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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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