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Can we give the white working classes what they want?


3:30 am - September 23rd 2008

by Sunny Hundal    


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This was the title of a fringe event hosted by the Fabian Society on Saturday morning at party conference. It was packed out completely, especially for an early afternoon Saturday when the conference had barely started.

I didn’t want to preach to the converted, but I was amazed at the extent to which those in the audience steered away from the issue I raised about identity and culture, and back to economics and equal pay. I left a bit shocked. There is serious work to be done on the left folks.

Here is what I said – I was only given two minutes before the panel debate started.

**********

The stereotype of the mildly racist white working class white-van driving man has become a common story in our national media. If it isn’t journalists of ethnic minority origins using them as examples of why racism persists, then its white journalists in the Daily Mail or Express interviewing them to tell us why immigration should be completely stopped into the country.

And yet I find this picture rather bizarre because from my experience working class communities in London are more racially diverse than middle class ones.

There are real concerns in working class families. But its obvious that in trying to answer whether we can give white working class families what they want, we have to know what they want first.

Doing such a survey would be as fruitful as asking what white middle classes want, because both are diverse groups with different interests that depend on various factors. So I’m going to tell you what I think is going on and how we could grapple with this conundrum.

I think there are two simultaneous wars going on. One is a war over resources, especially in deprived areas, that leads to social housing and welfare benefits being a flashpoint over which people express their anger.

The second is a culture war, a fight over social and emotional issues that define us. This is a war about the identity of our country, as it is now and where it is going. It is a fight over symbols, a sense of community and what is the social glue that defines us as a nation.

Two questions then arise – who is fighting which war, and is there any overlap? The second question is easier than the first – of course there is overlap. If there is concern among poorer white families that their localities are changing and they can’t even communicate with the new arrivals, or that there is no longer a sense of ‘local community’ then I would not dismiss that as illegitimate.

But, as is the case in the United States, the culture wars are fought primarily amongst the middle classes. They are the ones less concerned about poverty and economic issues and more about the localities they live in. And I think middle class journalists, for example Rod Liddle, use white working class people as vessels for their own wars – because its easy for all sides to paint white working class people as mildly xenophobic.

So here’s my point.

If the progressive liberal-left is serious about tackling this issue, then we have to fight both the wars.

One the one hand we have to address deprivation, lack of social housing, public transport and local investment – and not just because it affects white working classes but because it affects brown and black working class families too.

Simultaneously, we have to take on the right in the culture war. When Gordon Brown launched his Britishness project a few years ago, I was excited for this exact reason. That project had the capacity, if done right, to address these very concerns that could have neutralised the culture war.

Britishness, to me, was about forging a new British identity. An identity that encompassed the desire of minorities here to be accepted as part of the furniture and provide an affirmation of their bond to the United Kingdom.

It could also have been developed into a social glue that dealt with many of the exaggerated fears of white Britons that they had nothing in common with older and newer immigrants.

In other words, we need to develop a narrative that, like in other multi-cultural and multi-racial democracies, points to a better vision of the future and offers a language that binds us together as citizens.
I don’t think this government did it right – there were far too many ad hoc announcements and proposals without any over-arching idea of where it was leading to.

I will leave you with a thought. One of the great Achilles Heel of the left in Britain and the United States is that we have run away from fighting cultural battles because we are too afraid of them. Across the United States this is taking place now, as a black candidate has tried to straddle the racial divide by trying to appear neither too black nor too white.

Here, if we continue to run away from the culture issues at a time when the make-up of Britain has changed significantly in the last ten years alone, then we run the risk of letting the right define them.

If that happens then Labour could lose vast swathes of the electorate in the same way the Democrats did for a generation.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


1. dreamingspire

Disconnection all round. Public sector not in control of public transport – blames EU insistence on privatisation, but that doesn’t wash. A tiny one locally here: the public notice about a planning application was torn down from the street sign pole to which it had been fixed. I asked for it to be replaced, but nothing happened for a week or more. Asked again, was told that the Contractor had been tasked with replacing it, but that doesn’t wash either: Council officer should have been out next day and replaced it. I read through a recent local planning decision and was gobsmacked at the errors – if a stranger took the officer’s report and the formal decision doc out to the site, he/she would think he/she had gone to the wrong address. Rainwater gulleys blocked – nothing happens (and I get an email telling me the lie that all rainwater gulleys are cleaned out every year). Bad schools – and, surprise, surprise, a report just published says simply changing the head of the school doesn’t fix the problem – many of us knew that a long time ago. Its not WIW that annoys so much, its My Area Isn’t Working. But lots of money gets spent unnecessarily. Something is starting to change: I go to technical meetings where local govt people from all over are present, and at least they have changed from spouting aspirational shit to realising that they don’t know what they are doing – time their bosses accepted that, too.

2. Mike Killingworth

Spot on, Sunny: LC needs to major on this.

My only note of caution would be to beware of reading too much across from American experience. They have to deal with the legacy of slavery which we don’t, thank God – on the other hand they have a historically positive narrative of immigration + assimilation = nation-building, which doesn’t apply here.

New Labour as things stand hasn’t a clue. Hence Purnell’s appalling comment about not wanting to be the “conscience of a Conservative nation” – I take it by “nation” he means England. The only implication I can draw is that by “Conservative” he means “conservative”. If so, he may have half a point – how vibrant is liberal/left thinking outside our big cities (plus Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton)? A generation ago I used to say to people who talked about a multi-cultural country that they were wrong: England was a white country with mutli-cultural cities. Is that still a fair description? Does LC have anyone who writes pieces from the depths of the countryside about what’s going on there? If not, is fixing it a priority for us?

Sunny,

“I was amazed at the extent to which those in the audience steered away from the issue I raised about identity and culture, and back to economics and equal pay”

This is no surprise. Economic determinism – the idea that everything in society, politics, international relations, etc, can be put down to economic forces, was one of Marx’s many errors and is still a characteristic of Labour Party groupthink.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_determinism

And when you’re doing so badly in the polls, the emotional point of conference is to remind yourselves that you are right – so stick to the comfort zones.

Sunny, please don’t take this as any sort of attempt to troll, I take this subject deadly seriously as I know you do.

Britishness, to me, was about forging a new British identity. An identity that encompassed the desire of minorities here to be accepted as part of the furniture and provide an affirmation of their bond to the United Kingdom.

It could also have been developed into a social glue that dealt with many of the exaggerated fears of white Britons that they had nothing in common with older and newer immigrants.

What is missing here is any recognition that minorities do not always act like they are part of the furniture. There is nothing in your speech that equates acceptance with a desire to fit in. It sounds like one sided traffic. The topic was not ‘can we give non-white minorities what they want’.

I’m not going to rehearse the obvious areas where minority communities fall short of British values- everyone knows what they are. Until they are addressed, you are never going to get ‘a narrative that …points to a better vision of the future and offers a language that binds us together as citizens’.

Mike K [2]

on the other hand they have a historically positive narrative of immigration + assimilation = nation-building, which doesn’t apply here.

That is precisely because Multiculturalism, as supported by the Left, has fostered pockets of hostility to the mainstream culture.

Joe Otten [3]

Amen…

6. Mike Killingworth

[5] MT, your causal arrow is the wrong way round.

Immigration into the US and the UK were so different that it’s a shame we have to use the same word to describe them. Into the US almost all immigrants were suffering both economic deprivation and political oppression in their homeland and so from day one they were committed to permanent residence: they were also entering a country which had yet to forge its own identity, and which needed them (if only to dilute the residual Loyalists into political insignificance) politically as much as it did economically. The only significant group – until the Hispanics of the last 40 years or so – who were solely economic migrants were Germans, and they integrated with difficulty: as witness Wilson’s difficulty in getting his country into World War I on the allied side.

Britain, in sharp contrast, has never had any political need for immigrants. To expect people to assimilate in that situation is to expect them to become honorary whites (rather like French colonial policy). Multiculturalism was a response to the fact that assimilation was not an acceptable political option to the immigrant communities in Britain themselves, almost all of whom had and still have a legal right to back-migrate and who maintain far closer ties with their “mother countries” than any American immigrants do. The only factor in US politics comparable to the ties which British Asians sustain with the sub-continent (for example) is the Israel lobby.

Multiculturalism is not an ideology foisted on non-white Britons by leftie intellectuals. It is the consequence of listening, and to that extent at least is to be applauded. And yes, I for one am prepared to follow that where it goes – I would not wish to grant political rights to Scots or Welsh people that I would withhold from others on the grounds that they haven’t had the title deeds for the same length of time. I don’t think there is any significant demand for secession amongst non-white Britons, but they must be given the space to consider the option and (as I believe they will) reject it on sound rational self-interested grounds – rather than being told that they need to become more like the rest of us.

Mike K- but what if their kids want to become more like the rest of us?

ut what if their kids want to become more like the rest of us?

Lord knows they’ve tried – it’s just that, in many instances, they keep being told variations on ‘F**k off back to where you came from’. Or in some instances, they simply end up dead.

New Labour’s abandonment of multiculturalism is all of a piece with their inability/reluctance to talk about class (whether it’s white and working, or any other variety). The repeated attempts to install a ‘new sense of Britishness’ end up floundering because it looks like a defensive reaction to cultural and political change (or stopping dodgy Muslims from killing people, as has been the not-so-subtle subtext since 2001). Mike’s comment – My only note of caution would be to beware of reading too much across from American experience. They have to deal with the legacy of slavery which we don’t, thank God – ignores Britain’s own role in the slave trade which still has a legacy in social attitudes here, even allowing for the greater impact of post-WW2 migration. (It’s fairer to say that the UK does not have the same issues around segregation that the US has) ‘Britishness’ ends up looking like Brown’s substitute for ‘social justice’ or ‘social democracy’, but instead of a new identity, he just ends up with a more and more desperate nativism.

9. Mike Killingworth

[7] Many of them doubtless will. I remember a conversation I had with a young Asian woman who was very grateful for the time her mother was putting into to finding a husband for her, freeing up her own energy for career-building. I asked her “and will you do as much for your daughter in due course?” which she described as “a very good question indeed”.

[8] I take the point – the psychological persistence of slavery inside (some) Afro-Caribbean heads is a social fact and represents a special case. As successive black MPs for Tottenham have discovered, the disengagement of many of their youth – to which I allude in my article – is pretty much absolute. I don’t have any easy answers (if I did I’d be on the conference circuit).

How lovely for you Mike K to meet a woman so happy to be matched up with her same race, class and caste (such core left wing values!)- maybe even with her first cousin!

You should come to Karma Nirvana and see what conversations you would find there.

I can assure you they would be more enlightening.

Sunny, I agree with everything you have written. But left-wingers must not be afraid to recognise that the truly overwhelming levels of immigration which have taken place since the early 90s have been by far the greatest source of upset for the white working classes and have been unpopular with the more settled ethnic minorities as well. Even if they are afraid to express their anger in public, in private conversations it clear that this is the issue at the forefront of their minds. It is as though issues such as equal pay do not even register on their radar. On no other subject are ordinary people prepared to talk for longer and with such intense emotion. Often the sentiments expressed sound upleasant to liberal ears and anybody who says that racial relations have not deteriorated in the last few years hasn’t been out much.

My father, for instance, is 52 yrs old and has been a life-long socialist and labour voter, He has spent 30 yrs in the NHS doing several difficult and rather under-paid jobs because he believed in the institution. However, in the space of a few years he has transformed into an embittered and reactionary racist. He may seem a bit of an extreme example but many of his friends and neighbours exhibit similar views so I think this is rather the tip of the iceburg. Every time we are in the car, driving and he sees an arab muslim or a somali walking along the street, he makes the most venomous and hateful comments (not at them of course but with us). I don’t think you can put this down to a mid-life crisis or the influence of right-wing tabloids. (not least becuase he never reads the right-wing tabloids and used to read the guardian until a few years back) This a man who used to teach me that racism was one of the worst of evils. It is deeply sad but very unsurprising, the rate at which our local area has changed is alienating and traumatising for anyone but the most patient saint. It has been just too much of an influx in too short a space of time. I think immigration has been Labour’s greatest failure but the time has come to admit our mistakes and radically reduce levels so that all commuities can adjust, settle and integrate properly. This would come as a relief to millions of good people, white, black, asian and muslim who are frightened and exasperated at the the friendlessness and social decapitalisation which comes with such violent a rate of change.

[8] I take the point – the psychological persistence of slavery inside (some) Afro-Caribbean heads is a social fact and represents a special case.

Who says the problem is with the heads of Afro-Caribbean kids? I think you missed the point that part of my response.

Redpesto [12]

Who says the problem is with the heads of Afro-Caribbean kids? I think you missed the point that part of my response.

This is exactly the sort of response that increases frustration in the white community.

Labour have not just abandoned multiculturalism they have openly encouraged racism. Margaret Hodge in barking banging on about the darkies nipping up the housing list. Hazel Blears making sly allusions to the rate if change being to fast. Would any of that get past your comments policy?
At all turns and including infamous British jobs for the British lie it means nothing,. The border control is sham, the points system a joke in that its exception are the main drivers (relations). They have been scared ever since the strong showing by the BNP at Ealing .They fear a lasting split of the working class vote and as these citadels of welfare are al they have left this assumes a large importance .There are however more important reasons why Labour will never abandon their assaults on the cultural integrity of this land .

Mass immigration has been to do with the dirty politics of the left.

The floods deluging our shores are there to provide cheap manageable Labour for big business friends of labour and as a short term fix for inflation avoiding expensive training and infra structure (, hence practically all new jobs have been taken by immigrants). The plans to build 13 so called green towns were primarily in Conservative regions and of the 3,000,000 new homes 2.000,000 would have been inhabited by immigrants not yet here .( This is according to Nicholas Soames and Frank Field )
What we see is an attempt at a sort of settlement designed to alter the demographic of the South particularly towards those likely to be amenable to an internationalist tax and spend car park for all comers . The immigrants co-opt Liberals idea of the individual as separate from his identity for attacking the country and then fall back on communitarian ideas of identify when describing their own beloved victim status .Incidentally this is also why the idea that the atomised Humanism from which multiculturalism derives cannot be other than a graft . It is merely the public expression of immediate need for most just as Marxism was the public expression of justifiable class aggression its implications are utterly alien to its beneficiaries .

Multiculturalism in practice is a catch phrase believed by no—one . The very same Liberals who cant on about it judiciously remove their children form the London schools which , in many boroughs, have majorities of non English speaking students (as a first language). When it comes to choices about their own lives …now let me see, .Polly Toynbee , public schools , Dianne Abbot , the same , Emily Thornberry brilliantly discovered a ruse to get hers into a Potters Bar Grammar , from Islington ,..and I could go on.
This country has no wish to be dictated to by conceited poseurs the demand for an end to mass immigration is overwhelming and then I suggest everyone shuts up for bit while the country return to the peaceful idyll it once was by a process of mono-culturalisation .This will be a great boon for the children of immigrants of course as the British dominant culture, provides opportunity freedom , a sense of belonging women’s rights , etc. All things the coffee table book selling chancers already avail themselves of . Naturally.

Looking at the range if things you are not allowed to say I

Labour have not just abandoned multiculturalism they have openly encouraged racism. Margaret Hodge in barking banging on about the darkies nipping up the housing list. Hazel Blears making sly allusions to the rate if change being to fast. Would any of that get past your comments policy?
At all turns and including infamous British jobs for the British lie it means nothing,. The border control is sham, the points system a joke in that its exception are the main drivers (relations). They have been scared ever since the strong showing by the BNP at Ealing .They fear a lasting split of the working class vote and as these citadels of welfare are all they have left this assumes a large importance .There are however more important reasons why Labour will never abandon their assaults on the cultural integrity of this land .

Mass immigration has been to do with the dirty politics of the left.

The floods deluging our shores are there to provide cheap manageable Labour for big business friends of labour and as a short term fix for inflation avoiding expensive training and infra structure (, hence practically all new jobs have been taken by immigrants). The plans to build 13 so called green towns were primarily in Conservative regions and of the 3,000,000 new homes 2.000,000 would have been inhabited by immigrants not yet here .( This is according to Nicholas Soames and Frank Field )
What we see is an attempt at a sort of settlement designed to alter the demographic of the South particularly towards those likely to be amenable to an internationalist tax and spend car park for all comers . The immigrants co-opt Liberals idea of the individual as separate from his identity for attacking the country and then fall back on communitarian ideas of identify when describing their own beloved victim status .Incidentally this is also why the idea that the atomised Humanism from which multiculturalism derives cannot be other than a graft . It is merely the public expression of immediate need for most just as Marxism was the public expression of justifiable class aggression its implications are utterly alien to its beneficiaries .

Multiculturalism in practice is a catch phrase believed by no—one . The very same Liberals who cant on about it judiciously remove their children form the London schools which , in many boroughs, have majorities of non English speaking students (as a first language). When it comes to choices about their own lives …now let me see, .Polly Toynbee , public schools , Dianne Abbot , the same , Emily Thornberry brilliantly discovered a ruse to get hers into a Potters Bar Grammar , from Islington ,..and I could go on.
This country has no wish to be dictated to by conceited poseurs the demand for an end to mass immigration is overwhelming and then I suggest everyone shuts up for bit while the country return to the peaceful idyll it once was by a process of mono-culturalisation .This will be a great boon for the children of immigrants of course as the British dominant culture, provides opportunity freedom , a sense of belonging women’s rights , etc. All things the coffee table book selling chancers already avail themselves of . Naturally.

Incidenatlly your comments policy is a disgrace and clearlty designed to suppress views you do not like . On a blog you body forth your attitudes, and this is what we must suspect you would do to the country. Quite disgraceful

The evidence, for the moment and at the very least in the short term, suggests a fairly strong link between increased diversity and reduced social cohesion (at least in the intimate communal sense of so-called social capital): http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118510920/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

This is not necessarily a problem – I have lived in highly diverse areas and have not missed that “traditional” cohesion because I have family elsewhere and alternative ways of socialising. But white working class communities that perhaps base their cohesion on geography and physical locations where communal activities take place, would be apt to suffer from this breakdown associated with increased diversity. The left really ought to acknowledge this impact before working out what to do. It is not all about narratives, and just as the state isn’t very good at economic planning, I wouldn’t endorse the “cultural planning” of a new Britishness either. It would be better to integrate immigrants into what is already a culture that is almost uniquely tolerant of newcomers compared to other nations.

Newmania

Incidenatlly your comments policy is a disgrace and clearlty designed to suppress views you do not like . On a blog you body forth your attitudes, and this is what we must suspect you would do to the country. Quite disgraceful

Yawn. Faux-outrage from a Tory, who’da thunk it?

You really have this blogging thing all wrong, don’t you?

Our comment policy is OUR comment policy. Full stop. If you don’t like it, then you know what to do.

“This a man who used to teach me that racism was one of the worst of evils. It is deeply sad but very unsurprising, the rate at which our local area has changed is alienating and traumatising for anyone but the most patient saint.”

But this isn’t, and never has, been a problem with immigration. It’s about the handling of immigration. The benefits to the country outside of London in immigration have been vastly positive, and even in London there’s little to say negatively.

Infrastructure not being enough, “white” people being forced out of jobs, alienation, lack of community cohesion…this isn’t because immigrants came in it’s because society clearly hasn’t been managed or resourced to deal with change, and my god is the world changing at a frantic pace since 50 or so years ago.

It’s easy to point fingers are immigration being the problem, the cause..it’s not, it’s just a factor in a wider issue.

Yes its interesting when your start to apply notions of ownership to imaginative spaces isn’t it ‘Our country is OUR country Full stop. If you don’t like it, then you know what to do.’ That of course has a far deeper justification but I don’t know that I would want to be as illiberal as that.
I made a number of points all , no doubt, outside the Soviet right -think zone. I have little interest in the tediously queasy justifications for fearful bubbles of self congratulation. It speaks for itself

Newmania,

Oh my you’re a strange little man.

Soviet? Oh, pluuueeeazze. You clearly don’t know my politics. Let me ask… do you have a lot of magnets in your house?

Aaron
I may not know your politics,. I am, on the other hand , getting your sexual orientation in no uncertain terms . How about turning the camp down to 10 Dorothy your Judy Garland routine is a bit overpowering .

Goodbye ( he said awkwardly )

*sighs. shakes head*

Mix together at 13

Redpesto [12]

Who says the problem is with the heads of Afro-Caribbean kids? I think you missed the point that part of my response.

This is exactly the sort of response that increases frustration in the white community.

Hmm…this could go on all night, I suppose: I point towards how the attempts to integrate have sometimes been rejected; you take it as being a problem to do with the ‘tude of Afro-Caribbean kids; I dispute that part of the argument; you claim that it ‘increases frustration in the white community’. At the risk of derailing the thread, I’d better be clear: racism is part of the argument and the history here (and continues to haunt ideas of ‘Britishness’). That said, the shared class connections between whites, blacks and Asians is something New Labour haven’t bothered with in years.

Waldemar’s comment is the one which has impressed me most as ringing most true. I recognize these as being a view shared by many in my part of London.

alienation, lack of community cohesion…this isn’t because immigrants came in

You cannot have a society divided into different ethnic groups unless there are different ethnic groups present to divide it into.

Such effects can perhaps be mitigated or exaggerated by government policy, but they must be there.

Newmnia – if you don’t like the comments policy you can bugger off. I certainly don’t want you trolling here.

But left-wingers must not be afraid to recognise that the truly overwhelming levels of immigration which have taken place since the early 90s have been by far the greatest source of upset for the white working classes and have been unpopular with the more settled ethnic minorities as well.

Well, this is a partly an economic issue and partly a social issue.

The economic problem is that government data does not filter through fast enough, so local councils cannot resopnd quickly enough to changing local populations. The distribution of local funding for public services is based on outdated stats.

The second is the cultural/communication issue. Here, I don’t think the govt is paying enough attention, simply because from an electoral perspective they think those votes are in the bag. Oh and they have no idea what to do on Britishness….

Oh the ‘Britishness’ question! This is one that’s taken a bit of time to get around to.

I never understood the idea of multi-culturalism because I always thought of culture as something you partook of and not something you could own. In the same way I only saw the way ‘multi-culturalism’ was used as a redefinition of an ancient reality which needed to be reinvented to give the newest set of migrants the false sense of ownership of the institutions which make up the fabric of our state required of them by the politicians who wanted to put and keep them in their place.

The biggest failure Labour made with regard to immigration was to try to say anything at all was new. I remember hearing Robin Cook speak on the subject to this effect – he talked about how our diversity is what unifies us. So in agreement I don’t think it helps anyone to start trying to identify smaller and smaller subsections of disadvantaged groups which allows a sense of identification with victimised minorities to develop.

Why risk creating further upset by developing any false narrative with an artificial and damaging struggle for discrimination when liberated individuals are best placed to define themselves through personal fulfilment of our potential?

I think it is perfectly fair to point out how the left fails to grasp the problems they’ve created as a consequence of their actions in just the same way as the right is guilty of callous self-interest – there is a remarkable symmetry between the two sides of this political spectrum on this issue.

So what to do on ‘Britishness’? Do nothing. Let it stay an academic matter; let the linguists, archaeologists and geneticists research the hows, whys and wherefores.

Instead the focus of political efforts should just concentrate on educating about our democratic values and bureaucratic procedures – because if we know how our institutions work and how we can influence them then the colour of flag, skin or accent is irrelevant.

Newmnia – if you don’t like the comments policy you can bugger off. I certainly don’t want you trolling here.

If you don

I mean

If trolling is disagreeing I can see why you don’t like it . You point about data filtering through is of course codswallop the data is all wrong that’s the problem as the government has admitted on several occasions. As far as buggering off is concerned well , as I say , that is exactly the same thing as me saying if you don’t like our country bugger off .You will not be missed and as you very well know , that is a stone cold fact , although not an opinion I necessarily share

@Mike Killingworth: “A generation ago I used to say to people who talked about a multi-cultural country that they were wrong: England was a white country with mutli-cultural cities.”

You were wrong then and you are wrong now. I am writing this from Leicester, where about 50% of the population are non-white. Shared city space (shops, council facilities) are “multi-cultural” in that they are used by all; but many housing areas are culturally exclusive. There are streets of privately owned houses that are 90% Muslim or 90% Hindu; my street is 90% white. Aggregate figures for a city population do not tell a story.


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