Christina Patterson: Race, resentment and the white working classes

The Government worries about 'the squeezed middle', but less so about 'the pinched bottom'

Christina Patterson
Wednesday 30 November 2011 01:00 GMT
(Darren Diss)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


If this is entertainment, count me out. If this shaky footage, shot on a smartphone, and posted, among the kittens on a slide, and dogs chasing deer, and Russian newscasters making unexpected gestures, on YouTube, and watched, within 24 hours, by more than two million people, is someone's idea of a really good laugh, then I'm not at all sure what isn't.

The footage is of a woman on a tram. She's clutching a blonde boy on her lap. And what she's doing isn't singing, or dancing, or saying something charming, something which might give you a nice little pick-me-up if you happened to find your mouse clicking away from the sales figures you were meant to be collating, but shouting. "What has this country come to?" she screams, at a carriage full of surprised-looking people. "With loads of black people and a load of fucking Polish... None of you," she adds, "are fucking English."

The woman, who actually tells her fellow passengers to "get back to where you came from", which must have surprised all the ones who, in getting on the tram to Wimbledon, were trying to do just that, has now been arrested for making racist comments. But her outburst hit the news on a day when a report suggested that "white working-class communities" are fed up.

Large sections of the white working classes, according to a new report from the Rowntree Foundation, feel that, when it comes to things like the allocation of social housing, they are "last in line". They think that "political correctness" leads to "beneficial treatment" of people who aren't white. They think minority groups get "preferential support and funding", for community organisations they can't access. They think, in other words, that they don't "get a fair deal".

The report, which is written by an academic, which you can certainly tell by the language, "discusses white working-class perspectives on community cohesion". The people interviewed were, apparently, not too clear what "community cohesion" was. It's not clear whether they were quizzed on "stakeholders", "key policy drivers" or "grassroots intervention", and also found wanting. But it is clear that their voices, from social economic groups that policy makers say are "in the top 20 per cent of the Index of Multiple Deprivation", aren't often heard, not even in academic studies like this. "Studies of the white working-class", says its author, perhaps a bit unfortunately, "have paled into insignificance compared to those on minority groups."

And so, it seems, have certain strands of community funding. Alongside the millions poured into "initiatives" to tackle Muslim extremism in the wake of 9/11, and 7/7, and the funding for Asian women's centres, and mosques, and council-funded festivals (often for things like Diwali and Eid, but rarely for things like Advent, or Easter) the report mentions only little dribbles of public funds for community projects likely to be used by local residents who were white. It mentions, for example, £80,000 given to Camden Council for a project called "Connecting Communities". This, according to the author, was "primarily used to undertake outreach work with white working-class communities such as talking to white men in local pubs".

If I were on my fourth pint of Foster's in The Dog and Duck, I'm not sure how pleased I'd be to be approached by someone with a clipboard. I think I might want to ask whether they'd like their Chilean merlot in the revamped (if now a little pricey) Rose and Crown to be interrupted by someone asking them about their "community". And about how well they got on with their Bangladeshi neighbours, and their Somali neighbours, and their West African neighbours. And if they wanted me to organise a festival so that they could meet them.

I think I might be tempted to say that I was perfectly happy to talk to Bangladeshis, and Somalis, and West Africans, if they spoke English, and wanted to talk to me. And that I didn't mind my child being one of only a handful in the school who were white, but that it was a bit weird to grow up in an area where most of the people were like you, and suddenly find that most of them followed a different religion, and had different values, and spoke a different language. But I think I'd say that what I was really worried about was money, and homes, and jobs.

The people in the report who feel "let down" by the authorities are right. They have been "let down" by people who encouraged immigration, and who changed the allocation of social housing from one that gave priority to local people to one that gave priority to need. No one set out to make their lives more difficult, but they did. It isn't middle-class "communities" that are disrupted by mass immigration. It isn't their homes, and their low-wage labour, that are under threat. Middle-class people, in middle-class jobs, don't have to compete with people who have saved for years to cross a continent, and who are determined to make their effort pay.

The people in the report have also been let down by people who decided to make it a more sensible idea, in economic terms, not to work than to work. If you're legally entitled to a bigger income if you don't work than you'd get if you did, and claim the benefits that will give you that bigger income, that doesn't make you stupid, it makes you clever. It may not be a great idea in all kinds of other ways, not least the cost to the taxpayer, but it seems a bit unfair to blame people for doing what the Government encouraged them to do.

This Government, of course, is different. It has decided that it isn't fair, or a good idea, or affordable, to keep paying so many people not to work. It has decided that it isn't fair that people who don't work sometimes live in bigger houses than people who do. It has decided to change the benefits system to make sure they can't any more. It has talked about these people as if they were "scroungers". It has sometimes talked about these people as if they were scum.

It isn't fair that people who don't work sometimes have more money, and bigger houses, than people who do. It also isn't fair that when, due to changes in the welfare system, they're forced back into the jobs market, they're competing against a workforce who will always have an extra edge. And in a world where that flow of workers with the extra edge continues, in spite of the Government's rhetoric, to grow.

This Government is very worried about the "squeezed middle". It seems a bit less worried about what we might call, if it didn't sound so rude, the "pinched bottom". It seems to like carrots for the middle, and sticks for the bottom. It seems to think that it has been naughty, and must be punished.

It isn't naughty to claim benefits you've been entitled to, and it isn't racist to worry about immigration, though it is racist to yell abuse at people that refers to the colour of their skin. But if the white working classes are feeling worried about the future, maybe that's because it's looking extremely grim.;

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