Church leaders in West Yorkshire in England were to gather today to sign a statement opposing the BNP. It’s a move that follows church condemnation of the BNP’s use of Jesus in a poster campaign reported by the Daily Telegraph. The West Yorkshire Ecumenical Council, which is behind the statement, says,
“The Churches have a long record of speaking out against racism, fascism and the forces of hatred and division in our society. At the European Elections on 4 June there is a danger that one of the Yorkshire MEPs could be a member of the British National Party. Local churches can play a major role in countering this threat, simply by encouraging people to go out and vote for any other party”.
What is lacking in the statement is engagement with factors that prompt people to desert their traditional political allegiances to vote for a racist party, desertions that are so substantial that they may elect a candidate.
Would it be so politically incorrect for churches to try to engage with white working class people? To attempt to understand anger is not to condone racist attitudes, rather it is to affirm that every community matters.
Five years ago, The Likes of Us: a Biography of the White Working Class was published. Michael Collins traced the the stories of working class people in London and their palpable sense of hurt at becoming invisible to the political establishment. Collins describes a meeting with Sloppy Joe, a white working class Londoner, in which they talked about a brochure printed to promote the borough of Southwark.
“You wouldn’t think us English had ever lived here if you look at this.’ He opens it and taps a page . . .
“Southwark is a highly cosmopolitan area with a rich mixture of communities going back centuries. The borough’s proximity to the River Thames led to strong links across the world and by the 15th century Southwark had one of the largest immigrant populations. German, Dutch and Flemish craftspeople excluded by the City of London settled in Southwark … immigrants from Ireland took up manual jobs … the labour shortage was eased by workers and their families invited from the Caribbean and West Africa … communities from China, Cyprus, Vietnam, Somalia, Ethiopia, Bosnia and Croatia … just under a third of our population is from an ethnic minority and over a hundred languages are spoken by our children”.
‘They don’t mention us English’, Joe says. ‘You wouldn’t think we’d ever existed would ya?’ Joe sees himself as part of a long established tribe that dominated the urban working class within this area from the beginning of the nineteenth century and earlier. It has been air brushed from the history of the area as reported in the brochure. But how would it be represented? The white working class have never needed to define themselves or be defined before.
What are the church leaders going to do for all the Sloppy Joes?