After “bigot-gate”, how do we reconnect with the white working class?

As immigration and the disaffection of traditional working class Labour voters is thrust back into the political agenda, LFF interviews Michael Collins.

As immigration and the disaffection of traditional working class Labour voters is thrust back into the political agenda following the prime minister’s description of Rochdale pensioner Mrs Duffy as a “bigoted woman”, Left Foot Forward’s Liam Thompson interviews Michael Collins, author of “The Likes of Us: A biography of the White Working Class”

The BNP in the coming general election stand to make serious gains in Barking and Dagenham in London’s East End, where Nick Griffin is hoping to add a seat in Westminster to the one he holds in Brussels. The BNP are also looking to make huge gains on Stoke-on-Trent Council.

How can we define the vein of discontent that the BNP seem to be tapping into though? And what solutions can we offer to that discontent which are within the mainstream of politics and not defined by the hatred, vilification and Mein Kampf-inspired theories that mark the politics of the far right.

To explore this I meet Michael Collins, dubbed the “bête noir of the liberal left”, a man whose history of the white working class was described by The Guardian as “destructive nostalgia” and whose best reviews came from the right-of-centre press.

Very quickly the conversation with Collins goes beyond the traditional conversations surrounding the rise of the BNP – issues such as housing and immigration – and moves into uncharted, and sometimes uncomfortable, territory. The ‘white working class’ have, for Collins, been “bludgeoned” by the dialogue surrounding multiculturalism.

The Likes of Us tells the story of the author’s home in south east London, a landscape once defined by the traditional working class experience of modernity and altered irreversibly by the wrenching changes of the last 40 years. Post-industrialism, globalisation and shifting demographies have all made fluid what was once solid.

Those who inhabited this landscape, the white working classes, are now, according to Collins, “a forgotten tribe”; so what has happened to the white working class?

“Over the last 30 years a lot of people have moved out of the neighbourhoods that used to define the white working class and become more affluent, become homeowners and moved to the suburbs of London and other cities.

Nowadays the concept of white working class is not just about being poor, and it is not just about Labour, they are not the traditional middle class and they are not the underclass. That is the shift, and the white working classes are today a much bigger story than they were before.”

The white working class are today, what Michael describes as “bluewater man”, those whose roots lie in a community that no longer exists, émigrés from the first half of the 20th-century and who got lost in the second half. Today they live on identikit estates up and down the land – symbolised by the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent.

These neighbourhoods are the private answer to the social housing of old. Featureless developments, cut off from history and too young for culture. Neighbourhoods defined by the banality of modern convenience: proximity to a motorway, high street shops, ubiquitous franchised food outlets, muzak, Audis and post modern existentialism are the landmarks in the new estates.

Says Collins:

“From interviews I have done there is a feeling of disconnection, disconnection from their neighbourhoods and from the nation as a whole. They don’t feel there is any kind of unifying experience any more or unifying identity…”

Consumerism and good economic times empowered the traditional working classes but Thatcherism, the relentless appeal to the centre of a Labour government and finally the recession have exposed a spiritual hole in their soul. The discourse on multiculturalism has left this group out and now they feel, according to an article by Collins in January’s Prospect magazine, “Strangers in their own land”. And this is where this conversation becomes a dangerous one.

Last summer, Britain’s long tradition of not electing far right and racist parties was sadly brought to an end. Is this a product of recession and the associated effects though or does it point to something deeper?

“It is very cosy to dismiss the success of the BNP as being about housing, the recession and jobs. When you look at where the BNP votes are coming from the areas where it is not all about poverty and housing.

“Their success is a reaction, to the heavy handedness of the dialogue around multiculturalism and the legislation of the equalities industry.”

The argument is now a familiar one and one often derided; that the great champions of multiculturalism, the ‘liberal elite’, are those who view it from afar, whilst the voices of those dealing with the realities of multicultural Britain on the streets are often marginalised.

Collins explains:

“For most of the people in the equalities industry and in the media, multiculturalism is a relatively new experience and an abstract concept. The BBC is still top heavy with Oxbridge graduates and they are talking about a tribe, talking about an experience that is quite alien to them.”

And this is where the left is failing dismally. It is important to expose the BNP as the racist and merely airbrushed NF thugs of old but this is only part of the solution. A wider debate about the language of multiculturalism and an acknowledgement of the persistent influence of class on people’s lives is required. Merely demonising the far right plays straight into their hands and further alienates those who may be considering voting for them.

With just days to go until BNP leader Nick Griffin will be anxiously watching the votes be counted in Barking and Dagenham it is time to reflect on Collin’s ‘forgotten tribe’ and answer the questions they are asking, before the far right does.

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