In recent months, Government Ministers have been falling over each other to express their concern about white working class disadvantage in Britain. Last autumn Communities Secretary John Denham argued that state agencies charged with tackling inequality should focus on “poor white communities” affected by mass migration, and Home Secretary Alan Johnson issued an apology for maladroit policies that had led to "legitimate concerns about the strain that the growth in the local population has placed on jobs and services”. Communities and Local Government (CLG) recently launched a £12 million plan targeting 100 predominantly white areas to tackle the “real or perceived sense of unfairness they are feeling”.
It is right to take the needs of white working class communities seriously. Some of the most disadvantaged communities in Birmingham, are indeed ones with majority white population. Wards such as Shard End, Kings Norton, Kingstanding, Longbridge and Weoley are ranked in similar positions to diverse inner city wards on the Index of Multiple Deprivation. And it is true that, though all ethnic groups have been affected by Birmingham’s economic decline, the closure of factories and plants has been particularly bad for the white workers who made up most of their workforce. A recent report commissioned by the Barrow Cadbury Trust found that even before the recession – during the longest period of sustained growth in post-war history - average real wages in Birmingham fell by 3.5% and those of the lowest paid by 4.5%. Working class jobs that offered status, reasonable wages, and a sense of pride and community have been substituted, if at all, by poor quality work in transport and distribution, retail and hospitality. According to the Centre for Cities, Birmingham is one of the UK cities worst affected by the recession, and last week’s news about Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury’s only adds to the concern about a further deterioration of employment prospects in the city.
However, this necessary focus on the white working classes shouldn’t be used as another excuse to pit the needs of communities against each other, particularly at a time of recession when ethnic tensions are likely to worsen. The main problem facing these outer wards is not that migrants a few streets away are creaming off all the available funding and undercutting local workers (these communities are on the whole relatively homogeneous and geographically removed from the diverse areas which receive most migrants). Nor is it necessarily to do with a failure of government to write large cheques – some have received substantive regeneration funding since 1997.
The issue may in fact lie in the somewhat more modest realm of community development. Inner city wards with high minority ethnic populations, such as Handsworth and Lozells, although economically poor, have a thick web of “associational life’ - informal groups based at Mosque, temples and churches, as well as youth clubs, groups for women and pensioners, that promote community solidarity.
In contrast, the outer city communities have problems that the magazine Searchlight attributes to the thinness of local civil society. In their words, many of these communities are pulled together by nothing but ‘a shared sense of victimhood’ that leaves them feeling undervalued and insecure about their place in the world. Polls suggest that these white communities in outer wards feel less in control of their communities and country than any other ethnic groups.
The most immediate threat, as witnessed in the European elections of June 2009, is that groups with extremist agendas can easily fill this vacuum. In the 2009 European elections, wards such as Shard End, Kingstanding and Northfield registered over 15% and in some cases 20% support for BNP candidates. People in these outer wards vote BNP – often after they have managed to ingratiate themselves into the local community by performing simple tasks like clearing rubbish or holding fetes – as a demand that they are taken seriously by politicians.
The central problem faced in these outer estates is that regional and citywide bodies feel extremely remote and out-of-touch. Murmurings about the council spending money for example on replacing paving stones rather than diverting it to more pressing needs exacerbate this sense of isolation. But these decisions are symptomatic of the lack of civil society holding the council to account: the activists and the strong voice of residents is lacking.
The strong civil society links needed to rein in Government can only be built up by policymakers adopting a local approach. And there are welcome signs across the political parties. The Liberal Democrats have put small-scale development at the heart of their regeneration proposals, the Government has recently put a requirement on local authorities to reach out to communities through its Duty to Involve, and the Conservatives are planning to devolve more spending to individual councillors who will be able to make small-scale grants to projects that they see working on the ground.
It is right that politicians are drawing attention to the fact that outer-wards with a white working class population may not have received the attention they have deserved. But their problems do not spring from immigration or diversity – these are the scapegoats raised when residents express their anger and frustration at a lack of economic opportunities and community infrastructure. In sympathizing with the problems of these communities, politicians shouldn’t similarly misdiagnose their problems.