Speaking to a group of students from black and minority ethnic community backgrounds, the chancellor of Birmingham City University quoted from William Goldman. Twice an Oscar winner, Goldman wrote the scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and for All the President’s Men. A screenwriter whose word carries weight, he advised people that they should protect the spine of their story.
”Protect the spine of your story,” Lenny Henry told the group listening to him. But what about the people whose stories are not treated with similar esteem? What about the stories of those who are spoken of in pejorative terms? What of those whose stories are unclear, or have been forgotten, or have been deliberately erased?
The story of white working class communities in England has been systematically neglected by both the main political parties. The absurdity of English politics in 2020 is that there is a prime minister who has known nothing but a life of privilege, who attended the most exclusive school and university in the country, who was elected with the assistance of millions of voters from poor, working class constituencies.
The triumph of Boris Johnson owes much to the fact that the Labour Party became death to white working class people, it became the party of the intellectuals, the party of the minorities, the party of the pressure groups. The stories of ethnic minorities, the stories of sexuality and gender groups, the stories of single issue organisations, these were the stories that were cherished by the Left. The stories of white working class people were neglected, the stories of de-skilling and deindustrialisation, the stories of alienation and community fragmentation, such stories did not commend themselves to the middle class liberals who lead the party.
The worst performing educational cohort are white working class boys, but it seems unpopular to say that positive discrimination should be extended to such communities. An offer by a donor to provide free places for a small number of such boys at expensive public schools was rejected by the schools concerned. Would the approach have been similarly rejected if the boys had come from a different ethnic background?
Shouldn’t the stories of disadvantage and struggle within those communities be similarly protected? Shouldn’t the identities of white working class people receive similar affirmation?
If the Labour Party is to recover from its worst electoral defeat since 1935, it needs to rid itself of its preoccupation with fringe politics and focus on those for whom the party was founded – their story is as valid as everyone else’s story.