The phrase ‘white working class’ is a fiction – so why are the Tories obsessed with it?

The “white working class” is such a peculiar phrase, so widely deployed and so misleading. Of course there are white people who are working class, but the class as a whole is the most diverse of any group. This is a point made by a report from Class, the union-funded thinktank, on new attitudes to race and class in Britain. You cannot predefine the beliefs and values of a class, it says, and then filter for people whose whose views correspond to them. Instead, the researchers built their sample on a points system, taking into consideration class identity, housing tenure, education level, occupation, household income, and if and how one might pay a £500 emergency bill. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but it is also quite a novel approach.

Certain things stand out immediately: the “uberisation” of certain sectors such as academia, coupled with general pay stagnation and a public sector pay freeze, have combined to mean that old blue collar/white collar distinctions are no longer meaningful. You can have what used to be called a “middle-class job” and still struggle to meet your basic needs.

What hasn’t changed is that the working class is diverse. Indeed, this is a core definition; monoculturalism is a phenomenon mainly of upper-class groups. The values and attitudes associated with the “white working class” or its sibling phrase, so-called “red wall” voters – patriotism, xenophobia, racism, nativism, traditionalism, nostalgia – are simply not discernible themes in any prolonged discussion with working-class people. They are unlikely (29%) to think that people of colour who cannot get ahead have problems of their own making, while 54% think that talking about race and racism is necessary to move towards an equal society.

What does unify this group is its work ethic and its precariousness – and alliedto this, a belief that the system is rigged against people who have to work to live. Whoever is buying the line that the wealthy accrued their fortunes with graft, it is not the working-class people in this study, who overwhelmingly (70% ) think that the rich have simply been handed better opportunities.

The Conservatives and their supportive media are pitching to a sub-set of a sub-set, their own members, and their talking points are extremely niche: anti-green, anti-trans, anti-human-rights, pro-grammar schools, a fierce if loosely gathered crusade against the present and the future. But their broader pitch over the past six years has been to this fabled “white working class”, the one true voter: prioritised because they were authentic, their authenticity proven by their anger, which was justified because they’d been left behind. They hated the EU, immigration, London and elites; they loved the NHS, the Queen and their country.

The conception was unfalsifiable. All counter-evidence – other working-class people who were socially liberal, or valued immigration, or wanted to stay in the EU, or disapproved of the monarchy – was dismissed as coming from a false working class, either brainwashed by the elite, or a member of the elite in disguise. It was a completely deliberate mischaracterisation of the working class, and we could ruminate forever on who resisted it least effectively. Yet the cornerstone of its success was the insistence on whiteness as a distinct category.

If the working class had been characterised as it is – the most diverse of all social classes – most of the other narratives wouldn’t have stood up.

This frame – “while the elites have been chattering about multiculturalism, there’s been a hidden victimisation of the left-behind white Briton” – was originally a feature of education studies in the early 00s, where it was a legitimate inquiry based on the pupil attainment data with which the Labour government was obsessed. The educational failure of white working-class children, particularly boys, was seized on immediately as material for the “whither multiculturalism?” debate, which previously found its problem with racial equality hard to express.

The slippage from the specific and demonstrable (the educational failure of white working-class children) to the general and atmospheric (society’s broad failure of the entire white working class) has been incremental. There was just enough truth in it to make it stick. It kept a sharp focus on areas that had been “left behind”, and those were everywhere, particularly post-austerity as communities were deliberately hollowed out by cuts. The sense of democratic decline, what Class calls a “lack of power and voice” in working-class communities, was likewise rooted in fact – but the “red wall” narrative warped the roots, insisting that the working class went unheard by the liberal elite because their views were unpalatable to liberalism (being, in the main, too racist).

Since the category itself – a non-diverse working class – was a fiction, it could never be meaningfully studied, and its views were instead ventriloquised by newspaper hunches and what politicians “heard on the doorstep”. It’s all been a giant confidence trick, to which the rebuttal is quite simple. If you want to talk about the working class, you need to say what it means, figure out who’s in it, and then ask them.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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