The demonisation of the white working class

“Chav bashing” has become an acceptable replacement for overt racism and fuelled the rise of the EDL

This weekend has seen David Cameron play on racial tensions, declaring multiculturalism to be over. The latest EDL demonstration became a catalyst for discussion about how to prevent the far right from exploiting the upcoming economic instability. Those gearing up for the fight against spending cuts are agonising over how "their" movement can generate wider appeal, while the Labour Party continues to hand-wring about how to recapture support from "working-class" voters. In all these discussions, there is one word that is notable by its absence, a word that has permeated our culture and become the insult that no one wants applied to them.

Chav. A Hogarthian caricature with easily identifiable dress and language which epitomises everything that is wrong with "broken Britain".

It is the ultimate insult in a society where inequality can now only be articulated with language and values a university education produces. Both "left" and "right" quantify success in terms of how far you have moved away from the community into which you were born, and how effectively you have blended traces of "chav" into middle-class, understated blandness. "Chavviness" is clear evidence of a lack of aspiration.

If you come from a community that could be described as "working class", the behaviour you exhibit, your clothing and speech, or the name of your child, if at all "chavvy", can be used to marginalise you. Homophobia and overt racism no longer acceptable, "chav" bashing and fear of Islam and immigration are their acceptable replacements at the dinner table.

Northern towns, once at the heart of our economy, had the industry that sustained them ripped away under Thatcher. The credit-based economy that successive governments have favoured since did not really benefit them. We've had the same economic policies for 30 years, with Labour offering public-sector jobs, and state support to hide low wages and increasingly scarce, low-paid, flexible, insecure employment..

There are districts of Rochdale where 84 per cent of the people need benefits. Radcliffe, proud home of paper manufacturing till the early Eighties, now has a town centre that the Radcliffe Wikipedia page describes as barely viable. In Todmorden, the past 15 years have seen the remaining industrial employers disappear one by one. Local market traders, with the visible examples of Rochdale and Burnley nearby, fear their town is dying because the largest local employer is now the high school. The view of new businesses started in each wave of immigration, distorted by the wilful scaremongering about Islam and immigration by our politicians and media.

It is towns like these where groups like the EDL will capitalise on genuine feelings of alienation. It is in these towns that the fight against the cuts will be most important, and it is towns like these where Labour will hand-wring about how to recapture the "working-class vote". If any of these problems is to be addressed, we are going to have to discuss how our economic policies have done so much damage, and why we have allowed the white working class to be abandoned and demonised so effectively.

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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred