THE BLOG

Who Cares About The White Working Class?

21/03/2017 11:18
Michael Greenwood via Getty Images

A decade ago Runnymede published 'Who Cares About the White Working Class?' But perhaps a better question would be how, or even why, do you care about the white working class?

The answer is: by focusing on the wider working class as a whole, to highlight and further support our shared interests and identities, and so to make Britain a less divided, fairer country.

The white working classes do indeed face barriers, disadvantages and even discrimination in Britain today. Politicians seeking to win their votes in the referendum or in the next general election will talk a lot about the white working class but we rarely hear their own voices, whether as Parliamentary candidates, Question Time panellists or comment authors in newspapers.

But whatever the reality of Brexit voting behaviour - and John Curtice has suggested that Labour supporters were solidly remain even in the north and midlands - just who are Mr and Mrs Left-Behind? The standard depiction of the working class as always white and xenophobic is a lazy stereotype, creating further division, and offering no real solutions for working class people in Britain.

If we truly care about the 'left behind' we should forget about how they voted in the referendum and focus on dealing with poverty, the lack of social mobility, and inadequate representation or voice of working class people in Britain's institutions. These problems cut across racial groups. Poor black, white and Asian communities live side by side, often in diverse neighbourhoods with high levels of social interaction. They all face barriers in accessing jobs and opportunities, and often live in areas where previous forms of employment, especially in manufacturing, have disappeared but not been replaced.

Some argue that what the working class want or need is cultural recognition or even ethnonationalist solidarity. Yet low wages, the housing crisis and austerity have impacted on the entire working class, while better off white people are least affected. So much for shared 'white British interests'. Analysis of Philip Hammond's budget shows that the poorest third of black and Asian women were worst hit, losing over £2,000 per year after tax and benefit changes, and highlighting the diverse nature of working class people in Britain.

Jobs and opportunities aren't just about money: they underpin self-respect and community. A key reason why communities feel 'left behind' or otherwise excluded is because in many working-class communities there is no longer the sort of work that helped define that community and provided individuals with meaning and self-worth. The idea that a nostalgic form of 'white Britishness' could fill this hole while offering neither employment, resources, nor access to decision-making institutions is profoundly desperate- and dangerous. Instead we must build responses that actually react to the need for dignity and meaning, needs that must be accompanied not only by a vague sense that the community matters, but by real opportunities for sustained employment and representation.

The best way to do this is to focus on the multi-ethnic working class, and to tackle class and race disadvantage through policies that can unite many people living in Britain. A report published today argues that we should care about the white working class, and the ethnic minority working class, because addressing class and race inequalities are the only way to bridge divides in Britain and for our economy to grow.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust. He tweets at @omaromalleykhan

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