I was asked to speak this week at the Fabian Society fringe, with the title of this blog post as the headline. It was packed out completely, especially for an early afternoon Saturday when the conference had barely started. This is what I said – I was only given two minutes at the beginning.
The stereotype of the mildly racist white working class white-van driving man has become a common story in our national media. If it isnâ€™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 Iâ€™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 â€“ who is fighting which war, and is there any overlap? The second question is easier than the first â€“ of course there is overlap. If there is concern among poorer white families that their localities are changing and they canâ€™t even communicate with the new arrivals, or that there is no longer a sense of â€˜local communityâ€™ 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 â€“ because its easy for all sides to paint white working class people as mildly xenophobic.
So hereâ€™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 â€“ 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 donâ€™t think this government did it right â€“ 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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Filed in: British Identity,Culture,Race politics