The idea of a 'white working class'

Mike Makin-Waite explores the myths and realities of Labour’s ‘traditional base’.  

Burnley town centre

Following Labour’s losses in the election, there has been much debate about how to relate to ‘traditional’ supporters who ‘lent’ their votes to the Tories in constituencies from Burnley to Bolsover, and from Leigh to Sedgefield.

There’s a well-established narrative framing this debate: Labour has become detached from its traditional base in the old manufacturing and coal-mining districts; and in this context, the rise of anti-immigrant racism and related opposition to ‘Europe’ has proved a real challenge. Johnson’s co-option of the far-right populist themes was thus able to attract sufficient ‘white working class’ voters to put him into Downing Street to ‘get Brexit done’.

What, then, is to be done?  For some, a key need is to reconnect with those who have ‘lost trust’: to win back ‘traditional’ voters by showing that Labour shares, understands and respects their concerns about immigration and patriotism and - having neatly tidied this issue away - proving once again that it’s Labour that can deliver on the real ‘bread and butter’ issues.  Others are more wary of taking on such an agenda and believe Labour should be positively celebrating our diverse identities, and adopting the ‘demographic option’ of confirming and developing support amongst younger people. Getting them to vote and building a new base is the road to recovery.

But these positions are often based on a shared understanding: each takes the existence of ‘the white working class’ as a given.

It is crucial to critique this concept - and linked notions such as ‘left behind’ and ‘forgotten places’.

It is really only since the early 2000s, when it was a phrase regularly used by the BNP’s Nick Griffin, that the idea of the ‘white working class’ has taken hold. And it was BBC 2’s ‘White’ series of documentaries in 2008 that really cemented the idea. Since then it’s been routinely used as a self-evident category that aids understanding in debates about austerity, immigration, Brexit, regional inequality and other issues.

But ‘the white working class’ is not a neutral term. It is a weaponised phrase that is used in debate with a particular intent. It is a ‘folk category’, a constructed version of common sense, and one with pernicious effect. It appears to be a way of identifying and discussing social problems, but in reality, its misdescription of underlying causes leads to the exacerbation of division and the racialisation of issues of equality.

Whether identified in classical terms by its relationship to the means of production, or in more sociological terms as people in particular occupational groupings, or bands of income levels, or even in relation to cultural and lifestyle practice - the inescapable fact is that ‘the working class’ is racially and ethnically diverse. There are of course working-class people who are white, but the term has no sense as a category that is capable of explaining anything.

Instead, the construction of this supposed identity is an attempt to tell those who embrace it that the reasons for their problems are to do with their being white people, rather than to do with class. Talk of ‘the white working class’ serves to obscure the real reasons for disadvantages and barriers experienced by most working-class people. It is an attempt to direct resentment in the wrong direction. It is part of a strategy for avoiding the possibility of class proper coming back onto the political agenda.

So it makes no sense for Labour to base any strategy on appealing to this new/old form of constructed identity. Instead it’s important to be clear that working-class voters who happen to be white do not automatically identify with right-wing views, or associate themselves with all that is retrograde, parochial, backward-looking and defensive – however strongly they are being invited to do so, not least through the growing acceptance of the ‘white working class’ identity.

We also need to look past the headlines to see some of the other ways in which this myth is constructed. During the ten years from 2002, for example, when the BNP had some representation on Burnley Council, the town was routinely described in the media as a BNP ‘stronghold’ – including, sometimes, the left and liberal press. Yet throughout this period, though the BNP were more successful in Burnley than in most other places, the vast majority of the town’s working-class population – black and white – continued to cast their votes either for the Labour Party or for local grassroots activists in the Liberal Democrats. It was always one or other of these two ‘mainstream’ parties which ran the council, whilst the BNP’s opposition seats gradually dwindled in number.

Essentialising ‘the working class’, and asserting that ‘it’ has particular outlooks and values is nothing new. As Jefferson Cowie has argued, the new stereotype of the racist white working class is ‘yet another twist in a long line of manipulations of the working class image’: the right’s current reductionism reminds him of ‘the Old Left’s equally simplistic “proletariat”’.

There is a danger that Labour and left activists will attempt to replace the idea of ‘the white working class’ with an equally abstract sense of a constituency which is eager to support them: people crying out for massive reinvestment in public services and regional economies, renationalisation of a range of services, better welfare benefits and a well-funded NHS.

But definitions of the people – though they may have some effect in inviting people to identify with a particular project – are usually part of a process of rolling out policies ‘for’ them. Reconnecting left politics and former Labour voters will be a cumulative process, in the course of which the party must avoid falling into the trap of speaking about people rather than to and with them. We must get to the point where progressive representatives are speaking from a close, accountable relationship with their constituents – or, even better, enabling and allowing people to speak and act for themselves.

The importance of effective relationships and connecting to people’s emotions and aspirations is something we need to remind ourselves of. And though we might say we understand this, the evidence is that we don’t. Part of the appeal of ‘get Brexit done’ was that it connected to a desire for agency and action. We may find it frustrating that this was displaced into support for Johnson’s Conservatives. Nevertheless, those ‘lending their votes’ did so with a sense that this was a means for them to make a difference, and have an impact on issues that matter to them. That they did so based on false promises, and entertaining hopes that the new government will not realise, provides the context for politics over the coming period.

It will be crucial to create and sustain genuine dialogue with people whose current positions are a long way from the those of the liberal left. This is neither about explaining away ‘reactionary’ views or indulging them. As Nesrine Malik has argued, our ‘vivid alternative to the parochial nativism of a post-Brexit Britain’ must connect to people ‘by making a pitch for their souls that goes beyond the economic’. Real engagement is a precondition for this. Searching for shared interests and values among those whose support the left must regain should not be seen as making concessions or ‘triangulation’, even when this involves exploring contradictory positions and views: it is the process by which activists and voters can learn together about the real sources of our current frustrations, and find effective ways to address them.