By Graham Smith
In America, sociologists have for nearly 100 years tried to understand what they mean by “white trash.” It’s a derogatory term applied to poor, white people who mostly self-define as “working class” but who actually are often unemployed.
They have quite a history, dating at least from the 1920s’ depression and the subsequent migration of farm labourers from the dust-bowl mid-west to California. Californians sneered at them, calling them “Oakies” and in other states they were looked down on as “hicks,” “hillbillies” and “red necks.”
There are many millions of these people, and they vote. What makes them the object of academic curiosity is why they so often vote against their own economic and social self-interest.
A study of the 2016 US Presidential election found that Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters – apart from the relatively small number of corporate billionaires – was the much larger number of poor and relatively under-educated white people.
The number-crunchers are still digesting the detail of our own recent general election, but we already know that Labour’s traditional “Red Wall” in what was once the industrial north and midlands collapsed into Boris Johnson’s lap. These are the people, Labour Party people in the north tell us, to whom we must now tailor our policies if we are ever to win another election.
Ever since then Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s ill-fated confrontation with Rochdale’s Gillian Duffy, during the 2010 general election campaign, many full-time Labour Party and trade union officials have sought to appease the Mrs Duffys of the north. “British jobs for British workers,” chimed Brown. It didn’t work and he lost.
Labour then went into the 2015 election with a thinly-disguised appeal to racists, promising tougher immigration controls. That was literally a mugs’ game, and it didn’t work, either.
Now we have a Labour leadership beauty contest in which the candidates are trying desperately to be prolier-than-thou, boasting that they are so working class that they once had two outdoor toilets.
The front runners are both lawyers. One is almost certainly more Left-wing than the other, but in all honesty I do not know which.
Rebecca Long-Bailey has a northern accident. Keir Starmer has a knighthood. But Rebecca Long-Bailey is already pitching to the “British jobs for British workers” constituency, promising “progressive patriotism” and ditching Labour’s recently agreed conference policy on internationalism and freedom of movement.
I remember Keir Starmer from the Wapping picket-line in 1986. He also dabbled a bit in revolutionary politics in his early 20s, which I always think is an essential rite-of-passage.
I’m voting for Keir because I think he is more authentic, although both candidates have mightily pissed me off by surrendering Labour’s Middle East policy to a small and unrepresentative Right-wing pressure group. A major speech on Palestine from both candidates would be welcome.
Can either of them win the north? Is the north even winnable? Why were workers in Sunderland so obsessed with Brexit that they effectively voted to close their car factory? Why were Labour activists in Leeds telling me that although they themselves were EU remainers, they had to tack towards Brexit because doorstep reaction wanted to “get the Pakis out of Bradford.” WTF?
I do accept that many of the people who hold these views have historically, perhaps for family reasons, tended to vote Labour. But increasingly, some in recent years have fractured off towards fascist groups such as the British Nationalist Party, which 20 years ago had more than 50 local councillors and two Euro MPs. More recently many of these former Labour voters have been supporting far-Right people like Tommy Robinson.
It was not that much of a surprise that they should now vote for Boris Johnson. This is a group of former Labour voters who felt ignored by the Blair/Brown governments and now seek to demonstrate their resentment with hostility to anyone who sounds like a politician. Boris Johnson comes across as a clown.
I think it was ever thus. I can remember attending meetings of Hull Trades Council in the late 1970s. There were two unions who dominated – the Transport & General Workers Union, whose members were mostly dockers and who were there for the cheap beer, and the National Union of Teachers, who provided most of the officers for the executive committee and who wanted to talk about the Chile Solidarity Campaign. I was a bit of an oddball, being the only one from the National Union of Journalists.
At the Labour Party conference in Brighton, last September, I was approached by a man who wanted me to sign his petition. He was campaigning for the creation of a special section on Labour’s national executive, reserved for “working class” members. When I asked him for a definition, he just said “it’s obvious! It’s someone who’s a worker.” I disagreed, and after about 15 minutes he got bored and moved on.
Later that same day, I found myself seated around a late night table with a group of Cornish comrades. Everyone was drunk, including me. One comrade, whose blushes I shall spare by not naming him, was trying to explain why he could not campaign against Brexit in Camborne and Redruth. “They voted for Brexit in the referendum and they should be allowed to leave the EU,” he said. Someone from Truro and Falmouth constituency snorted in disagreement.
As the empty wine and gin bottles stacked up, some of the language became progressively more industrial. “I’m sorry,” said my friend, realising that his language had been inappropriate, particularly in front of the only sober person in the room (our brilliant 15-year-old youth delegate from North Cornwall.)
“But I’m working class,” he continued, “and we swear a lot.”
I laughed, but he was deadly serious. “And as for you,” he said, angered by my ridicule, “you’re just a fucking Liberal Democrat.”
I protested that while I was certainly no saint, and had done many things in my life of which I am not proud, that was undoubtedly the worst insult anyone had ever thrown in my direction.
I think that if I were to fill in some bureaucrat’s form, I would probably look quite working class. Both of my parents left school at 14. I grew up in a council house. When I was 10, my Dad was killed in an accident and thereafter I grew up in a single-parent household. I did not go to university but went straight to work, as a trainee reporter, at 18. Although now approaching retirement age, I am far from secure, economically, and I think my old age could well be financially precarious.
I don’t actually consider myself to have any specific social class at all. I’ve travelled too far, and been exposed over a long life to too many diverse cultural experiences. I regret not going to university, and have always carried a huge chip on my shoulder about that, and although it was a decision I made myself when I was 18 it probably hasn’t been as disadvantageous as if I had stumbled into some other profession.
But I absolutely do not consider myself a traitor to my grandparents’ class. I just happened to have been born into a different time in the 20th century.
The current divisions in the Labour Party are about so much more than the usual check-list of Lefty social and economic policy demands. The “one more heave” slogan is not going to do it, not in the north and certainly not in Scotland.
Labour needs to get stuck in, and start winning the battles for hearts and minds in communities, rather than thinking that as long as the right people get their hands on the levers of party power, all will be well.
This means a level of community engagement that has been absent, probably since 1945. Voters cannot be taken for granted. Arguments have to be won.
These are depressing times to be a Lefty, and maybe things will brighten up a bit once Labour elects a leader who starts to offer greater clarity. I always try to look on the bright side.
Indeed, things could always be worse. If you are a Liberal Democrat.