Sunday, March 06, 2011

Excursus on the 'white working class'

When Harriet Harman, the Leader of the House of Commons and Minister for Equalities, released her transcript to the press ahead of her speech at the Trades Union Congress conference on 10 September 2008, certain sections of the media reacted with outrage. The object of their acrimony was the word ‘class’. Within her broader argument that equality should not be placed on the back burner during uncertain economic times, Harman’s speech had originally stated that the most important predictor of an individual’s life chances “is where you live, your family background, your wealth and social class”.1

This statement may appear as a truism, even verging on banal.2 But the ire it generated in the press was such that Harman dropped the ‘c-word’ (as the Telegraph referred to it) from her speech altogether. The thrust of the critique levelled against Harman was that she was breaking Britain’s political ‘class war’ truce which had been struck around the time Labour came to power in 1997. The Shadow Leader of the House of Commons Theresa May said that “Harriet Harman is stuck in the class warfare rhetoric of 20 years ago”, and that “trying to move the agenda on to class and background is outdated and distracts from the real issues facing people in this country today”.3 The Telegraph boldly stated: “The class war is over – do tell Labour”.4 The Independent leader headline read: “The class struggle is over, it’s all about social mobility”.5 Thus, the word ‘class’ was dropped from Harman’s speech, and although the Telegraph surreptitiously claimed victory, it was not entirely appeased: “we know now where Labour is heading, and that the language of class war is back”.6

The harsh response from the press and opposition politicians is revealing in two important ways. Firstly, it reveals how and when it is acceptable to talk about class. Three months earlier, the Telegraph – along with every other major newspaper – reported: “White working-class boys [are] becoming an underclass”.7 This headline refers to a report published by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which was primarily concerned with gender gaps in higher education participation, but added an analysis of ethnicity in “order to put the gender finding into perspective”.8 Nonetheless, the press reported on the findings as if white working class pupils’ ethnic disadvantage was the main aim of the research, where “[w]hite teenagers are less likely to go to university than school-leavers from other ethnic groups – even with the same A-level results, according to official figures”.9 Thus, it was not the ‘c-word’ itself in Harman’s speech that caused offence – since the same papers that derided her are happy to use the term in a different context – but the social reality to which she was drawing attention. Where the media habitually uses the word ‘class’ in the context of multiculturalism (‘the white working class is losing out to ethnic minorities’), Harman was using the word in the context of inequality (‘the white working class is losing out to the middle classes’). That is what was so objectionable.

Secondly, a closer look at the media’s treatment of Harman reveals how commentators think about the white working class itself. Acknowledging that some social groups may be at a disadvantage, the Independent leader goes on to argue that this is ultimately their own fault, and in particular their culture of poverty:

Generations are being brought up on sink estates mired in welfare dependency, drug abuse and a culture of joblessness. And the majority of children born in such wretched circumstances are simply not making it out later in life. This is not a class problem; it is an underclass problem. And it is the failure of these sections of society to get on that is responsible for the fact that social mobility is in decline.10


In a similar vein, the Telegraph stated:

We all already know that poorer areas are beset by problems such as family breakdown and educational failure. We know that badly off children are growing up with a poverty of aspiration: what they need is structure, competition, exercise, encouragement and hope. Yet Ms Harman and her like persist in endless data-collecting and tinkering attempts to lean on universities artificially to redress the balance nearly two decades after a child is born.11

Thus, the issue of class is not a problem of structure, but a problem of culture. There is no working class any more, only an underclass. Unless, of course, we are talking about multiculturalism, in which case the working class resurfaces from the depths of British history. In other words, it is permissible to use class as a stick to beat multiculturalism with, but not as a demand for increased equality for all.

(Kjartan Páll Sveinsson, The White Working Class and Multiculturalism: Is There Space for a Progressive Agenda?, Runnymede Trust, 2009)