THE ANGRY WHITE MALE, WORKING-CLASS COMMUNITIES AND THE DILEMMA FOR PROGRESSIVES — PERSPECTIVES FROM A CHANGING WORLD
“If you’ve got money, you vote in… if you haven’t got money, you vote out” — Working-class Brexiteer
Our working class communities in the deindustrial hinterlands and coastal towns helped to bring about Brexit. To many, it was the possibility of telling those in power that they weren’t happy with the status quo. The role of the white working-class male has come to define this experience within academia, within the media and within the Twittersphere. This article will explore this experience and highlight key issues around representation and the failures experienced by white working class communities. However, we must look at the issue of racism, sexism and homophobia whilst also balancing the demands of social conservatism within progressive strongholds across the UK.
The ‘death’ of multiculturalism and identity politics as espoused by a ‘liberal elite’ has played a big part in recent political earthquakes. The ‘forgotten’ white working classes are ‘fighting back’ argue populist politicians and pundits alike. However, is ‘white working class’ a real construct? Is there a ‘left behind’ segment of our communities? Have progressives taken ‘working class support’ for granted? These are the defining themes and opinions that have come to define the white working class male debate in contemporary Britain.
The British think tank, Policy Network, argues, “Trump and Brexit show that progressives cannot take white working-class voters for granted.” John Harris of the Guardian similarly notes this ‘lost’ and ‘forgotten’ theme in his many journeys across the UK, ““some Labour MPs have come back from their constituencies, amazed by the views they encounter on the doorstep, is to be struck by a political failure that sits right at the heart of the story. How did they not know?” The disconnect between democratic representative, a liberal political party membership and the wider electorate is part of this changing context. The angry white male trope, therefore, becomes a symbolic motif within the debate. Yet a paradox exists.
James Bloodworth notes, “On many economic questions the left may represent the interests of the working class more effectively than the right, but, socially, the values of the traditional working class are increasingly at odds with those of the liberal or ‘progressive’ left.” This paradoxical dilemma surrounds the progressives’ claim in supporting working class community values whilst at the very same time finding those values abhorrent in relation to their own socio-cultural values and norms.
Is the ‘Angry White Male’ trope based on any semblance of fact? Is there a ‘forgotten’ element within our community? The New Statesmen argues, “White children on free school meals (FSMs) perform far worse than disadvantaged children from other ethnic groups. Just 28 per cent of white children on FSMs get five good GCSEs, including English and maths, compared with 38 per cent of mixed-race children, 41 per cent of black children and 48 per cent of Asian children.”
This ‘forgotten’ working class male will also face a changing sociocultural world that finds their own labours and their beliefs as bread winners and men challenged in a diverse world. According to Linda McDowell, this change could be termed “redundant masculinities” insofar as their perceived historically-linked role as masculine men are in danger through rapid changes in socio-economic values and realities brought about through globalisation and social change.
Justin Gest similarly noted such changes and outlined a new paradigm in which the white working class male is part of a bigger working class minority, termed ‘the new minority’. What is to blame? Diane Reay argues that education is a good place to start as it offers a unique dilemma for working class identities in particular around the notion of whether working class students find themselves or lose themselves through the experience of education. Michael Ward similarly notes the role of education and the power it has in redefining working class symbolism in that it shifts the working class student away from labouring to learning.
Steve Roberts articulates the creation of a false consciousness in terms of masculine ideals as bread winners and ‘men’ in a patriarchal sense in that the socio-cultural propagation of such unreal expectations has creating an attainment problem for working-class men. This false reality in a changing world has creating a damaging narrative that has helped to insulate male experiences from wider social awareness.
The Centre for Social Justice highlights this problem through the attainment of GCSE from working class backgrounds. The CSJ found, “White working-class British boys are falling further behind other groups of children at GCSE, despite a string of initiatives designed to boost the performance of disadvantaged pupils. A major new study of the roots of educational failure in England finds that over the period 2007–2012 the gap in performance between poor white boys and the average for all pupils actually widened.”
The impact of a lack of education means a life-long impact on work. John Harris of the Guardian interviewed people across the UK and spoke to a people in working-class communities about the impact of immigration and social change. One excerpt notes, “A few years later, we met builders in South Shields who told us that their hourly rate had come down by £3 thanks to new arrivals from eastern Europe.” However, Liberal England (or Britain?) argued the opposite. That immigration didn’t impact working-class communities that much.
Jonathan Portes, the NIESR supremo, argued, “Immigration may have some, small, negative impact on wages for some low-paid workers.” But overall Portes argues that immigration is good for the economy. The problem is the lack of attention on the micro narratives in favour of the bigger macro experience. The £3 wage cut, stated above, is precisely that ‘small… impact on wages’ as defined by Portes and others. However, that three pounds’ impacts individuals on low incomes. This is a big impact, on small communities, lost in a haze of national growth.
That being the case, masculine identities and social conservatism aside, others argue that white working class populism is merely racism. Hadley Freeman notes, ““encouraging the white victim narrative and stoking precisely the kind of nasty, race-baiting campaigns that led to Brexit and Trump (as the voter demographics have proved, the linking factor in Trump voters is not class but race).” Jon Lawrence similarly argues, ““The ‘racialisation’ of class in Britain has been a consequence of the weakening of ‘class’ as a political idea since the 1970s — it is a new construction, not an historic one.” Are white working class male votes merely a racist trope? Their calls answered by a populous right merely deploying dog whistle politicking?
Perhaps zero-sum approaches have created further issues in relation to this topic? What if white working class men could be both anti-racist and racist? What if their lack of representation and education fuelled by a changing symbolism created a vacuum through which progressive ideas failed to connect? Do working-class communities, and male members in particular, not care about the NHS, about taxing the rich, about better schools? Of course they support them, but it is the context of this support that is crucial.
The sound-bite laden liberalised political classes — from Blair to Cameron — talked of a newer politics, a bigger society and jobs for all. However, the reality was a focus on services and the ‘knowledge economy’. The ‘knowledge economy’ means nothing to an unemployed Docker in Liverpool. Coding and Mandarin lessons are great for the youth of Kensington or Hackney but how do they translate to the youth of Barnsley or Rotherham where they wouldn’t have the likes of Google or Huawei on their doorsteps ready to invite them in with those shiny new ‘knowledge economy’ jobs.
We are living in an era of disunity and division. Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2016 has been announced as Donald Trump, the ‘President of the Divided States of America’. The post-Brexit fallout sees Britain become the Disunited Kingdom as the polar opposition between remain and leave are so stark. We can see the demarcation lines between Hackney and Kensington pro-remain voters and the likes of Barnsley and Rotherham as pro-leave areas. The de-industrial heartlands, devoid of hope, found a united voice. But was this part of a wider anti-Establishment drive?
It is easy to argue that ‘stupid’ voters in de-industrial hinterlands and coastal towns voted leave because they read The Daily Mail or The Sun and took every work that Paul Dacre or Rupert Murdoch printed as gospel. But that isn’t right or fair. Education plays a part. Racism exists as does homophobia and sexism. But we should learn to divorce patriotism, communitarianism and civic pride from those acts of hatefulness. We should instead explore the reasons behind their anger and in a singular sense it is predominantly about representation.
Labour, and the liberal progressive broad church of alliances therein, has a problem. There is a disconnect between representative and constituent. Now, no one claims that we need to ban university-educated people with no links to said constituency from running as MPs or MEPs. However, we do need to respect local values and that respect needs to be both positive and negative. Labour needs to learn civic pride but it also needs to highlight wrongdoing. We need to expose racism but we need to highlight social conservative civic patriotism without sounding like academics or focus-group researchers.
The angry white male, and the wider working class communities, will be hit hard by Brexit as will American blue collar communities once Donald Trump becomes the President of the United States. These demagogues have no answers. They create hatred and use it as a catalyst to provoke fury among the less well-off. But Liberal progressives need to realise that taking communities for granted and not understanding how globalisation and mass migration would impact on civic identities was an ignorant undertaking.
We are at a cross-roads now, we need to embark as progressives towards a new settlement with all communities, including white working class communities. We cannot take the ‘they are racists’ line and neither can we use ‘migrants are evil’ as a vehicle for power. We need to take a third way, a new direction that highlights the negatives and positives whilst educating, holding firm on our values and highlighting the crucialness of change and social conservatism in tandem. This paradoxical standpoint, whilst sounding almost unachievable, is the only way we can build and retain local community engagement whilst understanding we cannot wind the clock back to a pre-globalised world. Our next step is to begin this process of change through coherent engagement, collaboration and better representation.