One sunny Saturday morning last summer I was in a northern town handing out leaflets urging people not to vote for the BNP. The party has a couple of councillors in the town but most of the people I approached were friendly and accepted the flyer without comment. Then a thickset middle-aged man stopped, stared at a leaflet for a moment and lifted his head. "What's so wrong with the BNP?" he demanded.
He insisted he wasn't racist. Few people admit to that, of course, but what he seemed to be expressing was a generalised discontent, a sense that people from his background – white working class – had been overlooked and ignored by politicians.
It's a complaint that's been aired frequently in the past couple of years, ever since far-right organisations identified it as an issue they would be able to exploit on doorsteps, and it poses huge difficulties for mainstream politicians. The BNP can talk in slogans, exploiting people's grievances (real and imagined), but both government and opposition have to get a more subtle message across.
I think that's what the Communities Secretary, John Denham, was trying to do in a speech last week. What made headlines was really an expression of the obvious: not all people from an ethnic minority background are disadvantaged. Denham could have cited his Labour colleague, the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland. She arrived in the UK from Dominica at the age of three, grew up in east London, became a hugely successful lawyer, and is now listed as one of the country's top 100 black Britons. Some commentators rushed to assume that Denham was saying race was no longer important, when he was actually signalling a widening of the Government's understanding of the factors that limit achievement to include poverty and class. "Britain today is not the same place as it was a decade ago," he said. "We therefore have to make sure that our efforts are tackling the problems of today and not those of the past. New trends that are linked to race, class and identity make the situation more complex."
I'm not sure that the trends he is talking about are so new – class has always had a powerful effect on education and income – but then the phrasing is careful, anodyne even, because the Government is trying to avoid several traps. In particular, it doesn't want to say anything that might appear to encourage the notion that anti-racist policies have led to discrimination against white people.
That is undoubtedly the belief on some run-down council estates, illustrated in dramatic form by an exchange a friend of mine had while canvassing in an area in which the BNP is very active. An older working-class man answered the door and started talking about his son, who had recently lost his job after moving into a flat with his pregnant girlfriend. The couple were so hard up, the man said, that he'd bought them a washing machine and a fridge. "They cost £500," he said. "But I heard after, he'd have got them free if he was a Paki."
It's hard to credit that anyone seriously believes this kind of racist propaganda. But in tough economic times it falls on fertile ground, especially on estates where few people from ethnic minorities actually live. In some northern towns, BNP candidates do well in areas which are predominantly white and people cannot test far-right rhetoric against their own experience. They don't see that many people from
a black and minority ethnic background are working class like themselves and face similar problems, while organisations that might in the past have brought them together – trade unions, for example – have declined in membership and influence. Other institutions, such as churches and mosques, still exist but aren't usually drivers of social mixing between people of different ethnic backgrounds or genders.
While black and Asian women may experience less overt discrimination in terms of education and employment, anti-racist rhetoric has too often shied away from acknowledging the impact of inequality in the home. It is only in the past four or five years that the extent of so-called "honour" crimes in this country has started to become apparent, in part as a result of the increasing willingness of South Asian women's organisations to speak out. The realisation that men who are themselves victims of racism may also be perpetrators of domestic violence has been painful and difficult, but women who leave violent marriages are often worst off. While there is a highly visible and successful Asian middle class, some Asian women (and no doubt some black women) are doubly disadvantaged by race and their domestic circumstances.
After 13 years of Labour government, the gap between white-fronted mansions in Belgravia and a council estate in West Yorkshire remains immeasurable; more children from "ordinary" families go to university, but there are still too many kids leaving state schools without qualifications. Working-class white girls don't get pregnant at 13 because they're stupid; they do it because they live in a depressing environment, go to failing schools, and have parents with no regular work who are incapable of providing role models. Without aspirations or a solid sense of identity, they crave the excitement of sex and "relationships" even though they are likely to find themselves trapped in an existence of repeated pregnancies and extremely limited choices.
Against this background of stubborn and persistent deprivation, people will look for scapegoats. Successive governments have failed to build social housing, and while many black and Asian families have prospered in Britain and bought their own homes, they are sometimes unfairly regarded as beneficiaries of local authorities which give them priority on grounds of race.
The anger of white families whose adult children cannot afford a home and who have been on council waiting lists for years is too easily turned against other disadvantaged groups, as is that of skilled working-class men – once the elite among manual workers – whose jobs are disappearing. Their scapegoats of choice are skilled workers from east and central Europe, and even the Prime Minister isn't above resorting to populist slogans like "British jobs for British workers".
There is a genuine problem here, but it isn't the one put forward by the BNP. This country has suffered for years from a chronic lack of apprenticeships and hence modern skills, thwarting the class mobility the Government would like to see. "If the cause of disadvantage is social class, we will promote opportunity," Denham said. "And if the cause is a combination of racism and social class, we will tackle both together."
Labour has left it rather late in the day to come up with a new and more complex analysis of the causes of social deprivation, but it's welcome for all that, not least because it goes some way towards addressing genuine if poorly articulated anxieties. The BNP sows discord, encouraging working-class people to feel angry towards other working-class people who happen to belong to a different ethnic group. But the Government is saying something with the potential to create common cause: in modern Britain, social class still matters.
Alan Watkins is away