Socialists and social democrats can rejoice. After years of decimating the public realm, the Tories have woken up to the conditions of the working class. This newfound enthusiasm is due to their perception that, specifically, the white working class have been failed not by the government of the last eleven years, but a neglect generated by discussions that centered too much on issues of identity.
It is true that the debate around the working-class condition has changed; there was a time when they were known as simply “the working-class” and racial lines were obscured. However within a working-class that is becoming increasingly diverse in the UK, and with gaps in academic performances between poorer white children and those from minority statuses forming, there are now racial dimensions too.
According to the BBC, “At GCSE, in 2019, 18% of white British pupils on Free School Meals achieved grade 5 in English and maths, compared with 23% for the average for pupils on FSM. For university entry, 16% of white British pupils on FSM get places; compared with 59% of black African pupils on FSM, 59% of Bangladeshi pupils on FSM and 32% of black Caribbean pupils on FSM.” According to Tory MP Robert Halfon, reporting on a controversial finding of the Education Select Committee, this gap is down to the persistent use of the term “white privilege.” The logic would go that by employing this label to help ethnic minorities, the education system has failed poor white children inexcusably.
It’s bizarre to see Tories positioning themselves as the champions of the white working-class, but there is, naturally, a method to their dishonesty. Take the MP for Mansfield, Ben Bradley. Quite recently, Bradley has become a vocal champion of the white working-class, claiming that liberal identity politics is abandoning poor white boys by prioritising women and ethnic minorities, remarking that “it seems like an unfashionable cause to fight for these lads.”
Yet, when presented with an opportunity to do so, Ben Bradley declined, refusing to vote for the extension of Free School Meals that would have greatly aided working-class families during the pandemic, including those “lads” that he wants to fight for. In fact, Bradley revealed a classic Tory suspicion of poor people by implying that free school meal money would be used for brothels and drugs. For Tories like Ben Bradley, the white working class are only of use in supporting already existing government views, the realities of their lives being uninteresting and fundamentally unimportant.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t shortcomings to white privilege as a label and a concept. There’s little privilege in poverty and the name itself immediately puts those arguing in favour of it existing on the backfoot. In a highly atomized, faux-progressive capitalism, it is easy for bosses to adapt to “fashionable” identity causes while still supporting oppression abroad and overseeing poor working conditions at home. Companies running diversity schemes seldom include class in their categories and discussions of white privilege have been so badly debated that people are sometimes genuinely confused as to whether a poor white man still has an easier life than an affluent Asian woman. This is a failure of progressives to convince wider society, combined with dishonesty amongst many right-wing critics to sincerely listen to the arguments put forward.
This is the environment in which the Conservative Party comes to blame ‘white privilege’ for the failings of white working-class youths, usually boys specifically. They fail to mention how they have taken an axe to working-class culture and ways of life for several generations; long before ‘white privilege’ entered the national conversation or was even uttered speculatively. The foundations of the attack upon the working-class were laid by Margaret Thatcher’s assault on industry and trade unions. New Labour certainly lifted many out of poverty but since the Tories came into power in 2010, the working-class have seen their living conditions stagnate.
In 2017/18, poverty rates and child poverty rates witnessed the highest jumps from 22.1% to 23.2% and 30.3% to 33.4% respectively. Benefit cuts were attributed to this; and also the rising number of food banks being used which now reached into the millions. Data of Trussell Trust’s three-day emergency parcel deliveries over the years found a staggering spike in usage from 2013 onwards. By this point it was approximately one million but prior to the arrival of the Coalition government, the numbers were negligible. Meanwhile homelessness has risen by 250% in England since 2010. The answer to what is failing poor white boys is repeatedly found in Tory policies. Years of welfare cuts and failures to invest locally have driven people into poverty.
There are, of course, specific success stories in the BAME populations, and perhaps this could be down to some extent to influences of culture. British Bangladeshis have one of the highest poverty rates in the country yet are increasingly prospering in schools despite this. Likewise, British Indians are consistently high performers in schools where poor white children have been found to struggle. Culture is all-enveloping, and it is not impossible that certain elements of it might have benefitted some while others have struggled.
But we should still resist the government’s efforts to shift the responsibility for the abandonment of white working-class children onto progressives talking about white privilege. The Tories failed poor white children in this country a long before these discussions even began.