A recent report by the National Community Forum (available here) has once again highlighted how some white working class people in today’s Britain feel that their concerns on a range of issues are being ignored. In fact many believe that the Labour Government have abandoned them completely.
Based on a series of interviews that were undertaken on four predominantly white housing estates around the country, the report found that some in the white working classes felt a sense of resentment, unfairness and betrayal. As a result, many were prone to believe the many rumours that are routinely spread by the far-right about migrants and other minority communities thus exacerbating tensions between them.
One particular issue was the belief that white working class families were failing to be allocated their rightful social housing due to immigrants who were – or so it is alleged – going straight to the ‘front of the queue’.
Communities Secretary Hazel Blears responded to this:
The vast majority of people who come to this country have to go into the private rented sector, they don’t get council housing.
There are an awful lot of myths about that people can come into this country, they can get a council house, they get grants for thousands of pounds – a lot of that is simply not true.
She went on to tell the BBC though that despite her reassurances, in some parts of the country housing allocation policies were “not as transparent as they should be”.
Other issues that the report highlighted included:
There was a link between deprivation and apparent hostility to minorities. People who have the least are more likely to be afraid of things being taken away from them
Few of the people questioned had regular contact with ethnic minorities
People did not understand integration and thought it was about migrants becoming “like us”
Respondents found it difficult to talk about their concerns openly for fear of offending or being criticised as racist
Hazel Blears went on:
Where people are struggling and they’ve got very little, it’s not surprising that those people are the people who feel sometimes threatened by change.
Adding that white working-class people:
sometimes just don’t feel anyone is listening
The picture that this report seems to be suggesting is becoming something of a recurrent issue: that white working class communities are suffering disadvantage and poverty in many of the same ways that some minority communities are.
So what is the Government doing about this particular issue?
Sadly, the Labour Party has since the birth of the ‘New Labour’ project been taking its traditional, core voters for granted. As Billy Bragg puts it, they believed they had nowhere else to go and so left them to get on with it.
Founded 100 years ago, the Labour Party was established to represent the lowest paid workers across the country. Over the past decade and half however, these communities – white, black, Asian or other, their ethnicity being quite irrelevant – have been repeatedly overlooked by the Party. Average earners over this period have seen their standard of living remain largely static at best, while the incomes of the top 1% have rocketed to unprecedented levels.
Billy Bragg in the Guardian also provides some interesting statistics. Of the 13 million UK citizens who are living below the low-income threshold, only just over three million were either unemployed or unavailable for work in 2007. This means that despite almost 10 million of these people being employed and working hard, they were also finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet. Sadly, they are the people that make up Labour’s traditional core constituency and the people for whom the Party was once their champion.
For the white working classes in particular, the politics of multiculturalism and the rapid changes that have occurred in the past decade has left them susceptible: susceptible to a message a of hope. Whatever that message might be, it has to be one that convinces them that they have a champion that will pick up their cause and listen to their concerns and fears. Unfortunately, this has been the British National Party. Repeatedly the BNP have profited and gained votes in those places where house prices are lower than average, where local residents have to face a constant influx of people seeking cheap accommodation and casual employment, and where all working class communities appear to have been forgotten by those holding the balance of power.
Consequently, the working classes and endemically poor from all ethnicities have faced increased competition for those scarce and rarified resources that not only include social housing but also a whole host of other vital social services that make surviving – rather than living – on a low income possible.
Is this evidence that the white working classes are becoming increasingly racist? Are we on the precipice of a ‘rivers of blood’ style dystopian future?
Of course not, no.
Yes, some from within white working class communities most definitely are voting for the BNP, sometimes in quite worrying numbers. But on the whole, theirs is a vote of frustration and despair – a cry for help – rather than an attempt to find a real and lasting solution to society’s problems through misguided racist ideologies.
Sadly though, the simplicities and scapegoat-ism of racism and bigotry offer a quick and easy way out of what they see as a social dead-end and so do have an attraction. But it must be stressed that for the majority, they are far from being endemically racist.
Nor though is it racist to flag up the real problems that some white working class communities are increasingly being shown to experience. Yet as a society, we still seem to feel uncomfortable when others – or indeed ourselves – begin to voice to recognise and voice our concerns about either. Indeed, the report itself states that ‘Respondents found it difficult to talk about their concerns openly for fear of offending or being criticised as racist’. Spaces must therefore be created where these type of discussions and debates can be openly engaged with.
If the BNP are to be combated therefore, the Labour Party – and others – need to begin to address the real inequalities that continue to blight far too many in today’s Britain: the inequalities that a plethora of reports are increasingly flagging as being especially relevant to the white working classes. In doing so, the Labour Party will offer more to some of the most disadvantaged in society than their decade long policy of put up and shut up ever did.
Everything on this site by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. www.chris-allen.co.uk