- Right back where we started from
This year’s vote to leave the European Union became a flashpoint for a virulent racism that many naively believed to have been banished. During and after the campaign, discourses of class circulated and interacted in particular ways with the [End Page 45] politics of race and racism, and the term ‘the white working class’ gained traction -and in so doing served to divorce the middle and upper classes, as well as business and the state, from the unpleasant national picture that was emerging. It was also invoked as a shorthand explanation for why Remain had lost.
Lynsey Hanley, writing in the Guardian, notes that in recent years politicians have avoided the term ‘working class’, using instead such phrases as ‘hard-working families’, or ‘ordinary voters’, ‘for fear of alienating both middle-class voters and “aspirational” working-class voters’.1 At a pro-EU event before the referendum, listening to a Labour MP fielding audience questions about why it had been so hard to persuade ‘ordinary people’ that austerity policies and the demands of the neoliberal market - rather than Eastern Europeans, immigrants, asylum seekers, Muslims and/or generations of black Britons - were the root cause of their poverty, insecurity, lack of public services, trouble accessing health care, etc, I heard a familiar riff: his response was that the party, and politicians generally, had been afraid to talk about immigration. The ‘people’ cited here are, of course, not simply people, but that increasingly mythologised group, ‘the white working class’; and the return of this term into common political parlance legitimises three things. First, that immigrants are inherently a problem; second, that the ‘white working class’ is a distinct entity from ‘black’ and ‘ethnic’ working classes; and, third, that it is the white working class, and not all people at the bottom of the labour market, who bear the brunt of the economic effects of the savage dismantling of the public sector.
The phrase ‘not being afraid to talk about immigration’ is similarly loaded. Sadly, it does not imply a failure to talk about austerity and the years of neglect that have left great swathes of the population - across ‘races’ - forgotten, isolated, jobless, hopeless, and, importantly, powerless. Rather, it implies a failure to speak to an undercurrent of racism and a cultural dislocation - figured in this narrative as being caused by the presence of difference, rather than by a loss of identity linked to economic insecurity. When politicians and commentators darkly invoke this alleged fear, it is code for ‘we must speak to the concerns of white working-class racists’. It is code for ‘we have become too politically correct and lost the common touch’. It is code for the acceptability of recasting whiteness as beleaguered and under threat from the ‘other’.
Someone in the audience at the event in question pointed out that no one seems afraid to talk about immigration - on the contrary, it was the most dominant topic in the run-up to the referendum. One doesn’t need a media studies degree to connect the [End Page 46] hysterical headlines of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express about immigrant benefit scroungers with people voting to leave the EU and/or abusing ‘foreigners’ on the street. What the Labour Party has in fact failed to do in the last twenty years is to talk about immigration in the context of international solidarity between workers as they all battle the same global economic forces that take their jobs, cut their wages, force them to move to look for work and displace them through wars and land and asset grabs. But this is not what is meant by ‘not being afraid to talk about immigration’.
Another strategy for commentators of all political colours has been to insist that people expressing concern about immigration must not be dismissed as racists, and to scold those who do this as elitist. Often this is prefaced with personal stories of ‘ordinary people’ (white working-class) by a middle-class interlocutor, casting themselves in the role of a brave teller of truths. Once again class and race operate in familiar ways to frame the landscape of...