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How Helpful is the Term ‘White Working Class’?

You know that the world's turned upside down when you – the daughter of a car mechanic – are labelled 'the elite' by an Etonian. Yet this is exactly what’s been happening lately. We’ve become a world of labels - identity politics gone mad.

Today, the Runnymede Trust and CLASS launch a series of essays that seeks to question the legitimacy and usefulness of one such new label - the 'white working class'.

Picture this group of people. In the wake of Brexit, this group has been reduced to a negative stereotype - on benefits, racist, voted Leave. This narrative completely forgets that the white middle class were more likely to vote for Brexit, and that it is people in this group that are setting the budgets that are disadvantaging minority ethnic groups.

Furthermore, this label is misleading. It tells us the working class is white. The truth is that minority ethnic populations make up a large proportion of the working class - the working class is multi-ethnic. As such, this label splits a group that face similar economic hurdles - low job security, low pay, limited access to decent housing and cuts to local services.

It's true that the white working class, especially those living outside of London and the south east have been systematically disadvantaged by government policies that have benefitted the rich and one part of the country. But so has the rest of the working class.

So who does this narrative seek to serve? While we're busy blaming immigrants, corporation taxes are being cut for tax avoiders, bankers bonuses are up to pre-crisis levels and the government continues to cut public spending and cripple our public services. It's a classic divide and rule tactic that distracts us from looking at the real problems - lack of representation of the working class in politics, class blind policy making that allows the rich to get richer, and scrupulous employers going unchallenged.

We're interested in bringing people together and reducing inequalities across society through building recognition of common interests and appropriate solutions. If we truly care about the 'left behind' we should shift our attention from how they voted in the referendum to dealing with poverty, lack of social mobility, and inadequate representation of working class peoples voices in Britain’s institutions. These problems cut across racial groups.

An important policy option is to bring the socio-economic duty in the 2010 Equality Act into effect, ensuring national and local government don’t discriminate on grounds of class. This would help the white working class and ethnic minority working class alike. Indeed, the white working class have more in common with poor ethnic minority communities than they do with the white middle and upper classes.

Jobs and opportunities aren’t just about money but about self-respect and community. A key reason why communities feel ‘left behind’ or otherwise excluded is because in many working class communities there is no longer the sort of work that helped define that community and once provided individuals with meaning and self-worth. The idea that a nostalgic form of ‘white Britishness’ could fill this hole while offering neither employment, resources, nor access to decision-making institutions is profoundly desperate – and dangerous. Instead, we must build responses that actually react to the need for dignity and meaning, needs that must be accompanied not only by a vague sense that the community matters, but by real opportunities for employment and representation.

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