“We should stop identity politics,” declared the Year 9 student as we stood waiting in a corridor.
“Why do you think so?” I asked.
“Because they are divisive.”
“Do you take a Marxist perspective?” I asked.
“No, I am a libertarian.”
“I wondered.” I said. “Some people would say that the real issues are about economics, about those who have and those who have not.”
Being on the Left, without being a Marxist, since teenage years, I have thought that the only issue was the one of money. If you were rich enough, your identity didn’t matter.
Such a perspective brought a sense of enraged frustration at a news story that the rate of youth unemployment in the black population was much higher than that among the white population. I wanted to shout at the radio, “come and meet the white working class boys I know and tell them they are privileged.”
The difference between the unemployment rates was not a function of colour, it was a function of social class. Oddly, the government report on institutional racism concurred with my thinking, suggesting that social background was the explanation of supposed discrimination. All identity politics achieves is to divide people who share a common lot and alienate white working class people who are never seen as ill-treated.
It was in 2004 that the journalist and television producer Michael Collins published The Likes of Us: a Biography of the White Working Class. Collins, who had written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times, traced 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.
The best part of twenty years later and identity politics is still doing nothing for the white working class.