Coal miners finish the final shift before closure at the Kellingley Colliery in Yorkshire (John Giles/AFP via Getty)

Poor white men and Labour’s identity trap

Survey data backs the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities’ finding that Britain is a successful multi-racial society


This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The “old” Labour party, established to represent the working class, should be justly proud of its long history of fighting discrimination and championing historically oppressed groups. However, within the purview of the “new” progressive identity politics, socio-economic class is now merely one of a kaleidoscope of intersecting disadvantages. This ideology rejects a materialist class analysis and instead orders the world along an intersecting and oppressive hierarchy of race, sexuality and gender.

Given Labour’s overwhelmingly middle class, metropolitan graduate base, it is thus unsurprising that some disadvantages are more equal than others. On the intersectional matrix, it’s more than feasible that today’s privately educated ethnic minority female Cambridge graduate may be more “oppressed” than yesterday’s white male miner.

Labour’s 2020 “rule book” outlines the logic. Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) is mentioned 104 times, gender representation 40 times, but only four mentions are made to increasing working-class representation. Even then, class is subordinated to identitarian ideology. While the party’s schemes seek to increase working-class representation, it will “select more candidates who reflect the full diversity of our society in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and disability”. 

Can the Tories capitalise on this malaise and map a new vision of the politics of identity and equality in a post-Brexit Britain?

Many on the left in Britain now parrot American cultural imperialism through the importation of its race-suffused culture wars and “critical race” mantras. This new religion requires an unquestioning belief in the malignant nature of “whiteness”. It pitches high-status white progressives, corporate keynote grievance grifters and elite minority interlocutors against a largely despised working class. We are told that their denial of collective racial privilege is a further sign of heretical sin and clear evidence that they are but a short goose-step away from fascism.

Can the Tories capitalise on this malaise and map a new vision of the politics of identity and equality in a post-Brexit Britain? In this, the “new fight for fairness” speech in December 2020 by the Equalities minister, Liz Truss, was a clear statement of intent. Moving away from grievance-mongering and perpetual victimhood, she signalled that human agency and “individual humanity and dignity” will form the Conservatives’ developing equality agenda’s focus. Truss’s speech also drew a clear line in the sand against the increasingly common cultural tendency to prioritise subjective “lived experience” and theories of knowledge where “truth and morality are all relative”. 

The new report published by the UK government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) has carried forward the momentum. Released in March 2021, it has unsurprisingly caused quite a stir. At over 258 pages, it represents a landmark piece of research that rejects orthodoxies which interpret ethnic disparities through the prism of “systemic racism” and “institutional discrimination”. The Commissioners state that they “no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities” — arguing that racism is all too often used as a “catch-all” explanation for the existence of ethnic disparities.

Some of the negative reactions to the report have been bordering on the hysterical. Even before the report was published, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu labelled the lead author, Dr Tony Sewell, a “token black man” and stated that “Britain is not a model of racial equality”. Professor Priyamvada Gopal, of Cambridge University, launched a personal attack on the Chair of the Commission, questioning if he had a doctorate. When confirmed, she replied, “Even Dr Goebbels had a research PhD”. 

Given the wholesale ideological adoption of identity politics by the Labour party, it was unsurprising that the Party’s reactions were similar. Not even having read the report, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer condemned it as “disappointing” whilst Labour’s Clive Lewis even sought to strike parallels with the report’s claims and the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The report, “rolls back decades of work on challenging racial inequality and is an insult to everyone who continues to experience institutional racism” argued the MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy. 

While the report stated that racism remains “a real force in the UK”, it tackles head-on the reductionist thinking that views all disparities between groups as being due to systemic discrimination. It challenges a standard view in the UK’s media and elite cultural institutions that the UK is irredeemably racist that a glance at the data shows is tough to sustain. 

The EU’s 2019 race report showed that the UK is one of the least racist societies on earth

For example, in one of the most comprehensive public opinion surveys ever conducted, the EU’s 2019 report, Discrimination in the European Union, showed that the UK is one of the least racist societies on earth. On political leadership, 88 per cent of UK citizens were comfortable with a person of different ethnicity holding the highest political position; 95 per cent were happy to work with somebody of another race. More instructive, 86 per cent stated that they would be comfortable if one of their children were in a loving relationship with somebody from a different race. This is now reflected in the fact that the UK has one of the world’s highest per capita mixed ethnicity households. 

Similarly, a study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that whilst people of black African descent faced “widespread and entrenched prejudice and exclusion” across the EU, the UK had one of the lowest reported levels of race-related harassment and violence in the 12-country study. The highest violence rates were reported in Finland (14 per cent), closely followed by Austria and the Republic of Ireland (13 per cent). The figure among UK respondents was 3 per cent. Theoretical notions of white privilege are responsible for placing race at the forefront of disadvantage, thereby masking important social factors which can contribute towards socio-economic disparities — such as family structure, community support, and cultural attitudes towards academic commitment. 

For example, if our schools and universities are some of the most significant enablers of equal opportunity, the data is very stark. At our most selective universities, only 5 per cent of disadvantaged young people enrol compared with the national average of 12 per cent. Part-time students from lower-income backgrounds have dropped by a massive 42 per cent over the past six years. ONS figures show that the historically low entry rate into higher education of white pupils from state schools has been this way every year since 2006. The most significant increase in entry rates between 2006 and 2018 was among black pupils, from 21.6 per cent to 41.2 per cent; the smallest increase was among white pupils, from 21.8 per cent to 29.5 per cent.

There is a gender dimension to this, too. The Higher Education Policy Institute’s latest survey of gender across degrees of all types shows a long-term trend of declining male participation. Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, states “young women are now 35 per cent more likely to go to university than men. If this differential growth carries on unchecked, girls born this year will be 75 per cent more likely to go to university than their male peers”. 

The latest data on widening participation reinforces this depressing picture. A child on free school meals is the leading indicator of deprivation but this does not equally impact all ethnic minorities groups. In terms of progression amongst young men, 67 per cent of Chinese, 54 per cent Indian, 53 per cent Bangladeshi, 52 per cent of Black African, and 24 per cent black Caribbean on free school meals progress to higher education. 

White British men? At just 13 per cent, they are the least likely group to study at university after those from Traveller backgrounds. Even at Oxford, more than 22 per cent of its undergraduates starting in 2019 were Britons from BAME backgrounds, up from 18 per cent on the previous year’s admissions. Tellingly, educational disadvantages have significant real-world effects. ONS data shows Chinese, Indian and mixed or multiple ethnicity employees all have higher median hourly pay than White British employees, with Chinese employees earning 30.9 per cent more than white British employees. 

Even the Police, one of the most vilified public institutions in Britain, enjoys overwhelming support from ethnic minorities

The CRED report does have its blind spots. For example, Britain’s rapidly-growing mixed-race demographic — the fastest-growing section of our population — is not given the attention it deserves. The persistence of “religious penalties” in the labour market and housing can also have a disproportionate impact on certain ethnic groups, such as Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Middle Eastern, North African, and Somali origin. 

One oft-overlooked form of inequality — regional — also features prominently in the report. So it should: the UK is one of the most regionally unequal economies in the industrialised world. There are also sections on how migratory background and internal cultural norms shape educational and socio-economic outcomes for different British ethnic groups, which further demonstrate the multiple factors at play. As such, the CRED report also reframes what are often simplistic views of Britain’s ethnic minority communities, especially in post-Brexit Britain.

The idea of Brexit as a “white working-class revolt” — a social uprising of the nostalgic in stagnant regions abandoned by the London-centric political establishment — was pushed by the media, but the reality was far more complicated. Why else, for example, did Milton Keynes, a new town commercial hub, and Watford, with its multi-ethnic population and Zone 7 London Underground station, vote Leave? Media portrayals barely begin to tell the story of why 17.4 million people voted for the UK to withdraw from the EU.

Interestingly, data suggests that Euroscepticism in Britain’s South Asian population, particularly the UK’s Indian ethnic group, was far more substantial than previously thought. One of the most interesting localities to consider in the referendum was Osterley and Spring Grove. A relatively affluent, non-white-majority ward in the London borough of Hounslow returned a Leave vote of 63.4 per cent. Several areas with a significant South Asian population also delivered Leave results including Luton, Hillingdon, Slough and Bradford. 

The 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study survey (2010 EMBES), funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the only full-scale analysis of ethnic minority socio-political attitude to date, showed non-white people were more likely to report satisfaction with British democracy than white Brits. This is not surprising when one considers that large sections of Britain’s ethnic-minority population moved to the UK from unstable parts of the world in search of a better life for themselves and their families. 

One of the key motivators among first-generation migrant parents to relocate to Britain was to provide their children with greater educational opportunities.

This comparative frame of reference naturally feeds into a more positive orientation towards Britain’s democratic system of governance. ESRC data from 2012 showed that predominantly Muslim ethnic groups such as people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Middle Eastern heritage attached greater importance to their British identity than white people at large. 

More recent polling by ICM Unlimited in January 2021 found that 62 per cent of black British people considered their British national identity to be important — only marginally lower than the more comprehensive general population figure of 64 per cent. Even the Police Service, one of the most vilified public institutions in Britain, enjoys overwhelming support from ethnic minorities. ONS data shows that the UK’s Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indian and black African demographic have a higher level of confidence in their local police force in 2019 than white British people, at over 75 per cent. As such, the picture in post-Brexit Britain on the politics of ethnicity, identity, and equality is far more complicated than the dominant media narrative portrays. 

The Tory party is rejecting a post-modern emphasis on the subjective nature of knowledge

The Tory party is undergoing a reboot predicated around defending enlightenment principles, including the scientific method, reason and individuals’ natural rights and rejecting a post-modern emphasis on the subjective nature of knowledge which has the tendency to see words as violence and a deep suspicion towards free speech. 

The CRED report also pushes back against a simplistic narrative that portrays any real or alleged disparity between different groups as proof of an underlying discriminatory structure. This confuses correlation with causation whilst ignoring crucial confounding variables such as age, geography, and cultural values. How can we possibly square theories of systemic discrimination with the fact that non-white ethnic minorities often attain better outcomes than the majority white population? 

We have to recognise that whilst humans work within wider social structures, they have purposeful agency within them. The left-identitarian narrative tends to reduce people to mere marionettes twitching on structural strings with no choice or freedom. In a society characterised by imperfect but broadly equal opportunities, disparities between individuals often derive from differential inputs, efforts and talent. Outcomes should inform policymaking, but the key is to focus on processes that allow non-discriminatory human flourishing, not to impose post-facto outcomes to generate a form of “social justice”. 

As the African-American scholar, Shelby Steele, argues, in our current age, “lessening responsibility for minorities equals moral authority; increasing it equals racism”. He continues that social justice is thus no longer seen as an enabling condition from which individuals assume responsibility but as a driver of political changes in — and of — itself. “In this illusion”, he argues, “social justice procures an entirely better life for people apart from their own efforts.”

We must avoid a society that robs individuals of personal and, in many cases, political, agency by assigning it to somebody else to achieve: an infantilising “white saviour” complex rooted in guilt and where moral authority and thus absolution is gained by “fixing” others’ problems. Jeremy Corbyn captured the logic succinctly. Only Labour, he declared, “can be trusted to unlock the talent of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people”. Liz Truss’s speech and the CRED report signal a pushback against these patronising and ultra-paternalistic narratives. 

The government must keep up the momentum, and not be cowed by what are often a loud but tiny minority of activists on social media

It makes sense for the Conservative party to continue to develop its thinking around equality and identity to map a new politics for a prosperous multi-ethnic Britain. It must face down a largely left-hegemonic institutionalised column of quangos, charities and elite cultural institutions, most of which have a bureaucratic and economic self-interest in evidencing “forever” grievance narratives that feed the left-idenititarian’s culture war.

The government’s announcements on protecting academic freedom in our deeply compromised universities coupled with its developing thinking around equality, as captured in the CRED report, has set a tiger amongst the left-identitarian pigeons. 

The government must keep up the momentum, and not be cowed by what are often a loud but tiny minority of activists on social media. In doing so, it must be clear that this is not to fight an endless culture war, and thus replicate the poison now tearing the US apart, but to secure a beachhead upon which dialogue, respect and humanity can once again flourish, and the centre can hold.

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