Back in 2004 the British journalist and television producer Michael Collins published a book. Collins had written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times, and the book was published by the literary publisher Granta. Otherwise liberals like myself might have been alarmed by the book’s title The Likes of Us: a Biography of the White Working Class. Collins traces the the stories of working class people in London and their sense of alienation at a political system in which they had become invisible. Collins recounts a conversation with Sloppy Joe, a white working class Londoner, in which they discussed a brochure that had been produced 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.
Collins identified a sense of alienation that had been growing for at least a decade prior to the publication of his book, the growth of electoral support for the British National Party reflected a frustration and anger within working class communities, for whom the Labour governments from 1997 onward had seemed to offer little.
Ten years after Collins’ book, in 2014 Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin published Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. In their description of the rise and rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Ford and Goodwin describe the alienation felt by those whom Collins described. UKIP consciously and actively rejected the racist policies espoused by the BNP and appealed to a vast pool of people who felt that they had been left voiceless by the establishment political parties.
Traditional working class communities had been impoverished by the decline of heavy industry; technology had brought a de-skilling of jobs and a loss of traditional work patterns; open borders brought European workers who would work for much lower wages, depressing the wages of everyone; globalization brought a flood of imports produced in the Far East at prices no British producer could match. Yet the main parties seemed oblivious to the pain among the poorest, Labour was a party of minorities, adrift from its traditional voter base. The financial crisis caused by bankers brought austerity measures that hurt the most vulnerable.
UKIP offered voters a chance to express their anger at a political system that seemed to have no regard for them and on 23rd June 2016 voters in traditional heavy industrial areas like Sunderland and the Welsh valleys expressed their anger by voting for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. UKIP and Brexit campaigners were disparaged by the liberal establishment; Brexit supporters were labelled as “stupid” and “dumb;” the opinion polls said the Leave campaign would lose. Working class people in their millions ignored both the derision and the urgings of the Labour Party that had purported to represent them.
After the rise of UKIP and the success of Brexit in the United Kingdom, the success of Donald Trump was surely no surprise?
Millions of American blue collar workers yesterday voted against an establishment that was simply oblivious to working class people. There have been decades of industrial decline, the export of jobs, the destruction of any hope that blue collar people might still aspire to the American dream. The gap between the richest and the poorest has grown wider and wider, corporate America has acquired previously unimaginable wealth while working people have worked longer and longer hours for low wages. The financial crisis wiped out the sub-prime mortgage holders while the country struggled with the debts caused by the rich bankers. Clinton, being part of the establishment, offered no radical analysis of the economy Is it any surprise that Donald Trump was able to garner the support of all those angry people?
As the UKIP voters were derided, as the Brexit voters were derided, so the Trump voters have met a similar wave of liberal abuse, “dumb” and “stupid” being the most frequent terms. Perhaps those who are dumb and stupid are those of us who for more than a decade have ignored the growing sense of alienation, those of us who preferred to think that the anger would mysteriously be dissipated. If liberal values are to be preserved, then, very quickly, there needs to be developed a persuasive political analysis that re-connects with the lost communities.