The divisive nature of Tory rhetoric about the ‘left behind white working-class’

Equalities minister Liz Truss

In recent months, we’ve seen a return to right-wing rhetoric that suggests white working-class boys are being left behind. This is allegedly because the nation is “preoccupied” with issues around race and gender.

When asked to confront the very real evidence of structural racism in Britain during a House of Commons questions session on 13 January, equalities minister Liz Truss dismissively framed inequality in individualistic terms. In another response, she pitted disadvantaged white pupils against BAME pupils from low-income backgrounds. This came after a speech in December in which she said the current equality debate is led by “fashion”, not by “facts”.

In the context of disproportionate BAME coronavirus (Covid-19) deaths, deaths in police custody, maternal morbidity rates and the Windrush scandal, Truss’s glib comments, passing off anti-racism efforts as trendy and unnecessary, are absolutely disgusting.

This isn’t about equality

The Tory government’s track record demonstrates its disinterest in seeking positive change towards equality. For instance, it scrapped unconscious bias training for government and civil service workplaces.

Admittedly, unconscious bias training tends to be fairly unhelpful. Racism and inequality are often framed in individualistic terms of ‘accepting people who are different’. And this fails to acknowledge or challenge the structural inequalities that permeate our society. However, the government’s failure to seek a viable alternative betrays its disinterest in equality within and beyond the workplace. Moreover, the current roster of racism-denying BAME cabinet ministers reflects the government’s attempts to cover up the reality of structural racism in this country.

Meanwhile Tory ministers voting against feeding working-class children over Easter revealed what we knew all along – they have no interest in uplifting white working-class communities. MP Ben Bradley’s foul comments, suggesting that free school meal vouchers go straight to ‘crack dens’ and ‘brothels’, demonstrate the disdain with which the government views all disadvantaged communities in Britain.

Obscuring the real issue

By focusing on racial difference, the divisive debate suggests that white working-class communities are being left behind because of the colour of their skin. It suggests that BAME and migrant communities are greedily snatching resources from white Brits – resources that are not rightfully theirs. This pits disadvantaged groups against each other.

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It also suggests that it’s natural for white working-class communities to be disadvantaged in comparison to their white middle-class counterparts. But heaven forbid that BAME and migrant communities should be better off (which, for the most part, they aren’t). The debate plays into Victorian values of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving‘ poor. This obscures the reality that socio-economic inequality has been exacerbated by the Tory government’s sustained campaign of austerity and classism.

It’s evident that the Tories are not working towards equality. Right-wing rhetoric about the ‘left behind’ white working-class prevents progress. It absolves a government whose policies reward the rich and punish the poor. Meanwhile, it seeks to undermine multiracial class-consciousness and to restore Victorian ideas about racial and class hierarchies. As Runnymede Trust CEO Halima Begum highlighted, this rhetoric appeals to white nationalism. And it has no place in a progressive society.

Featured image via Sky News/YouTube

15:00 17 January 2020 CORRECTION: The original article mistakenly attributed comments to MP Ben Bradshaw which were in fact made by MP Ben Bradley. We apologise for this error, which has been corrected in the article above.

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