Why you should care about the prospects of the white working class

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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I am the kind of dinosaur who has an outdated view of social justice.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.


5 thoughts on “Why you should care about the prospects of the white working class

  1. Top post Greg. As the various categories of identity politics have become ever more abstruse and disconnected with the concerns of ordinary people (and the example of that BBC pay dispute is an excellent one), there will be plenty more Trumps (and Beppe Grillos, and Marine Le Pens) on the way.

  2. This is a good post and I agree with much of it. However, being tied to the EU has not been a success for the working classes. As you say, they are not likely to want to move out of their area (though I have – but I was brought up in London). I voted to leave the EU because of the issue of loss of democracy. The beliefs, desires and wishes of the white working classes are dismissed as popularism by an elite that thinks it knows best and should be allowed to organize the lives of ordinary people according to what the elite thinkgs they need – this is pretty close to the Marxist notion of forcing people to be free. I am well educated and do not want the ‘freedoms’ of the EU, with its useless parliament and its unelected officials and secret deals. I wish to see my government in action, know what deals it is doing, and get rid of it when it acts against my interests and wishes. I share this feeling with most of those who voted to leave the EU, whatever their educational level. Democracy is under threat and many realise this. It is under threat from organizations such as the EU, which despise democracy, and under threat from globablization which seeks to lay power only with the super wealthy and with business. It is an understanding of this, sometimes implicit or not well articulated, that made working class people vote for Brexit and Trump. And they are right. If we want democracy to continue and spread organizations like the EU (and the IMF, the UN and the WTO) need to be reined in. The working classes see this because it is their lives that are spoiled by this move away from democracy and the nation state which is its surest protection. So they wisely and rightly vote to leave the EU or not have yet another liberal elite president.
    Yes, we need to make sure the least advantaged get a good education: but do not assume that an educated working class would have voted to remain in the EU – it would not, because the reasons to leave have little to do with economics and much more to do with a sense of place and a sense of justice and democracy. The working classes have these in buckets.

  3. I tend not to be on the Labor side of the divide, but still share concerns for all to have a fair crack at the economic pie. It is very concerning that Anglo-celtic ‘working class’ youngsters (male and female) are being left out, indeed, hung out to dry, by the metro-marxists. There’s nothing fair, just or sensible about this.

    My forebears were union organisers, so I grew up with a sympathy for the position workers were then in vs the large organisations they worked for. Still am, and am concerned that Unions are not doing their foundation job, it seems to me.

    Education has a role to play, and it is up to us as a society to ensure that young people of whatever background, socio-political inclination and vocational direction have a sound functional education that will enable them to take up the jobs they will enjoy and potentially excel at.

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