The English ideology III: the ‘white working class’

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I’ve heard some pathetic electoral pitches in my time, but this is bordering on self-slander. Lord Maurice Glasman, the pathfinder for a newer, Bluer Labour, argues that a successful Labourism of the future must be one that incorporates supporters of the English Defence League. Yes, apparently, the Labour Party, the historic party of the organised working class, frequent party of government, creator of the welfare state, and the outright poll leader du jour, needs the ordure, the fascist, semi-fascist and pre-fascist residues, the most outright reactionary, thuggish and ignorant shit in the country. Without appeasing the scum, it seems, Labour will never be a winner. Well, why does he stop there? There’s barely a week that passes without a number of assaults on Muslims, often Muslim women wearing the hijab, or attacks on mosques, or vandalism on shops and houses presumed to be owned by Muslims. Surely it can’t be beyond the capacity of Labour canvassers to find the perpetrators and explicitly bid for their support. In fact, if Labour are actually this desperate, perhaps they should consider an entryist move on the BNP, with the aim of subtly persuading Fuhrer Griffin or his successor to adopt some mutualist thinking on welfare and service provision.

Of course, Glasman does not mean to target the EDL and its thousands of supporters with this intervention. He means to mobilise the ideologeme of ‘the white working class’ as a sort of puppet boxer with which to belabour the left in the party. As he complains: “working-class men can’t really speak at Labour party meetings about what causes them grief, concerns about their family, concerns about immigration, love of country, without being falsely stereotyped as sexist, racist, nationalist”. As you will see if you peruse that link, Glasman uses ‘working class’ to describe any silly idea that he likes the sound of, particularly if – as will usually be the case – it is a right-wing idea. Don Paskini rightly points out that this latest is a libel on the working class, the vast majority of whom detest the EDL. But that’s almost to miss the point. Of course Glasman is mobilising a (deeply patronising) image of “working class men” to hammer the anti-racists and feminists in the Labour Party. But V N Volosinov argued that the word is the most sensitive index of social change, and we should be very attentive to the changes that such terminological nuances advert to. There’s something very important going on when the Labour Right, which worked so hard to end the class war, are anxious to be seen and heard evoking class.

Recently, there was a very useful analysis of the BNP and the ‘white working class’ by James Rhodes in the Sociology journal. It took issue with the idea, circulated by politicians and journalists alike, that the BNP’s support comes from the most deprived among whites. In this respect, he points out that while the BNP have made real inroads into working class areas, there is no natural affinity between the BNP and white workers, and nor is it the poorest they appeal to. The two class fractions most likely to be represented among BNP supporters are ‘skilled workers’, and the lower middle class. The journalistic accounts are led astray by the ‘ecological fallacy’ – that is, if BNP voters can be found in a known industrial heartland, then they must be the traditional supporters of Labourism. In fact, Rhodes points out, the BNP support is typically found in the poshest areas of these towns and cities, a fact that has a huge impact on far right politics. BNP supporters and members tend to articulate their sense of class location indirectly, by reference to locality. Their scale is extremely small, as they tend to focus on this street, that area, etc. They are “rooted” and small town, rather than metropolitan; parochial rather than urbane. So, interviews with fascist voters and activists disclose that struggles over resources and entitlements are refracted through particular geographical references – ie, that street is filled with poor people who behave

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