DAWN FOSTER (1986 - 2021)
A tribute to the celebrated journalist, who stuck to her working class roots in her writing, in her political struggle and her unwavering sense of humour in the face of establishment put downs.
There are two types of journalists: those who promote their careers, and those who prioritise their causes. Dawn Foster, who recently died aged 34, was absolutely the latter, always holding the former in contempt. She was amongst the best of a generation of left-wing journalists to emerge after 2008, determined to challenge the neoliberal consensus that had failed so monumentally and the punishing austerity that followed, and to dislodge its centrist and conservative advocates from their cushy sinecures in British media and politics. She established herself as a leading light on the UK left, first through investigative journalism that gave a much-needed voice to people affected by brutal cuts made by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010 to 2015. She then through razor-sharp opinion writing in support of the anti-austerity movement that sprung up around Labour when Jeremy Corbyn ran for leader in summer 2015, and against the many people in the party and the media who did all they could to destroy it.
As with most of the London-based writers who later became associated with ‘Corbynism’, I first met Dawn via Twitter. She was a master of the medium: bold, opinionated and utterly hilarious, vocal in her support of people on her side and gleefully scornful of those who weren’t. We first met ‘IRL’ in spring 2013: I was doing my journalism around an admin job in an NHS hospital, Dawn around work as a moderator for The Guardian website. Having just completed a blog for them about my gender reassignment and dealt with a couple of minor breakdowns, I was furious with The Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer, for publishing a transphobic screed by Julie Burchill. Dawn had worked on it, saying it was impossible to decide what was acceptable below the line when the article was so full of hatred. She also talked about how her father had just died, and how concerns about money and her precarious employment had compelled her to do the shift regardless. Although she talked about it without self-pity, I gradually got more indication of just how difficult her working-class upbringing in Newport, south Wales, had been – harder than anyone else I’d met in journalism, be they our comrades or older columnists who flaunted their proletarian backgrounds as badges of honour (and justifications of both their comfortable salaries and their reactionary opinions).
People like Dawn don’t usually make it in British journalism, and we often joked about how she personally fulfilled the Guardian’s working-class quota. There are formal and informal codes of behaviour and networks of patronage, often learned in private schools and then at Cambridge or Oxford, set up to advance the “right” people. After going to study English Literature at Warwick, which left her burdened, like most of her generation, with huge debt, she was told to lose her Welsh accent if she wanted to get anywhere – one piece of advice that alerted her to the British class system and animated her desire to destroy it. Through sheer determination to represent her class, and a gift for talking to people and writing their stories in an intelligent, unpatronising way, she made her name at Inside Housing and Open Democracy, focusing on the housing crisis in British cities, with their spiralling rents and endemic homelessness, and the effects of austerity on the working class, especially women.
This set her apart from most mainstream British journalists, who tended to talk about “the working class”, whose political positions they cast as conveniently close to their own –fiercely opposed to socialism or anti-imperialism. It also set her apart from much of the left, who – alienated by the New Labour government’s foreign policy, introduction of tuition fees, authoritarianism and embrace of austerity – had long preferred to concentrate on culture. While she focused on politics, Dawn shared our cultural interests, using her position at the Guardian to sneak through an editorial in praise of emerging comedian Limmy, baffling more senior colleagues who had never heard of him, but delighting those of us who loved his short viral videos, and his (often bizarre) BBC Scotland sketch show about working class life in Glasgow.
Dawn was staggeringly funny, online and offline, as people who’ve found ways to cope with difficult childhoods often are. My favourite instance of this was at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Camber Sands in 2013, when I’d failed to get up for breakfast as promised. I was woken by a barrage of text messages, starting with ‘Juliet are you awake’, then ‘your mate Helen Lewis is on the telly’ and finally, ‘Juliet are you dead’. I wrote back saying that Lewis was my editor (at the New Statesman) rather than my mate, and that she should come to my chalet. Five minutes later, she practically kicked down the door, waving two pork pies and a bottle of champagne. When I asked, “Is that breakfast?” she bellowed “Welcome to the working class!” and cracked open the bottle. It tasted far better than it really should, despite (or perhaps because) of my bourgeois guilt, and we had a great day, ending with seeing Mogwai, a band we’d both loved since we were teenagers. There, worried about the flashing lights, I asked what to do if she had an epileptic seizure. She briefly explained, then asked if I wanted to do “something naughty”. Before I could answer, she grabbed my hand, barged through the crowd while loudly saying she was disabled, and pulled me to the front.
I could list many examples of Dawn’s transgressive humour, such as the competition she instigated on Facebook to write poetry about the revelation that David Cameron had fucked a pig, easily won by this masterpiece from Huw Lemmey. I could also list occasions when she was spectacularly rude, which could be a refreshing correlative to the “civility” often demanded of those on the wrong end of inequality, but it was not always to people who deserved it, and I sometimes had to apologise to comrades on her behalf, or try to patch up conflicts, not always successfully. But while she wasn’t as single-minded about politics as her publication record suggests, her instincts and positions were always spot-on, as everyone on the left has pointed out since her death, even if they didn’t always get along with her. Selling out would have been incredibly lucrative: there is no easier grift in the British media than being a working-class Tory, or someone who used to be on the left (or, better yet, claims they still are) peddling right-wing opinions. Dawn was never tempted to do that, despite having to mix with ideological opponents who desperately wanted her on their side, and had no time for anyone who did.
The British left rises, then falls…
Throughout the coalition period, austerity increasingly polarised young and old, rich and poor, and the climate on Twitter, where the political wing of these groups tended to interact, became increasingly terse, and left-wing voices such as Richard Seymour and Owen Hatherley were dropped by the Guardian. So when the left reasserted itself in the mainstream of British politics through Corbyn’s ascension to Labour leader, Dawn was perfectly placed to be one of its most vital voices, having published her first book, Lean Out – a searing assault on the middle-class corporate feminism of Sheryl Sandberg and others – on Repeater Books in 2016, to considerable acclaim.
While she expressed frustration with the new leadership’s chaotic media operation, Dawn was the ideal proponent of ‘Corbynism’. Unlike more established columnists, who treated the left’s leadership as an aberration, focusing only on factional intrigues within Labour, Dawn kept her eye on the reasons why Corbyn attracted such passionate support from the under-40s, people in cities, and those who were still suffering the effects of austerity, regardless of whether they’d voted Leave or Remain in the EU referendum, even after the pundits constantly told us that Brexit was the only thing that mattered in British politics. For this reason, she was able to predict Labour’s surge in the snap election of 2017, when Corbyn’s energetic, emotive campaigning helped his party take away the Conservative majority in parliament.
Our jubilation, sadly, was short-lived. Five days after the election, I woke up in the middle of the night and checked Twitter. Dawn was posting about a London tower block that had caught fire, saying it looked horrific. This was Grenfell Tower in Kensington – the wealthiest borough in Britain, where David Cameron lived – which had housed some of the poorest people in the city. Dawn went immediately to the scene and reported on it relentlessly, criticising the way the building’s management company and the local council had ignored the residents’ concerns about the flammable cladding, and put on the tower to make it more palatable to the richer people that the borough wanted to attract. The final death toll was announced as 72, with many more injured or made homeless: despite this, the Conservative council was re-elected the next year, and our hopes that the 2017 result and this tragedy might bring about a wholesale realignment of British politics began to fade.
Dawn’s response to the exhaustion and trauma was to turn back towards the Catholic church. As her epilepsy and other health conditions worsened, and her stepfather was charged with killing his father (the grandfather of several of her siblings), her faith was a source of strength as she committed herself, and the Guardian column that her reporting on Grenfell secured, to bringing about the socialist reconstruction so clearly necessary. But things were also getting harder, politically. Having been humiliated in 2017, many columnists gave up any pretence of reporting on people’s lives, instead using their positions to will the world they wanted into being. They promoted the (suspiciously well-funded) campaign for a poorly-conceived second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, intended to tear apart the left’s anti-austerity coalition, and barraged Corbyn and his supporters with accusations of anti-Semitism, misogyny, abusiveness and anything else they could think of. It became impossible for dissenting voices to cut through, not least because those who refused to give up were picked off. In July 2019, as Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on the most far-right platform in living memory, and another election loomed, Dawn used her column to attack Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, who had repeatedly undermined Corbyn’s efforts to stop Brexit from splitting the party’s support, and the delusional premises of British centrism. That Watson was wrecking Labour’s electoral chances was obvious to anyone who watched Novara Media’s YouTube shows, or followed left politics on Twitter or the proliferating left podcasts or news sites, but it could not be said in the Guardian. Dawn was fired.
The election finally came in December 2019, and was a disaster for Labour. As well as knowing how all the people screwed over by austerity would now have it far worse, and that we would never get redress for atrocities such as Grenfell, it was agonising to see the media’s assault on ’Corbynism’ had worked. With our project smashed and the effort to purge left-wing voices from public discourse likely to become even more intense, we struggled to reorient ourselves. Dawn turned towards punditry, partly because it was necessary to keep arguing for socialist policies despite the huge Tory majority and the corporate recapture of the Labour Party, and it was often a joy to see her tear into one of the many mediocrities within the British media. But she did this also because she was increasingly ill, and short TV/radio slots were easier than writing. She kept up her Jacobin column until summer 2020, in which she wrote about how a decade of austerity compounded the Tories’ disastrous response to Covid-19, and about how Keir Starmer’s factional moves against Labour’s left would kill any remaining hope that it could be used to tackle inequality. This was not enough to sustain life in London, and she thought about moving to Belfast, but needed to stay for work: for many aspiring journalists without familial support, this is a big problem, but it was especially acute for Dawn.
…but there will be more Dawns
I saw Dawn twice after the start of the pandemic, during which her illnesses obliged her to shelter at home. In December 2020, between lockdowns, I met her and Owen Hatherley to reflect on a punishing year. We discussed the recent revelations that the right-wingers who controlled Labour’s head office had deliberately sabotaged Corbyn’s 2017 election campaign, largely ignored by mainstream media, and asked Dawn how she was doing with the books she was contracted to write – one about Grenfell Tower and the housing crisis, and one about the history of unemployment benefit. Sadly, she said, her constant admissions to hospital after her seizures were making it difficult.
The last time I saw Dawn was in May 2021. She had been upfront on Twitter about her illnesses, shrugging off the concerns of her many followers, but I was worried, and she had a seizure on her way home. Two months later, I heard of her death. When news broke online, I was stunned by the number of tributes, some from public figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Limmy, and the Manic Street Preachers, who funded a memorial bench in Newport despite Dawn not being a fan of theirs. (I thought: “Dawn would find that hilarious” and went to tell her on Twitter, then remembered.) Many were from strangers who felt she had given them a voice in mainstream media. The most moving was anonymous: a banner on a bridge over the River Lea that read: ‘Dawn Foster Forever’. These words were soon graffitied outside the house of Giles Coren, an obnoxious right-wing journalist who’d taken exception to Dawn suggesting he owed his career to his famous father, and who was one of the few of Dawn’s opponents nasty enough to taunt those mourning her passing.
Sadly, we were not left with as much of Dawn’s writing as we would have liked – just one book, and plenty of articles. (A friend said she was working on a review on my short story collection, Variations – I wish I could have read it.) We have discussed the idea of an anthology, and a scholarship for a working-class socialist journalist, to start to fill the huge gap left by her departure.
There will be more Dawns, and the British left will rise again.
I wish more journalists approached their work like Dawn, with wit, diligence and an incorruptible social conscience. I hope her memory will serve as a challenge to all media organisations, especially those on the left, to think about how they treat working class talents.
In closing, I’m reminded of a line from another indomitable British socialist, whose premature passing Dawn and I marked in 2014 – trade union leader Bob Crow, soon painted on a wall in Bethnal Green: If we all spit together, we can drown the bastards. Dawn’s writing always had that raw fury, perfectly targeted, and it should be an inspiration forever.
At the author's request, Arts of the Working Class has donated her fee to Ace of Clubs, an organisation working with the homeless in Clapham, South London, the neighbourhood where Dawn Foster lived.