacks of voting ballots lay on the different desks. The officials, who had been there for over five hours counting the ballots, looked tired. There was a breathless silence as everyone turned to look at me. Several smiled, betraying their political allegiance. No one was sure what the result would be.

‘Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative Party, 23,481.’
‘Geoff Seeff, Liberal Democrats, 2,744.’
‘Faiza Shaheen, Labour Party, 22,219.’

There is no justice, I remember saying over and over again in my head as I watched Iain Duncan Smith go to the podium to give his victory speech.

As I came off the stage, I hugged my sister. ‘What about Mum?’ I whispered. The next few days, as I nursed a broken heart and tried to make sense of what happened, feelings of foolishness crept in. Who did I think I was to beat all the odds? Statistics are my profession, my career! In 2016 I was employed to calculate the chances of a Black working- class person ever becoming politically successful for the BBC documentary Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister? (at odds of 1 in 17 million). I should have known better. I’m not Black, but as a working- class Pakistani-Fijian the odds weren’t much better than the 1 in 10 million chance of a Black person going to the University of Oxford and becoming an MP, at least five times higher than the odds of being hit by lightning.

Had I drunk the Kool-Aid and accepted the propaganda, believing that as long as you worked hard you could be anything you wanted to be? Had I bought into Hollywood notions of good triumphing over adversity? Or was it simply that I hadn’t worked hard enough or employed the right election strategy? Or maybe, all of the above? Elections are shaped by various factors, many of them out of the control of the candidate, but the promise of social mobility, of meritocracy and the rewards of hard work, suggests that the person who had gone from a local state school to the University of Oxford should win, rather than the person who had lied on his CV. But that was my naivety.

I sank into a malaise. Of course, some of that was ego, but there was also an intense feeling that I had let people down. As the months passed, I found myself looking at the bigger picture and going over calculations I had done for the BBC documentary – finding that while the odds of me going from my household to Oxford and then on to becoming an MP were 1 in 10 million, they were 1 in 10,000 for David Cameron and Boris Johnson. I asked myself – Why should anyone have to work a thousand times harder than anyone else to do exactly the same thing? Yes, I had failed, but I had failed within a system that had made it near impossible to get to the point where I could legitimately run to be an MP. The underdog winning makes for a heart- warming, tear- jerking story, but what about all the underdogs that lose? What do their stories teach us?

Some are no doubt reading this and wanting me to say something positive here, to highlight a bright note and talk about the swing to Labour in the constituency. Or perhaps to offer excuses in the form of context: that it wasn’t about me but about Brexit, for example. Or to recite warm, fuzzy platitudes that you should never give up on your dreams. That may be so, but as Oscar Wilde supposedly said, ‘They’ve promised that dreams can come true – but forgot to mention that nightmares are dreams, too.’ This book is going to get real. The thing about trying to defy the odds is that most of the time, you lose.

And this isn’t just about politics. Look at almost any industry and you will see the same social mobility tropes trotted out – the one working- class Black person who became a judge, a Hollywood director, a university lecturer – each time with a shallow story of beating the odds, of what made them special, what made them winners. But these exceptions do nothing to shift the odds for the millions of others like them – if anything they create the illusion that anyone can follow the same path.

A society which holds up the examples of those that do beat the odds – by definition the few lucky ones – provides a powerful mythology that ultimately ends up leaving most people in their place and feeling like failures. This is not about giving up or being defeatist – there is far too much at stake to do that. Indeed, I am putting myself up to run as an MP again in Chingford and Woodford Green, exactly because I haven’t given up. But we can’t keep accepting a game stacked against most of us. It is time we change the game, and our first step on this journey is understanding how and why the game is rigged.

Class Matters

In 2017, I agreed to help create a TV show with a documentary company on social mobility. The idea was that we would put kids from different backgrounds in real-life work situations – running magazines, in estate agencies and making chocolate. Their interactions and confidence in the workplace would illuminate the class differences and demonstrate the vast gaps between the upper, middle and working classes. I had a few difficult conversations with the director of the show, as well as the director of the production company, both of whom were, unsurprisingly, privately educated white men, as was the person who had commissioned the show at Channel 4. The irony that a show on social mobility was put together by a few of the beneficiaries of the system was not lost on me.

They seemed intent on filming class clichés, playing into ideas of aspiration that I wholly disagree with and trying to get me to say that today’s inequalities could be solved simply by better work experience! They told me the show was apolitical – which in my experience is code for saying ‘we don’t want to say anything that upsets the rich’.

In the end my role became very minimal because I didn’t want to legitimise an approach to social mobility that I disagreed with, but there is one part of the project that stays with me. During the filming of the trial, we took a group of ten kids aged from about eight to twelve years old, all from different parts of the country, and brought them together in London. They were very obviously from different backgrounds and wore it on their sleeves in the way they walked around the studio. They were asked to run a restaurant, to decide among themselves what roles they would play – from the manager to waiters to dish cleaners. Very quickly, some of the more affluent kids declared they should be the manager. As they were fighting over who would be the boss, one of the working-class kids went straight to start washing dishes. Asked why, he simply replied ‘Because this is the type of job I’d do.’ It was heart- breaking. This child, not more than ten years old, had already internalised the class system. He had put himself at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Like race, dominant stories about the working class also affect our own perceptions of others. In 2016, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) put out a video that captured the way in which we all internalise the class system. They got a child actress, Anano, aged six, to dress as a rich girl and a poor girl to see how people would respond on the streets of Georgia (the country, not the US state). You can probably guess what happened. Passers-by stopped when they saw her dressed in a smart coat and boots, looking confused, they asked her how old she was, if she was lost and where she lived. In contrast, when make- up artists put black marks on her face and gave her dirty clothes, people walked on by. Anano burst into tears when one man in a restaurant told her to go away. People behaved so badly, that the social experiment had to be called off. UNICEF used the video to point out that ‘Every day, millions of children living in poverty are ignored, pushed aside and deprived of everything they need to thrive.’ But I think the video also demonstrated class prejudice and the power of dehumanisation.

The problem is that perception is an amorphous enemy to fight. In 2015 a study emerged from the London School of Economics that looked at how class affected pay. They used Britain’s employment survey, which captures the data of almost one hundred thousand people and looks at the backgrounds and pay of those in the very top occupations. What they found was revealing. It turns out that those in elite occupations whose parents were employed in semi- routine and routine working- class jobs, who they describe as ‘long-range upwardly mobile’, earn on average £6,200 a year less than their colleagues from higher professional and managerial backgrounds. And no, this wasn’t because of education, or gender, or hours worked, or firm size – all those things were controlled. Essentially, regardless of other factors, if you are from a working- class background you will get paid less than your peers doing the same job. This gap goes up to £9,440 in media.

The authors chalk this difference up to several factors, in particular class codes. Things like knowing when to wear trainers, and when not; being able to talk about the fancy things people are doing in the evening; in short, being fluent in middle-class culture. As such, the people that can ‘make it’ are those able to switch class codes, those who can act more middle class when they need to. I hate to admit it, but I think I do this all the time in the workplace. I married someone from a working-class London background, something I feel I did unconsciously to ensure I had a reprieve from all this pretending. There are only two places where I haven’t had to pretend: firstly, when in the company of trade unionists, who for the most part themselves are working class or have working-class backgrounds; and secondly, when working in America, where people simply thought my accent was ‘cute’ and had no idea about the class significance of me not saying my ‘t’s.

Social mobility in this sense requires a change in accent and losing any marker of being working class. This inherently implies that there is something wrong with coming from a working- class town or background. This is not a surprise. We are constantly told that the jobs that working- class people do – like caring for our children and aged relatives, or driving lorries – are ‘low-skilled’. Social mobility makes you embarrassed to be working class, it implicitly says that to ‘make it’ you should forget where you came from.

You might notice a contradiction here: while the actual working class try to act less working class, the middle and upper classes claim to have working-class roots even when they don’t! How can being working class be a badge of honour and shame at the same time? The story of upward mobility and the romanticisation of working- class existence being employed by the middle classes is because actually they have never had to suffer the consequences and hardship that come with the working-class struggle. They get the best of both worlds: saying they’ve done well through hard work, while having all the privileges of a middle-class upbringing. In contrast, those with real and obvious working- class signifiers find themselves having to tone them down or lose them all together to fit into middle- class spaces.

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