A portrait of Europe’s white working class
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Sixty-odd years ago, May Snowden moved into the comfortable, green, working-class neighbourhood of Higher Blackley, in north Manchester. She had two sons and, after her husband died, she raised them herself. She used to know everyone in the neighbourhood. Aged 96, she’s still here – albeit now mostly in her armchair, with tea, biscuits and books at arm’s length. She doesn’t even cook any more, she complains. “You still cook in the morning,” corrects her neighbour, a retired bus driver, here since 1970. “I came in the other morning, and the gas was still on.” He and his wife are always checking on May. “We’d like to think someone would do it for us,” he shrugs.
Higher Blackley (pronounced “Blakeley”) is mostly inhabited by the white working class, a poorly understood group across western Europe. It’s a class hit by deindustrialisation, economic crisis and the crumbling of the welfare state. It’s the class that supposedly backed the anti-immigration populists who dominated last month’s European elections. It’s a class typically depicted either as a joke or a threat. The caricature: half-witted racist scroungers in tracksuits milking the welfare state from their sofas.
This class has almost no voice in politics or the media. That’s why George Soros’s Open Society Foundations decided to research the white working class much as it had previously researched European Muslims: as a discriminated group that should be heard. (Declaration of interest: I am a sub-board member of the OSF, and was involved in the research.) On Monday the OSF publishes its study of Higher Blackley and, later, of five other white working-class neighbourhoods around western Europe. The resulting portrait should change our understanding of this class.
Like May Snowden, most of Higher Blackley’s early inhabitants were fleeing inner-city Manchester’s slums. They moved into spacious brick council houses near a vast park. There were jobs, too: the local ICI factory at its peak in 1961 employed 14,000 people. May recalls workers leaving the building with skins dyed black and blue.
But then, like cities across Europe, Manchester lost its industry. ICI’s remnants have dissolved inside AstraZeneca, which isn’t in Higher Blackley. David (not his real name), a lifelong local resident in his forties who doesn’t want to be named because many people here distrust the media, sits in the café of Sainsbury’s supermarket. In his childhood, he says, “This was a cotton mill.”
But when he left school in the 1980s, mid-deindustrialisation, “There wasn’t anything out there. I tried everywhere. I couldn’t get an apprenticeship.” Eventually he became a forklift driver. Today, he says, he yearns to work but cannot: like many in this neighbourhood of poor health, he is a full-time unpaid carer for a sick relative.
A common rightwing response to people like David comes from the 1980s Conservative Norman Tebbit: “Get on your bike!” Iain Duncan Smith, Britain’s welfare secretary, has also proposed moving unemployed council tenants to areas with jobs.
This is to misunderstand something about Higher Blackley: how dependent people here are on family and neighbours. “Community”, an overused word, actually exists here. As Britain’s welfare state retreats, the locals rely ever more on each other. Often people will collect a neighbour’s child from school. David says that if he can’t go out because of his caring task, his neighbour will fetch him bread. David Cameron, the prime minister, talks of a “Big Society” of people helping each other without the state interfering. Higher Blackley looks like that.
Conservatives often complain about working-class family breakdown. However, that misunderstands the nature of family in places like Higher Blackley: close family here can include great-aunts, cousins, even longstanding neighbours. One difficulty the OSF found in organising focus groups of people who didn’t know each other is that almost everyone in Higher Blackley knows each other. Often, much of the focus group was spent catching up on local chatter. Family is arguably more present here than in middle-class neighbourhoods where people can afford nannies and old-age carers.
In Higher Blackley, community can provide a roof, a loan, or updates on job vacancies. But it also provides happiness. Many locals don’t want a well-paid job in London. They want a job that pays a living wage here.
Harry Lyons is a local councillor – inevitably, for Labour. (Manchester remains almost a one-party state.) He recounts a bitter vignette of upward mobility. One day a woman phoned, asking him to come round. Lyons arrived to find her finely dressed. “Hullo, going to a wedding?” he asked. “No,” she said, and walked out, leaving him with her six children. She was a battered wife, dreading her husband’s impending release from prison.
Lyons piled the kids into his car, and found care homes for them. He tried to place them together. He couldn’t. He never found out how things worked out for them. “That’s the sadness of life,” he sighs.
Years later, his phone rang again. “You don’t know me, do you?” the caller asked. “Well, the voice sounds familiar,” Lyons replied. He recalls: “She was PA to a chief executive somewhere down south.” Her husband had always told her she was useless; freed of childcare, she’d made something of herself.
Most families struggle on in Higher Blackley. Jobs here are now usually in services: at shops like Sainsbury’s, or as carers or cleaners. Most jobs pay the minimum wage: £6.31 an hour. Come October, this figure will rise by more than inflation for the first time since 2008.
But real pay is often below that. One of David’s sons works casually as a steward at Manchester United Football Club. David says: “You’ve got to have a mobile, because they text you. You go there, the fourth-richest club in the world, and they say: ‘By the way, you need this baseball cap, that’s £5 out of your wages. You need this badge, that’s £3.’”
After bus fares, a job sometimes pays less than benefits. A woman working 40 hours a week in a local nursery says, “I was better off on benefits.” So why does she work? “Pride. I want to show my children I never got good grades at school but I’m still making something of myself.”
David says, “I used to love coming home at the end of the week and saying to the missus, ‘Here’s the money.’ It used to give a sense of – not pride, that’s not the word – of self-worth.” He mimics the rhetoric of the current government: “‘You’re all scroungers off the state, we’re going to make you work.’” He snorts: “Well, make me work!”
The OSF’s researchers report: “Everyone interviewed wanted to work.” They add that younger mothers, in particular, wanted “local, flexible work that fitted in with children’s hours”. It’s all very well getting on your bike and finding a job somewhere else. But far from extended family, who will look after the kids when childcare can easily cost £7 an hour? Either granny watches the children, or granny needs care herself.
Inevitably, a few troubled people don’t want to work. They don’t live like kings – Jobseeker’s Allowance for adults is £72.40 a week – but they exist. The nursery worker grew up in a workless household. However, her mother was a depressive alcoholic – in other words, sick. To pillory someone like that as a “scrounger” is simplistic. Depression is more common among poor people, including in Higher Blackley. When I ask David if anything in his life makes him happy, he thinks a while, then shakes his head. He talks about death. “The simple fact here: it’s depressing. You want the best for your kids. If you can’t get it for them, it gets you down.”
He knows that bad health – including mental health – is tied to poor nutrition. Still, he fumes at TV chefs lecturing him on diet while food prices rise. “Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay don’t live in the real world. For a fiver, if you are a struggling parent, you can buy six burgers, six buns, and the kids are going to be full. Buy a packet of rocket? If I had a choice, I’d buy my kids nutritious food.” One in 10 people in Greater Manchester skips meals so a family member can eat, notes the OSF.
Since the 1980s, people here have learnt that any well-paying job now requires education. Higher Blackley’s schools have got better. “Most improved school in Manchester”, says a sign on The Co-op Academy. In 2011, 77 per cent of local children achieved five GCSEs (exams typically taken aged 16) at grades A to C, up from 55 per cent in 2008. (There’s been a similar rise across Manchester.) The schools also increasingly understand that schooling starts at home. Crab Lane Primary School gives breakfast to undernourished children. That improves concentration.
Two of David’s children attend university. When his daughter tearfully told him she wanted to quit, he said, “Quit then. Do you want to work in Tesco’s stacking shelves?” She stayed on. But it’s hard. The government has scrapped the education maintenance allowance for poor students. They can graduate owing £50,000. David says: “A lot of parents here have said, ‘They’re not going to university because we can’t afford it.’ I hear that all the time. Now my son needs an internship. He needs a suit to go to interviews. Where is that money going to come from?”
When I suggested to David that eventually his children would find jobs and help him, he said he didn’t want that: “I want them to help themselves out. I’d rather not be here than be a burden on them.”
He himself expects to stay on benefits – not just because the state has virtually abandoned him in his caring task but also because life on benefits is secure. Many people here have “zero-hours contracts”: no guaranteed income, but you must be available to work if needed, and you can’t claim most benefits. In times when your employer doesn’t need you, you have no income to pay for rent or food. Signing up for benefits again is complex and time-consuming. Three-quarters of David’s last phone bill was spent calling government agencies. Safer, he says, to stay on benefits rather than dipping in and out of work. But, he says, “Nothing makes you feel worthless like sitting on your backside not working.”
After visiting Higher Blackley, I had conversations with three wealthy privately educated friends who each argued that the working classes should “take responsibility for themselves”, be made to work. One friend, a multimillionaire lawyer, asked: “Do we just go on giving people money for ever? How long can we afford this?”
Owen Jones, in his marvellous book Chavs, (“chav” is the derogatory British term for the white working class) tackles the notion that poor people milk the state more than the rich do. Some updated statistics:
• Total cost of Jobseekers’ Allowance in 2011/2012: £4.91bn.
• Total taxpayers’ support for British banks peaked after the banking meltdown at £1.2 trillion.
• Total overpayment of benefits due to fraud and error in 2013/2014: £3.3bn, estimates the government. Meanwhile underpayments due to fraud and error totalled £1.4bn. The net sum, £1.9bn, is just over 1 per cent of British benefit spending.
• Even if this is a massive underestimate, and the real cost of benefits fraud is three times higher, it would still be just one-sixth of the sum lost in unpaid or avoided taxes in 2011/2012, by the government’s own estimate.
• That estimate doesn’t take into account the puny British tax bills of companies such as Starbucks, Amazon and Google, or of resident non-domiciled billionaires.
Nonetheless, after Britain’s banks collapsed, governments responded by cutting poor people’s benefits. Many Conservatives in particular blame poverty on people’s own behaviour. David Cameron says: “Of course circumstances – where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make – have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make.”
His catchphrase for national bad behaviour is “Broken Britain”. Yet statistics don’t suggest a broken country. Crime in England and Wales is at its lowest since the authoritative Crime Survey began in 1982. The teenage pregnancy rate is the lowest since records began in 1969. The percentage of workless households is the lowest since comparable records began in 1996. Alcohol consumption has been falling since 2005. School results keep improving.
Still, blaming poverty on bad behaviour is appealing, because it implies that all the government has to do is fix people’s behaviour. There’s no need to raise the minimum wage, provide affordable childcare or improve mental-health services.
Blaming the poor comes naturally, because politics and journalism are now staffed overwhelmingly by upper-middle-class people based in central London. It’s the ideal vantage-point for “chav-bashing”.
Jokes about expensive tasteless “chav” clothing have become a British cliché. This is a case-study of trampling on working-class pride. Imagine growing up poor, without access to magazines such as Vogue to teach you what to wear, then finally earning enough to buy an expensive outfit, visible proof that you are as good as the people who mocked you – only to be mocked for what you bought.
“Reality” TV shows such as Benefits Street and Wife Swap present the white working class as lazy scroungers. (The usual method is to hunt down one or two deeply troubled families, and present them as emblematic.) British TV doesn’t mock black people or Jews. It does mock “chavs”.
As Jones argues, these top-down assaults serve a political purpose. If poor people have made themselves poor, then economic inequality and the dismantling of the welfare state are justified.
In response, many white working-class people disengage from society. The OSF report found great distrust of politicians, media and police in Higher Blackley. Some say this class is turning instead to populist parties. That’s dubious. True, Ukip topped the polls in last month’s European elections in Britain, with 28 per cent of the vote. However, turnout was just 34 per cent. That means only 9 per cent of British voters backed Ukip. Similarly, in Higher Blackley’s local elections last month, Ukip finished second behind Labour, backed by 11 per cent of eligible voters. Two-thirds of Higher Blackley’s voters didn’t vote. This hardly amounts to an embrace of populism. One of the OSF’s researchers noted an obstacle for the anti-European Ukip in Higher Blackley: “In one year here, I’ve never heard anyone mention Europe as an issue.”
Immigration is an issue here. It’s also possibly the only issue on which politicians and media try to pander to white working-class people: political parties won’t change the economic system or raise the minimum wage but they will pretend that the real problem for poor Britons is immigration.
The proportion of non-whites in Higher Blackley has risen in recent years to 15 per cent. Many local whites believe the council favours non-whites when allocating council houses. This is false. Non-whites are often poorer, with larger families, and therefore sometimes get priority for the few available council houses. Here, as in much of western Europe, the state is withdrawing from supplying housing. That creates anxiety, as few people in Higher Blackley can afford mortgages or imagine life away from the support structure of their families.
There’s a flipside to community spirit: outsiders are distrusted. Several people told me stories of not being greeted on the street by non-whites. May Snowden was upset that a black family hadn’t invited neighbours round after a baby was born, as local custom dictates. You can see how suspicions arise: a black family lands in a white street where everyone knows each other. The family feels uneasy, and sticks to itself. The street feels slighted.
The OSF found that most locals were anxious not to appear racist. Many showed sympathy for individual immigrant families. May’s neighbour chided her for using the outdated word “coloureds”. People here remember when racist language was permitted: the comedy club of the late racist comedian Bernard Manning is two miles away. David says: “I was brought up racist. Every day I try to challenge that perspective.” Still, it’s sometimes hard, perhaps especially when your own social group gets discriminated against too. Being white working-class can feel taboo. May sometimes asks her son, “Am I the wrong colour?”
In Higher Blackley’s community centre this afternoon, there is a dance for over-50s. Among the dozens of people gliding across the bare floor is a 98-year-old woman. If reality TV producers up from London in search of material stumbled on the scene, there’d be nothing in it for them.