Friday, 6 March 2009

Who Cares about the White Working Class?

Over recent weeks (months) there has been almost a continuous debate about whether or not the white working class in the UK is the new “ethnic minority” that is exploited and discriminated against in the face of: (a) “political correctness gone mad”, (2) exploitation in the labour market from “unfair” competition from new “immigrants” or migrant workers, (3) unfair competition for limited resources (such as council housing) - where it is alleged priority is given to everyone but “white, English/British” families, or indeed a combination of these and other factors.

The main protagonists in promoting such a position have been the popular media (such as the Daily Mail, Express and Telegraph) and the British National Party (who now claim to the unique political representative of this new exploited minority – in the face of being deserted by “new” Labour). The BBC also played its part in promoting such ideas with its “White” season last year.

What is very interesting is the sudden discovery, by particularly the right wing popular media, of the “working class” (albeit now prefaced by the adjective “white”). Historically these newspapers had spent tons of paper and miles of column inches slagging off anything that addressed issues of social class and class inequality. When “working class” interest were being asserted (particularly in battles involving multi-racial/ethnic workers) they were demonised and vilified. You only have to look back at the reporting of the miners strike, Grunwick or other industrial disputes over the past 20/30 years to know whose side the popular media was on – and it wasn’t the “working class” – whatever their colour or racial or ethnic make-up!

It seems that Britain has now gone from a society in which social class is/was irrelevant (and those who perpetrated such “silly” notions were defined a “class-war warriors or worse), to one in which it is now acceptable to advance the cause of the working class, so long as it is ethnically or racially defined as “white” or “British” or “English”. And the protagonists of such a position proudly proclaim that they are not racist but are, instead, “nationalists” or “patriots” – as if this makes it somehow better!

Of course class inequalities have never gone away – you only have to look around the UK to see huge disparities of wealth and income, unequal access to health, education, housing, council services, etc. to see that claims we have moved from an industrial to a post-industrial society and the “end of history” were (to be crude) a load of old bollocks! Class has been, and always has been, a key determinant of inequality in the UK (and else where in the world as well). As the recession bites it will be noticeable that those who will be worse affected by it will be the poorest, the most vulnerable and those without power - again, the working class of all races and ethnicities.

Those who caused the crisis – as is already being demonstrated on a daily basis – will be bailed and will continue to draw their disgustingly large salaries, bonuses and pensions – whilst trying to reduce wages and remove pension rights from others (such as local government workers). Why is it always the pensions of the working classes that are “unaffordable”, whilst the rich and the powerful continue to draw theirs?

However, it is also the case (and this has sometimes been ignored by the “left” and classic Marxism) that class exploitation is also mediated through or stands alongside other forms of exploitation and inequality – such as that of gender, race/ethnicity, disability. To argue (as anti-racist or feminists have done) that racial/gender inequality and racism/sexism are also important issues to address, does not detract from the struggle to reduce or eliminate class inequality – indeed it supplements and enhances our understanding of how inequalities are created and sustained and how they can be reduced or abolished. The world is very complex and it does not serve us well if we simplify or reduce all forms of inequality or exploitation to one single cause or explanation. We have to look at it the world in all its complexity.

This does not, however, suit the political agendas of the Daily Mail, Express or Telegraph, or even the BNP and others. In their eyes the world and its problems are simple to understand and there are simple solutions. Such simplicities reflect their state of mind and their assumed intelligence of the audiences they are trying to reach!

If there is genuine concern for the exploitation and inequalities that affect the “white” working class, then this same concern must extend to the working class as a whole, irrespective of its ethnic, racial, gender or religious composition. Likewise, it would be grossly unfair if we did not also recognise that on top of class inequalities, other forms of injustice and unfairness can make things worse as well. If we want a fair and equal society for all, then all forms of inequality must be addressed.

A recent publication by the Runnymede Trust has looked at some of these issues and is well worth the read. It is entitled “Who Cares about the White Working Class?” and it can be found at:
Who Cares About the White Working Class


  1. An excellent piece, Paul. I would add that it is important to remember that despite thier newfound admiration of the "white" working class - the popular media perpetuates in it's condemnation of all of us people who have relatively little, and still pumps out garbage about 'lazy' people on benefits, failing to recognise that productive people are not working because of the expoitation by the ruling class (in forms such as increasing hours and cutting numbers of employees and so on). It is unacceptable that British workers work 11 hours a week more than French workers - if the working week were slashed (without loss of pay) down to 35 hours, there would be a much greater number of people in employment. Could you guess the Daily Mail's response to that?!

  2. very interesting and incisive - class is still so relevant in our society.

  3. Thank you for a very sound and well-written analysis. A minor point: I would suggest that the situation is not as complex as you make out. Most of the media and politicians try to spin opinion to suit the interests and ideas of their bosses. The simple fact is that the working class will always be shat on -- as long as the masters can get away with it.
    Daventry socialist.

  4. Hi Paul,
    I think you're right to be suspicious of the way in which the English/white working class has been given a specific ethnicity. In this respect the BBC 'White' series was disappointing because it paid such close attention only to the question of 'whiteness' and left unexplored the social position ascribed by class. It seems that concern for the English working class can only be countenanced providing class can be remade as ethno/difference. This way the post-industrial poor are assured that their problems are essentially one of identity and not politico-economic. This is one of the less auspicious aspects of liberal versions of multiculturalism, which treats everyone as 'natives', each with their own peculiar culture that should be respected but the powers that be will be damned if they will lift finger to redress or look at the systemic reasons for inequality and impoverishment. Instead you'll be given a date in the calendar to celebrate your difference.

    The English working class have had little investment in multiculturalism until now and I would worry that more conservative elements would see this as an opportunity to use the rhetoric of multiculturalism to pursue their own separatist ends. That said I do think there are more progressive expressions of Englishness, such as Billy Bragg or Chris Wood's musical exploration of an English dissenting tradition that provides a way in which the English can engage with their neighbours without resorting to the old imperialist expressions of superiority and difference.