The two faces of the working class

In the mid-1950s, two books were published about the working class of Bethnal Green which, though sharing the same subject matter, appeared to describe different planets. One, Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott, was a kind of sociological love letter that serenaded the intensely human qualities of an area threatened by postwar planning. The other, J H Robb's Working-Class Anti-Semite - now almost forgotten - unromantically zoned in on its insularity and xenophobia.

Both books captured parts of working-class life that existed then and still exist now - often in the same community, even in the same person. Decency rubs shoulders with bigotry, generosity with chauvinism. The paradox of working-class racism has, more or less, always existed. Politically, what has counted over the past 50 years is how the mainstream parties - and in particular Labour - have dealt with it.

Primitive, combustible emotions such as racial prejudice present special problems for a democracy, and Labour's record down the years is far from glorious. But one gets the impression that the party has never had so little of value to say about the subject. Its message in Burnley - "Vote to stop the fascists" - ought to be a strong one, but is terribly weak when those to whom it is addressed feel, in all other respects, completely neglected. In parts of the north and the Midlands, Labour has never had so little political credibility or moral authority. The BNP knows this; that's what makes it such a threat.

A year after Young and Willmott published their book, white mobs in Notting Hill, west London, attacked newly arrived West Indians. Nearly everyone deplored the hooliganism; however, the one clear policy proposal to emerge in the press, and eventually in government, was the need for immigration control. But the Labour opposition held firm. The party leader, Hugh Gaitskell, explained that socialism was about equality, and that this included racial equality. Union leaders opened their rule books to show that their members were committed to treating all races and creeds equally.

But abstract statements about international brotherhood left party activists with little practical guidance about how to prepare for the multiracial society taking shape around them. No one was more aware of the gap that existed between the rule book and reality than those who staffed the party and union branches in places such as Lambeth, West Bromwich and Huddersfield. And it was there - usually against the backdrop of a severe housing shortage - that the left began its effort to close the gap between principle and practice. The friendship councils, interracial councils and overseas fellowships that sprang up in areas of high immigration, and which began the slow process of education, were invariably created by Labour Party activists. They started the campaigns against colour bars in pubs, clubs and workplaces. And although they got some support from the churches, they received none worth speaking of from the state, the courts or the media.

Perhaps today their strategy looks dated, shaped too much by the discredited belief that it was better for racial minorities if others fought their battles for them. Immigrants were expected to be politically docile and socially beyond even the most ignorant suspicion; their white champions tended to possess that mixture of condescension and injured pride that so easily seeps into the campaigner's mind when politics shades into philanthropy.

The Labour Party archives in Manchester are stuffed with letters from this period which, by today's more exacting standards, make you cringe. "Given the same opportunities," wrote one party secretary, "coloured people would be every bit as good as we are." The problem, said another, was that "many immigrants show no desire whatever to be clasped to our white bosoms". Even so, theirs was a record of considerable achievement. No one went around saying "smash fascism", but there was an energetic desire to uncover racial discrimination and to stop it. There was a readiness to see the generous impulses in working-class life and to work with them: to back the Wilmott and Young side of the coin, rather than the J H Robb side.

That, too, was the approach of Labour in power after 1964 - at least to begin with. Though it tightened the Tories' immigration controls, it also brought in the first Race Relations Acts, which outlawed discrimination in public places, housing and employment. The laws were founded on the belief that most British people were fair-minded and decent, and that the law could fortify this decency and encourage people to express it publicly.

But that was not the only arm to Labour's policy on race. Underpinning everything else was economic change - or redistribution, to use a discredited term. Here was a government committed to delivering material improvements to the working class - through housebuilding, comprehensive schools, family allowances, pension reform, blue-collar redundancy payments, earnings-related unemployment benefit. It wasn't socialism, as many people vigorously complained, but it did allow Labour to say it was shifting economic resources downwards. That in turn cleared the way for the party's historic mission to educate: to champion causes that were just, but not popular. It is what permitted the Wilson government to preside over the greatest liberal agenda of the modern era while sustaining a huge heartland vote.

The whole thing came crashing down in 1968, when Labour's liberal reputation was ruined by its panic-stricken theft of British citizenship from Kenyan Asians. A mistimed devaluation also scuppered the government's economic plans, the biggest casualty being the "Urban Programme", a vital part of the race relations strategy. Shortly afterwards came Powellism, which was a watershed in Labour's relationship with the working class, and began the process whereby the Robb version started to eclipse the Young and Willmott approach. For some in the Labour government, the loss of faith was instant and dramatic: Richard Crossman spoke of the "revolt of the masses" and "plebiscitary democracy" with the epochal fear of an Edmund Burke. For others, it was a long slow decline, which ended in the working class being viewed no longer as an opportunity, and purely as a problem.

That is where we are today. Since Young and Willmott's loving portrait, the prestige has drained away from the British working class and been replaced by a kind of loathing; to the liberal middle-class mind, a grubby flag of St George is now as emblematic of a working-class community as a clean line of washing used to be.

Labour's relationship with the working class is now one of mutual suspicion. When the voters of Burnley look to Westminster, they no longer see themselves reflected in any way. When Labour wants to reflect "working-class concerns", it no longer talks about redistribution, but turns immediately to law and order, the one remaining issue on which it can sound anything like a class note. For Labour, there is no longer a paradox about working-class racism - merely a fear that can be fuelled or a hatred that must be satisfied.