By Martin Smith
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Challenging the whitewash: ruling class stereotypes of workers

This article is over 14 years, 4 months old
The recent BBC White Season painted a bleak picture of the white working class in Britain today as bigoted and broken. Martin Smith argues that these stereotypes are encouraged by politicians and the media to divide us and are far from the experiences of working people's real lives.
Issue 324

The white working class is an embittered minority: racist, bigoted, broken and fragmented. That was the view of several programmes in the recent BBC television series The White Season. The problem, according to the programme makers, is that the white working class has lost its identity due to the impact of de-industrialisation and immigration. Richard Klein, the commissioning editor of the White Season, went further, saying “I feel that the white working class has been ignored by the political classes because they feel the pressure of political correctness.”

The advert for The White Season showed a white face gradually being obliterated by different languages being written over it. The message is clear: multiculturalism and anti-racism are bad for white workers and leave them feeling alienated and threatened. This was reinforced by one of the participants in a programme about a working men’s club in Bradford who said, “There is no fairness. A lot of people feel the same way. I am not a racist but I do think the ethnic communities seem to be favoured more than the indigenous people.”

Several of the programmes gave the impression that only the fascist British National Party (BNP) speaks up for white working class people. If the picture the programme makers paint of the working class is true, there is little hope for those of us who want to live in a multiracial society. So it is important to challenge and dispel what is being passed as fact about the white working class in Britain.

First, how are working class people represented in the media? They are on our television screens every day. There are numerous reality programmes showing hoodied kids with Asbos being drunk and disorderly or stealing cars.

There is rarely a programme which shows working class people just living their lives. Even the soaps are distorted.

How often do you see a real worker in EastEnders – a postal worker or a supermarket warehouse worker – not someone running their own business, or selling dodgy goods in the pub?

Contrast this with the rafts of shows portraying and catering to middle class lifestyles: holiday programmes; Location, Location, Location; guides on how to buy properties around the world. Almost every sitcom is about an angst ridden middle class family. And having a handful of programmes that cater for Asian and black viewers does not alter the fact that black and Asian people are even more unrepresented on our screens.

The working class is seen as interested only in bingo, football and drinking. There is nothing wrong with any of these leisure pursuits, but it is a totally one-dimensional view of the working class. Historian Jonathan Rose’s fascinating book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, shows that working class people have always desired culture, including theatre, music and reading.

Over the past 50 years the so-called indigenous population and successive waves of immigrants have borrowed heavily from each other’s cultures, creating new and inspiring art forms. Despite this, the media reduces all working class people to a series of crude caricatures – whites are “chavs” and louts, black kids are gun carrying gangsters and Asians are potential terrorists.

We don’t see the tens of thousands of people who have attended Stop the War meetings and anti-fascist concerts and rallies around the country in recent years. Tony Benn pointed out on Radio 4 last month that the media never quote from the speeches or discussion at such political rallies. At no point do television cameras come and film the primarily working class audiences expressing their view about the world. If they did, they would see that working class people are articulate and knowledgeable.

Of course, if you go to some working men’s clubs you are going to see workers at their most isolated and backward. But to generalise from this gives a completely false picture of the working class in Britain.

There is no doubt that three decades of Labour and Tory governments, and neoliberal and anti-union policies have damaged working class communities. This is most obvious in some mining areas which were decimated by the Tory pit closure programmes. Some of these communities have not recovered.

Cities like Bradford and the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham (both of which were featured in The White Season) have also been hit by a decline in certain sectors of manufacturing. The Bradford textile industry was wiped out, and Dagenham saw the near total closure of the Ford car plant (the biggest local employer) and dozens of component factories. This has left both areas blighted by unemployment, poverty and social deprivation.

But even these areas are not wastelands. In Bradford unemployment stood at 6.4 percent in 2006 and in Barking & Dagenham at 8.5 percent. Obviously life for those who are unemployed is harsh, but the vast majority of people are in work. Unemployment nationally remains relatively low (an average of 5.2 percent). Life is not wonderful under Gordon Brown, but most working class people do not live on the fringes of society. They have relatively stable employment, even if it is low paid.

Yes, there are impoverished white workers. The TUC has calculated that 19 percent of white people live in poverty. However, the situation is much worse for ethnic minorities. For example, 58 percent of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are defined as poor, as are 47 percent of black non-Caribbean and 34 percent of black Caribbean workers.

Attacks by successive governments, but in particular Labour, have left many people demoralised and confused. When the government pursuing these policies is meant to be on our side, the bitterness and feeling of alienation are all the deeper. This is further compounded by the fact that the Labour Party, which had strong roots and an ideological hold in many working class areas, has lost many of its local activists. When Blair came to power there were nearly 500,000 party members. Today there are about 170,000.

This demoralisation and the resulting political vacuum have pushed a minority into the arms of the BNP. In the past seven years the BNP vote has increased from 3,022 to 292,911 in local council elections. While this vote is concentrated in a small number of areas its support has risen as Labour has failed to deliver. This is a worrying development that needs to be countered.

It is popular to explain such changes with the claim that the working class is in decline and at worst decimated. But in reality the working class is bigger than ever. Major structural changes have taken place. In 1978 some 6.9 million people worked in manufacturing industries. By 2005 this number had fallen to 3.2 million and it continues to fall. But manufacturing still represents a serious sector of the British working class. It is very well organised, and remains a powerful and important sector of the British economy. But the decline has left its scars.

However, these changes have coincided with the growth of white collar and service sector jobs, which are becoming increasingly unionised. Teachers, council workers and civil servants now make up an important militant part of the labour movement.

Seven million people belong to trade unions, which remain the biggest voluntary organisation in the country. When was the last time the BBC screened a film about a trade union? They rarely talk about them, unless to denounce them as a throwback to a bygone age.

White workers make up 93 percent of all trade union members. Despite the under-representation of black and Asian workers at the top of unions, anti-racism is taken very seriously. There have been a number of struggles against racist managers and fights to incorporate migrant workers on the same pay and conditions as their fellow workers. (Strangely, this is ignored by the media.) Unions like Usdaw and Unite now employ Polish and Eastern European full time organisers to encourage migrant workers to join their unions.

Every major union in the country supports Unite Against Fascism and the Stop the War Coalition. Of course, no one can deny that some working class people hold racist ideas, but life is much more complicated than this.

The dramatic rise in Islamophobia and the growing offensive against Muslims since the 9/11 attacks has been driven by the government and fuelled by scare stories in the media. Multiculturalism, the idea that people from many cultures can live together and be enriched by our different identities, is under attack on many fronts. Gordon Brown claims he wants to instil an idea of Britishness into the population, calling for a “British Day” and daily pledges of allegiance in schools, US style, to queen and flag.

The effect of such talk has been to encourage the perception that some inherent part of white Britain’s culture is being lost because of immigration. A recent BBC Newsnight survey found that 4 percent of people in 1997 thought immigration was a problem. In 2007 it had risen to 38 percent. What has changed in the past ten years? In 1997 people hoped that things were going to change for the better. Ten years of a Labour government which has relentlessly attacked working class people has led to a level of despair where immigrants can become scapegoats.

However, integration between black, white and Asian people in working class communities is much higher than we are led to believe. In a recent BBC poll of working class people, despite the loaded nature of the questions and a very narrow definition of “working class”, 42 percent thought that immigration was a positive thing.

In 1955 two thirds of the British population considered themselves prejudiced, and half of these said they were deeply prejudiced. By 2001 only 4 percent said they were very prejudiced and 35 percent said they were a little prejudiced. In 1958 a Gallup poll found that 71 percent of Britons were opposed to mixed marriage. Today the figure is so low that Gallup no longer records the statistic.

Levels of racial integration in British society are highest among working class people. Britain is not like the US – there are no ghettos. According to the Office for National Statistics 70 percent of people describe their ethnicity as white and their religion as Christian. There are only 14 wards in Britain where an ethnic group other than white makes up more than half of the population. In none of these wards does that single group reach as much as 75 percent of the population. Compare that with the 5,000 wards in Britain where whites make up more than 98 percent.

Integration is shown in the most obvious way by people’s personal relationships. The Observer newspaper stated that Britain has the highest rate of interracial marriage in Europe. The census records over 100,000 children of mixed Asian and white origin, and 158,000 children of mixed Caribbean and white origin.

Working class communities are mixed. People from all different nationalities live and work together, with their children going to the same schools. There are exceptions to this, particularly in education, but integration is the general trend.

The most recent arrivals are workers from Eastern Europe. Along with Muslims they have faced a horrific onslaught of abuse from both media and politicians. Such treatment has been a recurring theme in British history. Jewish workers in the 1930s and black and Asian workers over the past 30 years have suffered similar abuse and have been forced to defend their communities. A section of the white working class has always stood alongside them.


Even with the newest migrant workers integration, not separation, is the norm – especially in the workplace. Because Eastern European workers have to register their job when they enter Britain we know exactly where they work, and what the figures reveal is a picture of integration. These workers are not on the margins of the employment sector. Of the 388,000 Eastern European workers who came to Britain between 2005 and 2006, 24,000 are packers, 10,000 work in sales and 25,000 are warehouse workers. In other words, they work for big corporations like Tesco, Morrisons and Asda. They work and socialise alongside white and black workers and belong to the same unions and social clubs.

The whole history of the British working class has been shaped by immigration – from French Huguenots, Jews from Eastern Europe, Irish Roman Catholics, and, in the second half of the 20th century, African-Caribbeans and Asians, through to today’s Eastern European migrants.

Far from being a bastion of reaction, the working class has a proud history of being at the centre of resistance to racism. After all, where did Gandhi stay when he came to Britain? In the working class area of Poplar in East London. It was white and Jewish workers who stopped the fascist Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts in 1936 at Cable Street, and it was black and white youth who stopped the National Front marching in Lewisham in 1977.

Today there are real and deep contradictions inside the white working class. There is resentment, a feeling of being disenfranchised by a Labour government which seems more interested in big business than its traditional electorate. A minority blame black people and Asians, and feel their identity is being taken away. But there are bigger and stronger forces inside the working class which resist this and attempt to build real communities.

When you dig below the crude stereotypes and assumptions about the white working class the real concerns emerge. By far the most important of these are the gap between rich and poor, the lack of affordable housing, and neoliberal economic policies.

These are not problems confined to the white working class – they affect all workers, whatever their race or culture. Racial identity is not the problem; the class divide is.

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