John Denham’s recent thoughts on race and class sparked my weekly column today for the print edition of the paper. As you will see, my thesis is that class explains at least as much about disadvantage in Britain as race. Like Denham, I think we should spend less time talking about race, and more time talking about class.
There’s been a conspiracy of silence on the issue until recently. But one of the most interesting political developments of the last few years, especially in London, is the re-emergence of the white working class as a real political force. The main beneficiary, by the way, is not the vastly overhyped BNP, but the Tories.
The mass defection of white working-class voters from Labour to the Tories was absolutely instrumental in Ken Livingstone’s ejection from the mayoralty. For the first time, I believe, in the modern era, the Tories won more votes than Labour in the very working-class borough of Greenwich; they won the majority of the wards in Barking and Dagenham.
Ken was, of course, a particularly extreme example of disregard, bordering on contempt, for the white working-class. Some of his agencies actively discriminated against them. The London Development Agency, for instance, had (indeed still has!) quotas that 50% of employment support and skills grants must go to ethnic minorities, and 50% to women. (See page 81 of its 2007-10 corporate plan.) White working-class men, many of whom were clearly in need of employment support and skills training, were all but shut out.
But there’s also been massive Tory growth in places like Sunderland – they even have an outside chance of winning the redrawn Sunderland Central parliamentary seat in May. Something quite important is happening here.