Labour’s Troubles: A Story of Race and Class

The Labour Party must adopt an intersectional approach and focus on improving voters’ material conditions in order to heal the growing divide between the BAME population and the white working-class, writes Sulamaan Rahim, OULC BAME Officer.

The white working-class and BAME voters represent a large proportion of the traditional Labour vote. However, there is a large division emerging between these two groups that is being exacerbated by the narratives surrounding immigration and class. The presentation of these two groups as diametrically opposed and separate entities represents a huge problem for Labour – one which it must address if it wants to continue being the voice for the most marginalised in society. The need for a coherent narrative regarding race and class has never been of greater importance. More fundamentally, though, understanding the intersection of race and class and their treatment in the media is necessary to improve the material conditions of those affected by the structural classism and racism rampant in British society.

The term ‘white working-class’ has recently been used as a political tool to separate the working classes and pander to ideas of white exceptionalism. It seems the term is supposed to reify the belief that it is, in fact, white people in this country who are subject to the most discrimination. They are the ones for whom life is now tough with people of colour benefiting from positive discrimination and quotas. While it is necessary that we address the huge class divide in Britain, such a racialisation of the working classes reinforces race divides.

Moreover, it serves to separate BAME people from the working classes by treating them as two distinct groups. In fact, BAME people are disproportionately represented in the working class; immigrants from former colonies were forced into low income jobs when cheap labour was needed to rebuild Britain. This analysis regarding the overrepresentation of BAME individuals in the working classes is often overlooked due to the unwillingness of governments to discuss anything remotely related to the ills of the Empire.

Now, this is not to say that the white working class are at no disadvantage in this country. This narrative, however, serves only to reinforce the racial divide. The othering of people of colour strengthens far-right narratives of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ with ‘them’ to blame for all the problems currently facing Britain. This fosters a culture of fear towards people of colour. Moreover, the strength of this framing makes it seem as though giving in to this type of narrative is the only way to win the white working-class vote.

This divide was recently clearly demonstrated by the EU referendum and the arguments put forward by much of the Leave campaign. This is not to criticise the notion of leaving the EU ideologically but instead to show how the conversation around Brexit highlighted how the white working class are increasingly pitted against Britain’s BAME population.

It’s abundantly clear that the most prevalent talking point during the Brexit referendum was immigration. This is not to say that other topics were ignored, but it was the issue that received the most airtime. As with many conversations regarding immigration, it had a deeply racial undertone. There was a distinct focus on where migrants come from (see the Turkey leaflet). Migrants were painted as taking jobs they had no right to from the hands of ‘good, hard-working British people’. More importantly, though, the racialised nature of the migration debate had direct consequences for people of colour. Police figures show a 23 percent increase in racial/religious hate crimes – from 40 741 to 49 921 – in the 11 months following the referendum, compared to the same period in the previous year. This demonisation and characterisation of the good of the country as being jeopardised by BAME individuals was shown to have clear, violent outcomes.  

None of this is to say that class structures cannot negatively impact on the lives of the white working-class. It is merely to say that we need to be careful about how we talk about class. This attempt to ignore the intersection of race and class is incredibly dangerous. It is a divide and conquer strategy which allows the Right to stay in power by creating rifts between marginalised groups, thereby hindering them from mobilising and pushing for change.

Perhaps more insidiously, this type of narrative feeds into the pernicious power of ‘whiteness’ within our society by shifting the debate. While there are legitimate concerns over lack of investment in northern towns and cities and high rates of unemployment, the debate ends up turning to immigration. This rhetorical sleight of hand attempts to create solidarity between the oppressed working classes and the oppressive government by appealing to a common whiteness. Instead of being angry at the government for lack of investment and general apathy towards working-class issues, the anger is shifted towards immigrants and people of colour. This is extremely harmful as it serves only to inflame racial tensions, while allowing the real material problems to go unsolved.

The points above pose two main problems for Labour: (1) we ought to support the free movement of people and everyone’s right to work simply on principle; (2) more cynically, Labour also needs the BAME vote and cannot do so if it allows the perpetuation of such narratives.

So what can Labour do? There are two simple things to begin with. First, Labour needs to challenge the way race and class are separated, and seek to understand the intersection of the two. We must not succumb to the temptation to win votes by pandering to base fears, and instead, have faith that policies which improve material conditions are the way to win elections. Secondly, it must continue to strongly and publicly support immigrants’ rights to work in the UK, while constantly refuting the notion that any British jobs are being ‘stolen’.

All of this, however, is simply a start. Structural racism and classism are deeply entrenched in Britain and, while Labour has a long and proud history of opposing both, it needs to be even more vocal. It must show that it understands the nuances and intersections of the two, otherwise it risks losing the white working-class vote; the BAME working-class vote; and the overall BAME vote.  


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