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The white working class is another form of identity politics

The working class and whiteness are not one and the same. 

Brexit and Donald Trump’s success in the US presidential elections have intensified an already existing trend: politicians’ and commentators’ obsessive fixation with the white working class. The left has been told – and is telling itself – that it must prioritise connecting with this group. But there are many problems with this, not least because it means privileging whiteness above all other forms of identity and solving white people’s problems at the expense of people of colour.

None of this is to say that white people aren’t victims of economic injustice, or that poverty among white people doesn’t matter - it does. But the argument du jour is that the American election result symbolised a roar of dissent from the “left behind” and Brexit was a “working class revolt”. This is not entirely true in either case; wealthy voters in both instances formed a large part of the vote. 

In fact, research from the Economic Policy Institute found people of colour will be a majority of the working class by 2032 - that’s 11 years before the US is predicted to become a so-called "majority minority" country. This suggests there are more working class people of colour than in any other class bracket. In the US, although we do not have a breakdown of earnings along race lines, African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be poor, but they were far less likely to vote for Trump. And in the UK, people of colour are more likely to be in poverty than white people but they were far less likely to vote for Brexit.

As political sociologist Professor Akwugo Emejulu  and the The New Statesman’s own Stephen Bush have explained, when politicians doggedly pin Brexit and Trump on the white “left behind” voter, poor people of colour are ignored. The implication of this obsession is that poverty and disenfranchisement is only worth paying attention to when experienced by white people.

The left has bought into this dangerous thinking at a time when white nationalism is stronger than it’s been in decades. The Labour MP Stephen Kinnock has called for Labour to abandon “diversity” and stand up “for everyone in this country” including “the white working class”. These two subjects need not be so mutually exclusive, and positioning them as such means abandoning the concerns of minorities in order to pander to racism. This is, in part, because Labour think people of colour have nowhere else to go. How wrong they could be proved.

Rather than an argument grounded in economics, then, this rhetoric comes down to whiteness, which is, contrary to what many seem to think, a form of identity politics. In fact, whiteness has long-been the most prevalent and powerful form of identity. It is, in the words of academic Gloria Wekker “not seen as an ethnic positioning at all”. Like an animal well adapted to its environment, it camouflages itself as part of the societal landscape. Yet it works in insidious ways. It places white peoples’ experience as most important and works on the basis that they need to be protected from the impure "other". It structures the world we live in.

What this rhetoric does is allow the middle and upper politicians to use anti-migrant rhetoric and claim it symbolises a paternalistic shows of support for the white working classes, whatever that group's actual views. Ukip's Nigel Farage, a former stockbroker, suggested he stood up for this downtrodden group through the xenophobic Leave campaign. But this obscures a more complex reality. As University of London researcher David Wearing has found, "the Leave vote correlates much more strongly with social attitudes than with social class". Indeed, 81 per cent of people who think multiculturalism is a force for ill voted Leave. It is about more than the working class. The "left behind" narrative conceals a deep-rooted desire to protect whiteness among more prosperous voters.

Whiteness in this instance is rooted in innocence and victimhood. The assumption is people of colour are undermining poor white people; the nation as a whole is being steered off course by “diversity”. A recent rally in Washington D.C. encapsulated this well. “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” white nationalist Stephen B. Spencer told a room full of people performing the Nazi salute. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” This is one of the results of the constant obsession with whiteness: the nation is for white people. Flaws in the nation can be fixed by reclaiming it in the name of whiteness.

Focussing solely on the white working class in the wake of Brexit and Trump will not redress society’s problems; it will not even try to sort out poverty among white people. The fetishisation of the white working class helps reaffirm the racial hierarchy and stamp out forms of dissent voiced by people of colour, LGBTQ communities and other minorities. We should not pretend that it is anything else.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.