I grew up in Quarry Bank, in an area of England known as the ‘Black Country’ due it’s role in the industrial revolution and the abundance of coal mines. Quarry Bank is a predominantly white, working class area and, when I was growing up, its high street was lined with butchers’ shops and pubs. The family legend holds that, at ten years of age and at the height of The British Empire, my great grandfather was harnessed to a truck, pulling coal out of a pit. This lasted until his mother was able to obtain him an apprenticeship with the pit blacksmith. Metalwork is a feature of my family history, with a great grandfather, a great grandmother and a grandfather all earning a living by making chain on a piecework basis.
I don’t think I am working class. I used to have a working class accent of which I still retrain a trace. And my parents did not attend university. On the other hand, my father completed a university level course as a young draughtsman. My family was not particularly wealthy, but we did own our own home; a home built by my grandfather who was a bricklayer as well as a chainmaker. My life has since developed away from my working class origins. I moved out of Quarry Bank to study, then I went to London and I now find myself living in Australia. To my understanding, the working class consists of blue-collar workers who tend to have a strong connection to a specific place and that is not me.
I recently noticed an education commentator on Twitter criticising people who express a concern for the welfare of the white working class in Britain. Sure, they may be disadvantaged in some ways, but those who raise such issues, he contended, tend to do so in order to dodge discussions of race or gender: It’s a diversionary manoeuvre. No doubt some people may be disingenuous in this way, but it is dangerous to conclude that we should just ignore the white working class. There is more than one lens to look through when analysing these issues.
I am the kind of dinosaur who has an outdated view of social justice. To me, social justice is about ensuring that the poorest and most marginalised in society get to share in the spoils of economic and social progress. I have never believed that markets are benevolent. Markets can reduce prices and increase living standards but they can also lead to monopolies; including monopolies over employment. Workers at the bottom of the heap do not necessarily gain from this – think zero-hours contracts and flat wage growth – and that is why government has a role in regulating the function of markets and in redistributing wealth. It is this understanding of social justice that motivated me to join The Labour Party back in 1997.
However, today social justice is more about ensuring the equality of various groups defined upon the basis of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and various other traits that individuals may possess. This equality is not just economic but also deeply symbolic. Statues, Halloween costumes and the curriculum can all embody inequality. Oppressor groups and oppressed groups are identified and one individual can be a member of both groups simultaneously. For instance, a white woman can be both a white oppressor and an oppressed woman.
The difference between these conceptions of social justice can be seen in the debate over pay equality at the BBC. It is plainly wrong that a female journalist should be paid less than a male journalist for doing the same work. However, I don’t see a disagreement about the difference between two large salaries as a social justice issue. To me, that sits in a category labelled ‘sexism’ which, in this case, appears unrelated to issues involving the poor and marginalised.
As the left has slowly transitioned from championing the prehistoric social justice of my youth to the modern, metropolitan social justice of today, it has left many of the poor and marginalised behind, including the white working class. Those who argue for taking notice of them risk revealing their latent racism to an easily offended world. And the white working class have noticed.
Which is a problem for everyone. In democracies, there are still a lot of white working class people and they have been using their votes to thumb their noses at those who they believe have nothing to offer them or who take them for granted. Mainstream politicians with centrist views have suffered as a result. While the left discuss issues of identity, the white working class in America vote for Trump and in Britain they vote for Brexit.
This is baffling to the metropolitan left. Aren’t these voters silly! Don’t they realise that the areas of Britain that voted most enthusiastically for Brexit are the ones that will be hardest hit by its effects? Well, as Bob Dylan wrote, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
Rather than telling them off for voting the wrong way, the left needs to engage with policies that are attractive to working class people. An attachment to place means that the working class are less likely to move to another part of the country in order to find work and so investment needs to go to the communities where they already live. London is incredibly well served by public transport but many of the regions of England are not. A classical liberal might justify this on the basis that London generates more wealth than these regional areas, whereas the left traditionally argues for redistribution. So, policies on regional transport, like Corbyn’s policy of rail nationalisation, have an appeal. This should be a focus.
If we are concerned about the potential attraction of demagogues then we need to enhance the critical thinking abilities of the population, not least the white working class. This does not come from designing ‘critical thinking’ courses that attempt to explicitly teach critical thinking as some kind of skill. And it does not come from embedding a praxis of critical pedagogy as advanced by some portly middle-aged Marxist who thinks he’s Che Guevara. Rather, the ability to think critically gradually accumulates with breadth and depth of education. The more science, literature, history and mathematics a person has to draw upon, the greater their ability to critically analyse the world around them. And this is why we should not simply dismiss reports that white working class boys, for example, are the worst performers in the English education system. This is not just an economic and social cost to them, it is a risk to us all.
Most importantly, we need empathy and understanding. I lived in Watford from 2004 to 2010 during a time when Eastern Europeans were moving into the area. A new phenomenon arose of men who stood at the end of our street, drinking from cans of beer. As far as I recall, they never caused any trouble. Nevertheless, my elderly neighbour didn’t like it. It’s easy to label her a racist but perhaps a little harder to understand that she was simply uncomfortable with the way that her community was changing. Middle class people either embrace the change in culture or move somewhere else. Working class people find that harder to do, economically and emotionally, and we need to understand that.
It’s like the feeling I had when I last walked through Quarry Bank with my Dad. The pubs we used to visit together were gone. And the butchers’ shops selling roast pork sandwiches were gone. And for a moment, forgetting my escape to a different life in a different place, I felt a sense of loss.
There are many people out there feeling a sense of loss, a sense of confusion, that they are being neglected or ignored. We need to think about policies that will address these concerns. Otherwise, Trump and Brexit are just the beginning.