Friday, June 20, 2014

I feel your pain

The white working class - this is the latest object of political fascination. And so the cry goes up from the left to listen to them on immigration, to reach out to UKIP voters, to prove that you will be tough on benefit 'scroungers'. Then the right joins in about the need to strengthen declining social capital, build the 'big society' out of a 'broken Britain' and to improve the incentives to work. All share the assumption that this mythical beast is rather a nasty brute, inclined to violence and irrational hatreds. Throw it some raw meat and it will stay in its corner, growling but not menacing.

I have never bought it. So it was nice to see some empirical research from Open Society Foundations, a think tank funded by George Soros. And what they found didn't surprise me after my own work in outreach adult education. People hated the stigma and the blame being thrown at them. There was a strong work ethic, of course, and very strong communities where, "People will reach out to neighbors in a time of need before they turn to public authorities." The concern over immigration appears when it is perceived as a threat to the stability of these close-knit communities. But why? The summary concludes:
It is by no means inevitable that boundaries are set up against outsiders or newcomers. Some of the six communities have been ethnically diverse for decades; others are just starting to experience change. Though there was prejudice towards outsiders among some, many also expressed interest in contact with people from other backgrounds and a desire to build new shared values. In some cities such as Aarhus in Denmark, ethnic diversity was seen as a positive development and a source of pride. 
One of the benefits of in-depth research like this is its measured response to questions about sensitive subjects of inclusion and immigration. At a national level, in a country like the UK, immigration is linked with popular discontent, but when the questions are asked at the local level, individuals will demonstrate a willingness to negotiate differences and find common ground with newcomers, as well as understand the wider social and economic factors that are having an impact. An older resident from Manchester declared that: 
"If there was work, and there was houses, and there was everything what’s needed, I wouldn’t have a problem with [immigration]. The problem is that there’s too much looking for too little, and you’re bound to get trouble when that happens. If you have starving people and throw a loaf in amongst them, there’ll be a murder committed to get that loaf. That’s what’s happening here on a much bigger scale. There’s not enough."
In other words it is the old concerns of the left that should be animating them today - employment, housing, health, education, the basics of a decent society. These are modest enough demands. Meeting them should be an article of faith on the left. Actually doing something could pay big political dividends. 


Anton Deque said...

I lived for twelve years in an inner city suburb with a very mixed (and mobile) population: Elderly white working class long term residents, many widowed, isolated and estranged; established Asian immigrants; university students in often sub-standard housing, largely owned by absentee landlords; single women parents and dysfunctional at point of contact white families. There were others but these categories comprised the main resident groups.

Into this came large numbers of newly arrived immigrants, almost all Moslems, few of whom had English language skills. So, into a district that had chronic long term social and economic disadvantages, the responsibility for harmonising the new comers experience was left to those with the least resources to undertake the task. Local Council Community workers were chiefly concerned to promote multiculturalism and fend off a preconceived notion of racism. It dominated my contacts with them. They were otherwise bereft of ideas and hostile to initiatives that were not of their making.

The wonder is was and is that there have been no serious difficulties. However, the district remains marginalised and unchanged in three decades. It has stood still, unnoticed since most who can, like myself, leave. Politics and economics under successive governments has failed this and many similar places; but some innate instinct for fairness has saved them. For this they are rarely pointed out by the great and good but ridiculed by multi-millionaire comedians on television nightly.

The Plump said...

"but some innate instinct for fairness has saved them".

This sums up my experience perfectly. People and communities are robust and resilient. We don't value them as we should.

(Thanks for this and sorry to be late responding)