The recent decision of some parts of the London voting public to vote for Brexit has been put down, in part, to poorer working class communities, in places like Barking & Dagenham wanting to bring a halt to immigration. It is understood that they perceive that bringing Britain out of the EU may help to stem the flow, might be a step towards a greater policy of stopping it and if none of the first two, then a giant kick in the balls for the establishment who have allowed so much.
A case study of Somers Town helps to illustrate the tendency of the members of poorer working class areas to blame their problems on immigrants. It has been said that in the northern parts of Somers Town the size of the English working class community has diminished over the last forty years. New arrivals have included immigrants, students and middle class types. This has meant a dilution of the working class culture in the area. The new arrivals have their own way of doing things, their own interests and friends. For example students on short-term lets have no real interest in investing in local community relationships, and will be gone sooner than they have arrived. Muslims don’t drink. They do Mosques not pubs. The social networks of the English working classes are thus diluted, and their sense of belonging and security diminished. Some hark back nostalgically. One recalls, ‘Somers Town was lost a long time ago. It had everything you would associate with a working class culture, a street market, greengrocers, fish shops, but these had disappeared by the 1980s. Another says ‘Pubs used to be what brought people together, but they’ve closed now mostly. Used to be good old knees up pubs, family pubs where you knew people and you kept on eye on each other’s kids playing outside’.
The English working classes start to feel lost and lonely, strangers in their own land, confused by comings and goings, by the decay of their roots. They perceive that whilst immigrant cultures are celebrated and funded their own English working class culture is shunned as if it doesn’t exist, as if they don’t have problems, as if English is a dirty word. One resident commented, “[Bengalis] end up in Bengali specific centres while our pubs are closing and we get resentful why can’t there be a Women’s Centre and why does it have to be an Asian Women’s Centre instead?’ Furthermore they feel they ‘are losing out to minorities and new migrants when it comes to the allocation of social housing”. One resident says, “If you’ve got five kids then you get a big house and the only people that have five kids nowadays are the Bengalis and the Somalis and so they get all the big places.” One comments, ‘The schools have been taken over now – I walked past a rounders game, and the teacher and seven out of the nine pupils were veiled.’
But was Somers Town ever as English or as working class English as some remember it? In fact it was built by a son of the French Protestant diaspora. It has taken in the French, Greek Cypriots and now Bengali and Somali.
Is this discourse of the area losing its English identity really just a misplaced way of expressing a basic feeling of anxiety with the pace of change, with the transient nature of community, and the control the working classes have always lacked over their own lives and environment? If it is, then it is the cowards way out. The bully’s way out. The dissolution and dilution of working class community life started in the eighties with the dissolution of the post-war consensus, set by the Labour government of 1945, around what a society needed to do to give dignity to its poorest communities.
The cohesiveness of working class communities was hurt by the end of the West’s dominance of manufacturing, eclipsed by the East. However the dilution of the communities was also facilitated by Margaret Thatcher’s policy of allowing people who rented Council Houses to buy the property. It was aided and abetted by members of the working class themselves. In places like Somers Town, London, many members of the English working class community bought their Council house, sold up and then shipped out. In effect the English working classes started to abandon their own kind. Furthermore, since Thatcher successive governments have taken resources out of poorer working class communities, contributing to the general decline, in relative terms, of the quality of life of those communities. The process of dissolving the quality of life of poorer working class communities has been carried on by Tony Blair with the scrapping of student grants and the introduction of tuition fees, David Cameron with the deliberate underfunding of the NHS, backed by endless reports of medical failures reported in the national press, all of whom run the articles in tandem with advertising for private health insurance. And in recent years Iain Duncan-Smith, George Osbourne, and colleagues have taken the lead in impoverishing the poorer working classes, getting rid of measures to help poorer people cope with vulnerabilities, disabilities, and get into education and work. Perhaps most important has been the absence of a policy to ensure a plentiful supply of affordable housing. Instead successive British governments have done the reverse, making it more difficult for people on a ‘normal’ wage to buy a house, by putting up its private sector stock on to the global market, allowing wealthy Chinese, Arabs and Russians to buy up properties, without having any obligation to live in them or rent them out. This has been encouraged further by selling British citizenship to people from anywhere in the world, which incidentally has nothing to do with being part of the EU, and will continue despite Brexit. The result of this is that people from poorer working class communities struggle to rent, let alone buy houses, in the places that they were bought up in.
But none of these changes were bought about by the kind of low paid immigrant that end up moving into the poorer working class areas. We all know the disappearance of the impoverished immigrants would never deliver a better life for the working classes and poorer members of London, no matter how much it might fulfil a sadistic fantasy of those who for whatever reason have lost all sense of dignity and self-respect. Furthermore, as anyone in more affluent circles will know, an ethnically diverse neighbourhood, community and workplace and quality of life can be bedfellows.
If middle class politicians want to act to deter resentment of poorer working class communities towards immigrants, they’d better start caring about working class people, and doing things to improve the chances of people in poorer communities living a decent and dignified life, in stable communities. However there will be no political party that can build a better future for them, if all those in the community can unite around and respond to, is a sadistic desire to make immigrants suffer.
References and Further Reading
Newspaper reporting of racist incidents following and inspired by Brexit
Views on Brexit and Immigration in London