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The notion of « white working class » in British political discourse, from New Labour to Brexit

Emilie De Witte
p. 47-64

Résumé

Brexit has been considered as the vote of a « white working class » by a significant part of the media, politicians, and academics. This expression became rapidly mainstream despite its atypical construction. One can reflect upon this new rhetorical category, different from the traditional notion of “working class”, and is implicitly but clearly construed first and foremost in opposition to non-white workers, and not to the « bourgeoisie » or the middle-class. Brexit is also largely presented as the expression of strong Eurosceptic and anti-immigration opinions supposedly prevalent in the « white working class ». This paper aims at understanding how these assumptions about the « white working class » and its claims developed in British political discourse to the point of being a crucial topic during the Brexit discussions.

The focus of this paper is a discursive analysis of the British traditional parties in power, in the context of what has been called a « white Vincent LATOUR2022-09-01T22:56:00VLbacklash », triggered by multiculturalism1. The period considered starts in 1997 with the election of New Labour on a multiculturalist agenda. The second term of Tony Blair in 2001 Vincent LATOUR2022-09-01T22:57:00VLwas a watershed moment, because it was then that he clearly turned against the previously multiculturalist agenda of his party. Since then, both the Labour and the Conservative parties have nurtured the theme of the « white working class »2 as left behind Vincent LATOUR2022-09-01T23:02:00VLby multiculturalism. This idea reached its pinnacle with Brexit in 2016, with lasting effects until 2019, when the Conservatives won by a landslide on an agenda focused on restoring the place of the « white working class ». This paper aims at showing the convergence of both parties around the rejection of multiculturalism and the defence of this newly construced section of the population, which led to the shift of British political discourse towards the right, with the promotion of the British identity as essentially « white ».

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Introduction

  • 3 Hewitt, Roger. op.cit. p. 148.
  • 4 Beider, Harris. White Working-Class Voices: Multiculturalism, Community-Building and Change. Policy (...)
  • 5 Gest, Justin. The New Minority, White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequalit (...)

1The term « white backlash » first emerged in the academic field in the 2000s under the government of Tony Blair. It described the hostile reaction to multiculturalism as a policy by a part of the British population, identified as « white » – the « white working class ». Therefore, the academic literature has studied the « white working-class » in relation to debates on multiculturalism, since it would have been difficult to understand it without interrogating its antagonistic notion (Hewitt3, 2005 ; Beider4, 2015). Nevertheless, with the publication of Justin Gest’s book The New Minority5 in the context of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the term multiculturalism disappeared from most analyses. Gest’s book signalled a shift in anglophone academic circles : the notion of a « white working class » was no more considered as a reaction to multiculturalism, but as a group in its own right. Following this trend, a shift occurred in the way researchers and journalists handled the topic of the « white working class » : it became binary, with the existence of this group either strongly asserted or on the contrary denied. In this debate, there remained a blind spot concerning the very use of this expression. What was the political interest in increasingly using this notion to the point of making it a key element of academic, and, increasingly over the 2000s, political discourse ?

2Thus, this paper focuses on the construction and the use of the « white working class » to understand its purpose in British political discourse from 1997 to 2019. A discursive analysis will be led by examining political manifestos and speeches. The website Voyant Tools will be used to give a visual aspect to this study with the creation of highlights of the most repetitive words. I shall analyse first the creation of a group relegated to the margins of the multicultural society promoted by New Labour. I will then go on to show the growing hostility towards multiculturalism, not only by the Conservative opposition but also by Labour itself. They both used the figure of the “left behind” to implement this shift. Finally, I will seek to understand how the « white working class », once presented as marginalised, has been labelled as the most crucial constituency by both parties. Contemporary Conservatives ultimately won the support of this group. In their discourse, the « white working class » was considered as a fundamental section of British society and national identity and must therefore be protected as such.

The « white working class » and New Labour: creation, exclusion, and « white backlash »

The creation and designation of a marginalised group

3The creation of the « white working class » as a distinctive group involved several steps. The first one consisted in a peculiar discourse on social exclusion.

4In 1997, Tony Blair appointed his spin doctor Peter Mandelson head of a new structure, the Social Exclusion Unit, SEU. It was meant to analyse factors of social exclusion and to draft policies accordingly. Peter Mandelson theorised the character of the « excluded » in New Labour discourse. He gave the following speech for the launch of the SEU in 1997.

  • 6 Beider, Harris. White Working-Class Voices: Multiculturalism, Community-Building and Change. Policy (...)

We are the people who are used to being represented as problematic. We are the long term, benefit-claiming, working-class poor, living through another period of cultural contempt. We are losers, no hopers, low life scroungers. Our culture is yob culture. The importance of welfare provisions to our lives has been denigrated and turned against us; we are welfare dependent and our problems won’t be solved by giving us higher benefits. We are perverse in our failure to succeed, dragging our feet over social change, wanting the old jobs back, still having babies instead of careers, stuck in outdated class and gender moulds. We are the challenge that stands above all others, the greatest social crisis of our times6.

This description deliberately and provocatively characterised a group as « problematic », « losers », « low life scroungers ». In New Labour era, Peter Mandelson used older stereotypes about the « poor » such as their supposed idleness and lack of moral values. The « working class poor » was depicted as an underclass, always opposed to another group implicitly considered as modern thus successful : « having babies instead of careers », « stuck in outdated class and gender moulds », « wanting the old jobs back ». The highlight of the main words of this speech generated by Voyant Tools enables to understand the underlying logic of this discourse.

5We see here the idea of a « social class » depending on « welfare » provisions, resulting not from socio-economic problems but from a « culture » inherent in this group. If the word « class » is considered in the context of the speech, the result from Voyant Tool shows how the word is always linked to negative ideas.

6

7In the same way, New Labour wanted to distinguish itself from the Old Left in its 1997 manifesto. Peter Mandelson presented a group clinging to outdated concepts, thus unable to be part of Labour’s New Britain agenda. He described and pointed out a very precise group thought of as culturally unfit for society.

  • 7 New Labour manifesto, 1997.
  • 8 Fairclough, Norman. New Labour New Language? Routledge, 2000, p.38.

8In 1997, Tony Blair laid out two projects : fighting social exclusion while promoting multiculturalism. In the New Labour manifesto, multiculturalism appeared in the chapter « We will be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime »7 : « We will create a new offence of racial harassment and a new crime of racially motivated violence ». In 1999, the Prime Minister gave a speech at the South African parliament where he further addressed multiculturalism : « We can be equally fierce in our defence of racial and religious tolerance as in our attack on crime and social disintegration »8. When these declarations are analysed through Voyant Tool, the following words are highlighted.

9During New Labour’s first term, multiculturalism was presented through the lens of security measures. The amendment of the Race Relations Act in 2000 « outlaw[ed] race discrimination in functions not previously covered »9 and « place[d] a duty on specified public authorities to work towards the elimination of unlawful discrimination ». Tony Blair’s rhetoric was in line with Peter Mandelson with the promotion of a divisive multiculturalism. Some people were part of their multicultural society and for this reason had to be protected, while others were directly excluded and so were criminals.

10 As a result, in 1997, New Labour adopted a moralising and criminalising discourse on social exclusion while promoting multiculturalism as the landmark of Modern Britain. Consequently, in its very way of advocating multiculturalism, New Labour created a group characterized by their opposition to it. This rejection was the « white backlash » against multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism and British identity : New Labour’s discursive shift

  • 10 « Last Bradford rioter is sentenced ». BBC News, 21 December 2007.
  • 11 Staff and agencies. « Report criticises racial divisions in Bradford ». The Guardian, 12 July 20001

11In 2001 violent confrontations between different ethnic communities occurred in cities like Bradford. The riots mobilised 1000 police officers with among other consequences 297 arrests and 200 jail sentences10. Following the events, the city of Bradford requested in 2001 a report from Lord Herman Ouseley, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality. He depicted a city where racial communities were fragmented and feared each other. According to him, all communities had to be held accountable on working with one another instead of generating fear. To achieve this, one of his main focuses was education : « The team discovered low levels of academic achievement in too many of the schools, and children leaving full-time education with little knowledge of how other communities live their lives »11. He gave one example : « There is a fear of confronting all-white and all-Muslim schools about their contribution, or rather the lack of contribution, to social and racial integration and segregation in schools ... one sign that the communities are fragmenting along racial, cultural and faith lines ». To address these problems the report recommended « a people programme that creates social harmony, rejects racial hatred, brings communities together and shows them how to value people of all backgrounds ».

  • 12 Independent Review Team. « Community Cohesion ». Home Office, 2001, p. 9.
  • 13 Ibid. p. 21.
  • 14 Ibid. p. 28.

12On a national level, Tony Blair was re-elected and also requested a report published the same year – the Cantle report. The document issued two key concepts : some people led « parallel lives », and the solution to this problem was « community cohesion ». With the attributes of a sociological research, the Community Cohesion Review Team led a field study with interviews. In the first chapter showing their « findings », they highlighted the quote : « A Muslim of Pakistani origin summed this up : “when I leave this meeting with you I will go home and not see another white face until I come back here next week” » 12. This testimony was presented as illustrative of the main problem in these racial riots, that is to say the fact ethnic minorities led « parallel lives » since they didn’t often see « white faces ». The report claimed there was one and only problem responsible for this situation : multiculturalism. Therefore, in government thinking, this concept was to be abandoned and replaced by another : « community cohesion ». The two concepts reflected contrasting visions of diversity, with ethnic minorities first considered as part of British society needing protection from marginalised people, to actually being pointed out as being marginalised themselves. To be accepted in society, ethnic minorities must express a « clear primary loyalty to the Nation »13. Multiculturalism should be replaced by a focus on teaching « new values [to] local communities »14. A new divide was at the core of this rhetoric with ethnic minorities de facto excluded from British society. They needed to learn « new values » to be like other British citizens who in theory spontaneously already lived by them. The former victims of « racially motivated violence » in the 1997 Labour manifesto became responsible for their own marginalisation.

13But this report chose to ignore fundamental data. First, the socio-economic background of this city : Bradford, formerly known as the « wool capital » of Britain, was at the centre of the textile industry. Then, like other cities, it faced the full brunt of deindustrialisation. The chart below illustrates the ethnic profile of its population.

  • 15 City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council. « Ethnicity in Bradford ». Bradford.gov, 4 January (...)

Figure 1: Ethnic groups in Bradford15

  • 16 Brown, Gordon. « Seminar on Britishness ». 27 February 2007.

14At the time of the riots and even 10 years later, the city had a majority of « white people », with a very sizeable minority Asian population. Different ethnic groups took part in the riots, including small far right groups. But the only ones presented as responsible for these tensions, and as problematic, were ethnic minorities. « Whites », as the main group, were ignored in the analysis. Every member of this community faced economic difficulties and marginalisation, while ethnic minorities faced racism as well. By ignoring « Whites », the report implied they already knew the right « values » and were « loyal to the Nation ». Ethnic minorities should act like them to adhere to the « community ». Successive Labour governments from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown fully endorsed the report and adopted its rhetoric, refocusing its discourse around themes such as Britishness, British values, national pride16. In New Labour’s new rhetoric, British “Whites” became the group at the core of British society – the norm.

  • 17 Phillips, Trevor. « After 7/7: sleepwalking to segregation ». Manchester Council for Community Rela (...)

15During this period, in 2005, Trevor Phillips delivered a speech « Sleepwalking towards segregation » 17along the same lines as those of the Cantle report.

In recent years we’ve focused far too much on the « multi » and not enough on the common culture. We’ve emphasized what divides us over what unites us. We have allowed tolerance of diversity to harden into the effective isolation of communities, in which some people think special separate values ought to apply.

16In the aftermath of the London terror attacks, he targeted multiculturalism the same way as Ted Cantle, but with a stronger word – « segregation ». He drew the same conclusions : « Newcomers realise that they too will have to change if we are to move closer to an integrated society ».

  • 18 « Things we won’t say about race that are true ». YouTube, uploaded by « Mario », 22 March 2015. ht (...)

17Beyond this speech, Trevor Phillips made a point to further his message. In 2015 he produced and presented a documentary on Channel 4 entitled « Things we won’t say about race that are true » 18. In the beginning, he addressed the viewer.

In this film I’m going to say some things about race that we normally never say on television. By the first commercial break you may be wondering whether I’m breaking every equality law in the book : I’m not. I should know, I helped to create those laws and I used to be their enforcer. My name is Trevor Phillips. For 10 years I led Britain’s Equality Commission. It was my job to make sure that different racial and religious groups got on. Campaigners like me sincerely believed that if we could prevent people expressing prejudiced ideas then eventually, they would stop thinking them. But now I’m convinced that we were utterly wrong. In a world driven by racial and religious strife, some things are just too important to be left unsaid, even if they might offend people. So, in this film I’m going to say some the things that we once told you were forbidden. And I know that in the next 5 minutes some of you will be saying “I don’t care what color he is, he’s being totally racist”.

18Trevor Phillips made the same move as Tony Blair in 2001 by turning against his own political action. After years as an activist against racial discrimination, he wanted to do the exact opposite by publicly seemingly endorsing racial prejudices. Multiculturalism is considered as a form of censorship, but only for a particular group. According to Trevor Phillips, a part of the population could not express what they thought anymore, for fear of being immediately labelled as racists. The aim of the documentary was to voice but also to legitimate these ideas, without any contradiction. Different subjects were tackled.

  • 19 « Things we won’t say about race that are true ». YouTube, uploaded by « Mario », 22 March 2015. ht (...)

Figure 2: Screenshots from « Things we won’t say about race that are true » 19.

19In the introduction, Trevor Phillips continued to talk about himself : « At the age of 7 or 8 I had a really good ethnic map of North London in my head. Of course, everybody who lives here knows all this. But as you grow up, you realize that polite people don’t talk about this kind of thing, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do ». He considered to be legitimate to voice racial prejudices since he was the son of immigrant parents, who grew up in a working class and multicultural area. There was a new aspect in the rhetoric against multiculturalism with the idea he could say anything since he was from an ethnic minority.

20Trevor Philips introduced the chapter « Silence creates victims too » as follows : « I think we gave birth to an ugly new doctrine. The new doctrine says : 1) all whites are alike, 2) all whites are tainted and guilty, 3) no white person should ever criticize someone who’s not white ». According to him, the promotion of multiculturalism created a new form of « racism » in reverse towards « whites » / white British people. They are considered to be persecuted and silenced by anti-discrimination laws. This group formed a crucial constituency depicted in the documentary by Matthew Goodwin.

There is a section of Britain’s population that feels as though it is not getting its fair share and it is being behind. You know these people are profoundly unhappy, upset, and angry about how Britain is changing and evolving. Yes, we call these voters left behind voters, older white not very well educated in comparison to other groups, profoundly angry with politicians in Westminster. You know don’t forget, these are voters who grew up before mass immigration, before Britain joined the European Union, before Britain had lost many of its colonies.

21There was at its core an approach that paralleled that of the Cantle report, de facto lending credibility to the notion of a marginalised “white working class”, regardless of actual data.

22When the whole script of the documentary is analysed through Voyant Tool, the character of the « left behind », « profoundly angry » appears.

23This documentary was the outcome of the shift of New Labour. They first constructed a marginalised group, excluded from multiculturalism. Then, they abandoned multiculturalism to retreat into nationalist ideas, celebrating a British identity from which ethnic minorities were excluded. The group initially excluded formed a new electorate, « angry » because they had been unfairly « left behind ». A new competition started between the two traditional parties to win the vote of this supposedly new segment of voters.

The « white working class » : from its takeover by the Conservatives to Brexit

The Conservative Party extends a hand to the « white working class »

  • 20 Cameron, David. « Modern Conservatism ». 30 January 2006.
  • 21 The House of Commons published a note, « Electoral performance of the British National Party in the (...)
  • 22 Cameron, David. « Bringing down the barriers to cohesion ». 29 January 2007.

24In 2006 David Cameron gave one of his first speeches20 as leader of the opposition in which his party, that had not been in power for 10 years. He complimented Tony Blair as the honourable successor to Margaret Thatcher and John Major : « Tony Blair saw that the task of New Labour was to preserve the fruits of the Thatcher revolution ». He considered that the Prime Minister implemented conservative economic and social policies, leaving the Tories without any valid motive of opposition. For him, Tony Blair failed « to tackle the problems of an underclass of people left behind ». The solution for the « left behind » of multiculturalism was « modern conservatism ». In 2007, in a context of expansion of the British National Party, BNP21, which was trying to appeal to the « left behind », David Cameron gave a speech first to discredit the party, which was to then take his own party even more to the right to satisfy this part of the electorate22. For him, the BNP was neither respectable nor effective. He took a populist stance by mentioning one of the favourite topics of far-right movements : « For many years, the ruling class in this country believed in something called multiculturalism. [...] It led to public housing being allocated along ethnic lines ». For him, being pro multiculturalism was the same as being from the far right : « Together with the extremism of the BNP, they [multiculturalists] created a situation in which many people were even scared to be proud of their country, because to say you're British was practically the same as being a racist ». His discourse was in line with that of Ted Cantle and Trevor Phillips, tackling the same subjects with similar views. He sought to put forward a third way between the discourses of multiculturalism and of racist exclusion : the discourse of the « left behind ».

  • 23 Cameron, David. « The challenges of a growing population ». 29 October 2007.

25The same year David Cameron delivered the speech entitled « The challenges of a growing population »23. He explained more in details his concept of « modern conservatism ».

We need to understand the impact of immigration on individual people in specific types of job. Richard Layard has argued that [...] unskilled migration harm[s] indigenous unskilled workers. In his words, there is a « huge amount of evidence » that where immigration increases the number of unskilled workers, this lowers unskilled wages and actually increases the unskilled unemployment rate.

26Immigration was viewed as negative and harmful, specifically for « unskilled workers ». He even mentioned « [immigration] will put pressure on our national infrastructure – particularly in key areas like housing, public services, and transport - and on resources like water and energy ». David Cameron presented the everyday life of the « indigenous unskilled workers » as a constant struggle. While condemning the BNP as a far-right movement, he took on its very populist and nationalist rhetoric.

  • 24 The marches organized by this group attract many young British in the streets, as well as young « w (...)
  • 25 Cameron, David. « Security Conference ». Munich, 5 February 2011.

27In 2010, David Cameron was Prime Minister in a context of expansion of the English Defence League, EDL24. The same day as a march in Luton by the far-right movement, he gave a speech on security at a EU conference held in Munich25.

So, when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious frankly – frankly, even fearful – to stand up to them.

28According to him, « white » people were censored because they were « white ». He presented multiculturalism as a “doctrine” meant to encourage citizens to live apart. In his opinion, because of this « state multiculturalism », far-right groups were treated more severely than « Muslims fundamentalists ».

[...] Would you take the same view if these were right-wing extremists recruiting on our campuses? Would you advocate inaction if Christian fundamentalists who believed that Muslims are the enemy were leading prayer groups in our prisons ? Would you allow the far-right groups a share of public funds if they promise to help you lure young white men away from fascist terrorism ? Of course not.

29For David Cameron, it was harder to be a « white », « right-wing extremist », « Christian fundamentalist » than an Islamist terrorist.

  • 26 Conservative Manifesto, 2015, p. 33.

30In the 2015 general election campaign, the Conservative manifesto stated in the chapter « Our plan to control immigration will put you, your family and the British people first » : « To prevent sectors becoming partially or wholly reliant on foreign workers, we will require those regularly utilising the Shortage Occupation List, under which they can bring skilled foreign workers into the UK, to provide long-term plans for training British workers » 26. This promise was linked to another : « We will protect British values and our way of life ». This manifesto explicitly addressed the fears of the « British workers » by detailing measures against « foreign workers ».

  • 27 Cameron, David. « Tory Party Conference ». Manchester, 2015.

31He also declared his party as « the party of working people, the party for working people – today, tomorrow, always » 27. The Conservative Party was not presented as the party for the establishment but on the contrary as the party for « working people » first and foremost. The Prime Minister used a tangible example.

Bernard Harris from Leicester wrote to me before polling day and said this. « Aged 82, this is possibly my last election. In my life I have foolishly voted Labour, believing it served the working class. How wrong I was. [...] Only a Conservative Government will achieve this ». Bernard, you found the right party – and I want many more to follow in your footsteps.

32David Cameron’s nationalist and populist rhetoric was meant for « working people » who wanted a new golden age. Bernard Harris, 82, was the « white person », « indigenous unskilled worker » – synonyms for « white working class », the face of « modern conservatism ».

33In 2016, The Prime Minister held a referendum on the UK EU membership. He resigned since he campaigned for the Remain with the arguments of the Leave side. However, his legacy enabled his Conservative successors to achieve his goal : making the Conservative Party, the party of the « white working class ».

The Conservative Party, the party of the « white working class »

34In 2016, Theresa May as new Prime Minister decided to take the next step. She explicitly mentioned the « white working class » using the same populist rhetoric as her predecessor.

  • 28 May Theresa. « First Statement as Prime Minister ». Downing Street, 13 July 2016.

If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. […] If you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job, but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school. If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly28.

  • 29 Ibid. « Conservative Conference ». Birmingham, 2 October 2016.

35She condemned the « people in Westminster » while giving a speech at that very location. After the example of Bernard Harris used by David Cameron, she made a more detailed description covering all the aspects of « white working-class » life : education, work, housing, mental health. In a Conservative discourse, they are not presented as « benefit scroungers » but as the group who works and struggles the most. The Conservative Party became the party of the « white working class ». A few months later she maintained : « The Conservative Party is the true workers’ party » 29. The consequences of this new strategy can be seen in the evolution of the conservative electorate represented below.

  • 30 Holder, Josh, Barr Caelainn and Kommenda Niko. « Young voters, class and turnout : how Britain vote (...)

Figure 3: Votes by social class, 2015-201730

36« C2 » and « DE » correspond to the working class. From 2015 to 2017, the Conservative Party gained 30% of working-class vote, while Labour gained 15%. In 2017, there were even more skilled workers C2 who voted Conservative (45%) rather than Labour (42%). The « working class » was considered as a group who didn’t vote anymore because they didn’t feel heard by politicians. Since David Cameron, the Conservative Party had been successful in making them vote again, the Conservative Party becoming the party of the « working class » indeed.

37Still, in 2019 under Boris Johnson, already well-known for his populist and indeed sometimes xenophobic stance, the party had its biggest victory since 1987. He was the one who made the « red wall » fall, winning in historic Labour constituencies. The liberal magazine The Economist described the victory as a military success.

  • 31 « Victory for Boris Johnson’s all-new Tories ». The Economist, 13 December 2019.

The party of the rich buried Labour under the votes of working-class northerners and Midlanders. […] Blyth Valley, an ex-mining community in the north-east where Tories have for generations been the enemy, fell before midnight. Wrexham, Labour turf for more than 80 years, declared for the Conservatives at 2am. Great Grimsby, a struggling northern port held by Labour since the second world war, was taken soon after. By dawn it was clear that the “red wall” of Labour constituencies, which stretched unbroken from north Wales to Yorkshire, had been demolished. Victory for Boris Johnson’s all-new Tories31.

  • 32 McDonnel, Adam, Curtis, Chris. « How Britain voted in the 2019 general election ». YouGov.co.uk, 19 (...)

Figure 4: Vote by social grade. YouGov32

38In two years, the Conservative Party widened the gap with Labour: the latter lost even more working-class votes to the former. In fact, 48% of the working class voted Conservative against 33% for Labour. Another interesting point concerned the electoral base of the Conservative Party with more working-class people who voted Conservative (48%) than middle class people (43%).

39From an ethnic point of view, in 2019 the Conservative Party appealed to a « white » electorate, as shown in the chart below.

  • 33 « How Britain voted in the 2019 general election ». Ipsos.com, 20 December 2019.

Figure 5: Votes by ethnic group. Ipsos, 201933

40While 64% of « All BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) » voted Labour, 48 % of « White » people preferred to vote Conservative. The Conservative Party in 2019 was able to attract both « working class » and « white » people across social classes.

41The 2019 conservative manifesto shows how they convinced their electoral target.

  • 34 Conservative Manifesto, 2019, p. 35.

We will legislate to ensure high standards of workers’ rights. [...] We’ve doubled the personal allowance to £12,500, meaning that every worker gets to keep more of what they earn. We’ve introduced and consistently raised the National Living Wage – and will raise it still further. [...] Children should grow up in an environment with no limits to their potential – which is one of the reasons we are making it a priority to put more money in the pockets of low-paid workers and maintaining our commitment to free school meals. [...] This is a package of measures that is fair, firm and compassionate – that brings the immigration system, after so many years, into line with the British people’s own sense of what is right. [...] In the next Parliament, we expect to train up hundreds of thousands more highly skilled apprentices. But we will go further and require significant numbers of new UK apprentices for all big new infrastructure projects – new hospitals, new schools, major transport projects and so on, being built with pride by a new generation of British workers34.

42The Conservative Party promised a new golden age to the « white working class ». In the 2015 manifesto, the very detailed measures concerned immigration and security. Under Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party explained to the « white working class » specifically how crucial they were to the British economy and in this respect, how they would provide them with more stability regarding income and work. The immigration aspect was still present, but after Brexit the Conservatives chose to focus more on domestic affairs, illustrating the UK’s identity fallback and the rise of nationalism.

Conclusion

43When Tony Blair was appointed Prime Minister in 1997, his party still supported the discourse of multiculturalism : New Labour’s agenda presented ethnic minorities as part of British society, and they were to be protected from discrimination. But Blair’s successive governments also pointed out another group associated with the “white working class”, considered as unfit for multiculturalism, and therefore for modern British society. According to Peter Mandelson, head of the SEU, this section of the population had a « culture » leading them to be economically and socially excluded.

44In 2001, New Labour made a radical shift in the context of racial riots. The government endorsed the conclusions of the Cantle report, and no longer promoted multiculturalism. It was now perceived as a factor of exclusion for ethnic minorities. Their social disadvantage was now largely perceived as related to “self-segregation” and “different values”, a discourse which implicitly located them outside the British national community. In 2005, Trevor Phillips emphasised further the notion of « segregation ». The Cantle report and Trevor Phillips’ discourse enabled an ethnicization of social conflicts. They discarded economic data to place the emphasis of discussions on socio-economic marginalisation on ethnic minorities. There was a new tension between two groups : the excluded ethnic minorities, and British citizens who already lived by values such as « being loyal to the Nation ». This new rhetoric paved the way for a nationalist discourse promoting British identity as essentially white. The « white » segment of the population was characterised as « left behind », because of multiculturalism.

45From 2005 onward, David Cameron decided to refocus the Conservative discourse on these « left behind ». He addressed this new electoral target through a nationalist and populist rhetoric. He succeeded into making the « Nasty Party », the party of « the working people » in 2015. In 2016 Theresa May explicitly labelled this group as the « white working class ». The backlash against multiculturalism, combined with the celebration of British identity as “white”, signalled an ethnicization of the political debate, with both parties shifting ever more towards a more racialised vision of British national identity.

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Bibliographie

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Cameron, David. « The challenges of a growing population ». 29 October 2007.

Cameron, David. « Security Conference ». Munich, 5 February 2011.

City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council. « Ethnicity in Bradford ». Bradford.gov, 4 January 2017.

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Gest, Justin. The New Minority. White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. Oxford University Press, 2016.

« How Britain voted in the 2019 General Election ». Ipsos.com, 20 December 2019.

Harris, Beider. White Working-Class Voices: Multiculturalism, Community-Building and Change. Policy Press, 2015.

Hewitt, Roger. White Working Class Voices. Multiculturalism, Community Cohesion and Change. Policy Press, 2015.

Holder, Josh, Barr Caelainn and Kommenda Niko. « Young voters, class and turnout : how Britain voted in 2017 ». The Guardian, 2017.

Independent Review Team. « Community Cohesion ». Home Office, 2001.

May Theresa. « First Statement as Prime Minister ». Downing Street, 13 July 2016.

May, Theresa. « Conservative Conference ». Birmingham, 2 October 2016.

McDonnel, Adam, Curtis, Chris. « How Britain voted in the 2019 General Election ». YouGov.co.uk, 19 December 2019.

New Labour Manifesto, 1997

« Things we won’t say about race that are true ». YouTube, uploaded by « Mario », 22 March 2015.

Phillips, Trevor. « After 7/7: sleepwalking to segregation ». Manchester Council for Community Relations, 22 September 2005.

« Victory for Boris Johnson’s all-new Tories ». The Economist, 13 December 2019.

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Notes

1 Hewitt, Roger. White Backlash and the Politics of Multiculturalism. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

2 May Theresa. « First Statement as Prime Minister ». Downing Street, 13 July 2016.

3 Hewitt, Roger. op.cit. p. 148.

4 Beider, Harris. White Working-Class Voices: Multiculturalism, Community-Building and Change. Policy Press, 2015, p. 25.

5 Gest, Justin. The New Minority, White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. Oxford University Press, 2016.

6 Beider, Harris. White Working-Class Voices: Multiculturalism, Community-Building and Change. Policy Press, 2015, p. 18.

7 New Labour manifesto, 1997.

8 Fairclough, Norman. New Labour New Language? Routledge, 2000, p.38.

9 « Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 ». Legislation.gov.uk. Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 - Explanatory Notes (legislation.gov.uk) visited on September 7th, 2022.

10 « Last Bradford rioter is sentenced ». BBC News, 21 December 2007.

11 Staff and agencies. « Report criticises racial divisions in Bradford ». The Guardian, 12 July 20001.

12 Independent Review Team. « Community Cohesion ». Home Office, 2001, p. 9.

13 Ibid. p. 21.

14 Ibid. p. 28.

15 City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council. « Ethnicity in Bradford ». Bradford.gov, 4 January 2017, p. 1.

16 Brown, Gordon. « Seminar on Britishness ». 27 February 2007.

17 Phillips, Trevor. « After 7/7: sleepwalking to segregation ». Manchester Council for Community Relations, 22 September 2005.

18 « Things we won’t say about race that are true ». YouTube, uploaded by « Mario », 22 March 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tb2iFikOwYU, visited on August 31st, 2022.

19 « Things we won’t say about race that are true ». YouTube, uploaded by « Mario », 22 March 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tb2iFikOwYU, visited on August 31st, 2022.

20 Cameron, David. « Modern Conservatism ». 30 January 2006.

21 The House of Commons published a note, « Electoral performance of the British National Party in the UK » in 2009, even if the number of seats won is very low.

22 Cameron, David. « Bringing down the barriers to cohesion ». 29 January 2007.

23 Cameron, David. « The challenges of a growing population ». 29 October 2007.

24 The marches organized by this group attract many young British in the streets, as well as young « white » Europeans.

25 Cameron, David. « Security Conference ». Munich, 5 February 2011.

26 Conservative Manifesto, 2015, p. 33.

27 Cameron, David. « Tory Party Conference ». Manchester, 2015.

28 May Theresa. « First Statement as Prime Minister ». Downing Street, 13 July 2016.

29 Ibid. « Conservative Conference ». Birmingham, 2 October 2016.

30 Holder, Josh, Barr Caelainn and Kommenda Niko. « Young voters, class and turnout : how Britain voted in 2017 ». The Guardian, 2017.

31 « Victory for Boris Johnson’s all-new Tories ». The Economist, 13 December 2019.

32 McDonnel, Adam, Curtis, Chris. « How Britain voted in the 2019 general election ». YouGov.co.uk, 19 December 2019.

33 « How Britain voted in the 2019 general election ». Ipsos.com, 20 December 2019.

34 Conservative Manifesto, 2019, p. 35.

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Pour citer cet article

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Emilie De Witte, « The notion of « white working class » in British political discourse, from New Labour to Brexit  »Observatoire de la société britannique, 29 | 2022, 47-64.

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Emilie De Witte, « The notion of « white working class » in British political discourse, from New Labour to Brexit  »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 29 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2023, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/5810 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.5810

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Auteur

Emilie De Witte

Doctorante en civilisation britannique à l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

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