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.

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

  1. John Baxter

    RT @leftfootfwd Excellent overview of Labour,s problem re loss of white working class. voters. Uncomfortable reading http://bit.ly/c84RTQ

  2. Marla Nelson

    After "bigot-gate", how do we reconnect with the white working class? http://bit.ly/c84RTQ

  3. Anon E Mouse

    How long do we think before Mrs Duffy, the volunteer charity worker with the handicapped, whose husband recently died of cancer, who has voted Labour all her life, starts to get smeared by the Labour Party?

    This sums up exactly why as a lifelong Labour voter I will never ever vote for this party again until Brown, Balls, Byrne, Mandelson, Whelan and all the other bullies and thugs in Downing Street are thrown out on their ear once and for all. It’s a shame a few other people on this blog haven’t supported my views and have excused the inexcusable at every opportunity.

    Any minute now I’m sure Liz McShane, Mr.Sensible and all the other Labour excuse merchants on this blog – you know who you are – will come up with endless excuses for this two faced disgraceful behaviour.

    Listening to the people Mr Brown?

    Eight days from now the people will answer back. This afternoon the unelected Gordon Brown just lost Labour the election. Good.

  4. emilia

    I think this is a really patronising piece which hasn’t listened to what Mrs Duffy actually said any more than Gordon Brown did. She’s in no danger of voting BNP, she just needed some proper answers to her questions and not to be dismissed simply for asking them.

  5. Anthony Zacharzewski

    Emilia has it absolutely spot on. The “white working class” is a construct, as much as Motorway Man or Worcester Woman is. There are different cultures and different conditions in different places, as well as different attitudes to immigration. We – and when I say we I mean people who write books and comment on political blogs – create the white working class we want for the purposes of our argument, and then offload our own prejudices onto them. I don’t exclude myself from that.

  6. Fiale

    I was wondering if it was related to any mention of immigration, however Gordon Brown has previously stated back in March

    “The question of who comes to Britain, and what they have to do to earn that privilege, is something that should be the subject of open and responsible debate. But how we conduct this debate is as important as the debate itself.”

    If so then it would seem “Open and reasonable” to question immigration – but your still a bigot for raising the question.

  7. Boudicca

    Start listening to the BNP and adopting some of their policies, I’m afraid.
    The white working class didn’t want their communities overrun by immigrants. They didn’t want their jobs taken by immigrants, or wages undercut because some immigrants were prepared to live 10 to a house. They didn’t want their children’s schools struggling to teach children with every language under the sun except English so that their own children get less attention. They didn’t want public services stretched to breaking point by an influx of immigrants which the Government kept insisting wasn’t happening. They didn’t want their childrens’ place in the council house queue to be pushed further and further back by immigrants with larger families.

    Mrs Duffy expressed what many white working class people feel …. and Gordon called her a bigot – simply for wanting her community back.

    Like it or not, the BNP reflects the views of many of the white working class. Labour no longer does.

  8. Anthony Zacharzewski

    “the BNP reflects the views of many of the white working class”

    If that’s the case, we are all doomed. Not just people like me, who aren’t English enough for the BNP even though my father fought for England’s freedom as well as Poland’s, but anyone who wants this country to be more than the frightened, declining, walled-off, paranoid backwater the BNP want us to be.

  9. emilia

    Boudicca, at no point did Mrs Duffy ever say she would vote BNP. At no point did she say the BNP shared her views. You are patronising her, you are telling her what she thinks instead of listening to what she has to say and that is as bad as what Gordon Brown did when he failed to listen to her today.

  10. Matt

    Anyone thought it might just have been the kind of tired and irritable thing every single one of us might have said when things fuck up at work?

  11. Jupiter Jones

    I used to work with local authority engagement officers. “Engage some communities!” they would cry. “Which ones?” I would ask. “We don’t really mind” they would respond, “Just get some.”

    Labour’s engagement and empowerment policies at local level started out with great intentions, but developed deep flaws in recent times.

    John Denham’s Connecting Communities fund, designed on the back of a Southampton envelope late last year and thrust on Local Authorities and the Voluntary Sector, was specifically designed to re-engage white working class communities. Only for ‘re-engage’ read ‘stop them voting BNP’.

    Ill thought out, way too late, insensitively delivered. Communities and Local Government a lumbering, divided department with no gas left in the tank.

  12. Mr. Mxyzptlk

    At work they took on another 6 full time permanent employees from amongst the temps 5 are eastern Europeans 1 is British……..cant get me head around it

  13. VoteVoteVoteforNigelBarton

    I am a white working class person. When people comment on what “we” think, please please realize something very important. The vast majority of us regard the BNP as hateful and divisive liars. This is because, contrary to popular belief, we are not racist xenophobes. Nor are we the witless and tedious morons portrayed on TV (e.g. EastEnders and those selected to appear on the Jeremy Kyle show, Coach Trip and the like). What gets completely ignored is the fact that the white working class are mocked, infantilized and demonized by a large section of middle-class liberals (both in the media and more broadly). Pram face. Chav. Yeah but no but. It is this attitude TOWARDS US that needs looking at instead of trotting out the same old inaccurate stereotypes. Oh, and please stop trying to speak for us (“They” think this, “they” assume that…).

  14. Matt

    So, hang on. Its Tory supporting businessmen who outsource their operations abroad and close down decent paying manufacturing jobs in the UK. Its Tory supporting businessmen who employ migrant workers on pittance wages. Its Tory supporting businessmen who do their upmost to prevent organised labour from having any kind of power in their workplaces. Its Tory supporting businessmen who buy up all the available housing in an area on buy to lets and cram them full of migrants at maximum profit.

    Yet its the middle class liberals who fuck up the lives of the working class.

    There isn’t half some nonsense spouted on this issue.

  15. Fiale

    Matt says: “Anyone thought it might just have been the kind of tired and irritable thing every single one of us might have said when things fuck up at work?”

    You mean the type of thing you would say at work, be reported for and find your self disciplined, suspended or even sacked due to the 100s of hoops Human Resources leap through to protect their companies from complaints and accusations ?

    Sure I am sure it does, maybe the poor employee who committed suicide after being suspended and risking losing his job and life long pension for joking with his friend and colleague “you’d better hide” (when immigration officials appeared at their business park) would love to have been defended, but there again he was just a racists bigot. People walk on egg shells all over the country, now the Prime minister knows how it feels – albeit he will walk away with a nice lifetime pension.

  16. j newman

    I must be a bigot because i worry about immigration and its effect on my childrens future .
    This is more like invasion not immigration whoops i am abigot

  17. Fat Bloke on Tour

    Couple of points to add to the debate, hobby horse of mine over the past few years.

    The main issue is to try and work out who the white working class are and what they represent. Given that the grouping could be said to include 80% of the population in 1914 where are we now with regards to numbers, 30-40%?

    The mechanism for this decline has been the “distillation effect” where with any economic expansion comes an increase in the middle income grouping as the bright and driven element of the working class moves on to better jobs and wages than were available to their parents.

    I say move on to middle income grouping rather than middle class because although they may have the income and professional status of the existing middle class, being one step removed from the working class means that these people still have an association with the attitudes and outlook of this grouping. I would suggest that you are only truly middle class if 3 of your grandparents have occupational pensions / white collar jobs or more traditionally your great grandfather drove a tram during the General Strike.

    However what then happens to the people left behind, those who are too old, disadvantaged or limited to make progress in this environment. They are then part of a social strata that has been denuded over time of many of its thinkers and doers leaving a rump to try and understand an increasingly fast changing world with little help apart from a patronising and exploitative media.

    The left has to take its share of the blame in all of this, in the Labour party the founding accommodation of middle class idealism and working class pragmatism has shifted decisively to the rational end of the spectrum which may play well with those who have but does not meet the needs of those who do not. Add in a move to politics being a career that starts at 16 and the middle class take-over of the progressive cause is all but assured.

    Good progressive policies always have a downside to those at the bottom. For example the 50% participation in higher education means that more and more thick middle class children get to experience the aristocratic university staples of binge drinking and low quality sex. It does not however allow the able at the bottom to make much progress. I would suggest that no matter the progress made in education over the past 13 years there has been a repeat of the previous failings where more effort has been expended in moving the middle up rather than energising the bottom.

    The main issue is however the disconnect between the left / progressive rational viewpoint and the slow to change, traditional, and emotional suite of attitudes expressed by what is left of the white working class. For the people at the bottom an excess of income means the ability to afford private healthcare and education on the basis that it is good enough for the rich then that is what they want.

    On the subject of immigration one of the main elements of community friction is the fact that many of the new entrants into the UK are middle class strivers who end up living next to the rump working class with all the contrasts in abilities and attitudes that such a mix would suggest. This only accentuates the problems as the local population experiences a feeling of impotence in the face of heightened competition for resources.

    Finally one of the main issues that is hurting the progressive cause is the tendency to treat everyone in the white working class the same. There is a hierarchy that does not show up to the well meaning outsider, extra resources to the bottom means that the thrifty are in their eyes punished. Good old fashioned lower middle class morals this may be but it plays out in working class communities as well to the extent that this is where some of the biggest critics of government waste are to be found.

    Main point is that the emotional side of politics has to be pushed to the fore.

    We are currently looking at the law of diminishing returns, as they feel ignored so the voting turn-out goes down and they become less and less important.

    Turnout of the lower half of the working age income range — 40%?

  18. Anon E Mouse

    emilia – When did Boudicca act in one way to a persons face and differently behind her back?

    Brown is two faced and deceitful and although from your posting here he may represent the type of person / people you may be but he certainly doesn’t represent me or the majority (I hope) of real Labour voters.

    I like honest straightforward people who act for the benefit of those they are elected to serve.

    I accept Brown was never elected to the job or even the leadership of the Labour Party but in any event his behaviour is quite unacceptable and you should not compare Boudicca’s posts to it.

  19. Sacha Ismail

    Do you think having a Labour government that doesn’t block the building of council housing, extend privatisation in the NHS and, well, everywhere, cut corporation tax while abolishing the 10p rate, keep the Tory anti-union laws, try to privatise the Post Office and attack strikes might be a start? Not to mention systematically blocking up every channel in the Labour Party through which the organised working class can have a voice in politics?

    And they could also try not bringing in new anti-immigration and asylum laws and chiming in with the demonisation of migrants?

  20. Alex

    Is there even agreement that we’re a multicultural society? I’ve always perceived us as a society with multiple cultures that don’t necessarily interact, which is decidedly different.

  21. Michael Burke

    There is no such thing as a white working class; either in terms of identity or specific interests.

    Identity; The secondary school I went to was overwhelmingly white (it operated a selective and almost absolute colour bar) and predominanty working class. However, ethnically it was comprised of the following main groups, Irish, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, English and other Europeans. The ‘language of muluticulturalism’ was appropriate even then (the 1970s), but sadly absent. The language exists now because it has caught up with and reflects a reality. Reactionary nostalgia denies a multicultural history which is itself a product in the modern era of the consequences of the slave trade and successive waves of immigration from Europe, Ireland and other former colonies.

    Interests; what interests do the white working class have, separate and apart from the working class a whole? All need and deserve decent jobs, homes, schools, hospitals, etc. Black workers, and those of other classes have a distinct interest in fighting racism. In that, they deserve the support of every democrat.

    But the ‘white working class’ has no such distinct interests. Addressing the issues of decent jobs, houses, etc. for all, as well as fighting to overcome racism, is the way to fight the BNP.

  22. 7/7: ‘Anti terror’ rhetoric masks the inconvenient truth | Left Foot Forward

    […] Parallels between radical Islam and the BNP seem counterintuitive but, as shown by this article about the far right, the emotions that underpin extremism are common to all […]

  23. Mrs Jackson

    Surely an issue here is that, certainly under Ken Livingstone in London, certain sub sets of the working class in its broadest sense, were singled out for preferential treatment and funding, most noticeably black Londoners of West Indian descent and more recent Muslim immigrants.

    Lee Jasper, who was the Mayor’s advisor on race relations, advanced the interest of black boys with behavioural problems and bullied the LDA into approving funding to help this group. Ken himself advanced the cause of more recent black Moslems with various initiatives including cosying up to the fascist Islamic cleric al-Qaradawi.

    No one in Kens administration (I should be happy to be proved wrong) stood up for or advanced funds to programmes for disaffected white youth in the capital in the same way as they did to black and muslim youth.

    Why not, presumably because Ken and co do not acknowledge the existence of a traditional white working class any more. But of course a lot do exist and many are concentrated out to the east of London in places like Barking and Dagenham where large housing estates were built to accommodate them after the war. Many worked in the docks and car firms like Ford, jobs now gone. But the communities remained tight and they resent not getting council housing for their children and grand children who now lose out to recent immigrants perceived to have a greater need.

    I am interested in the views of those who claim there is no white working class, that it is all a construct. Do you also think there is no black working class or no muslim working class? If so, why should disaffected black youth and muslim youth get funding and attention while disaffected white youth does not?

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