Harris Beider: Our leaders should listen again to the ignored voices of white working class

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YORKSHIRE is an incredibly diverse area: from the modern vibrant cities of York, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield to the coastal communities of Whitby, Bridlington and Scarborough, through to the rural dales towns.

All have witnessed huge changes in the way people live and work: demographic change, changes in the manufacturing and rural industries, the impact of new technology and de-industrialisation have all had an impact on our communities.

So what does it mean for those who live in those places deemed as traditional white neighbourhoods?

When there are academic and policy discussions on race and cohesion, the views of white working class communities seem to be pretty low on the agenda.

How can this be right?

I grew up in an area like this, and I think the people who live there deserve better.

Most of us will be familiar with a range of stereotypes which see white working class people mocked as being stupid, living in sink estates and gullible supporters of the extreme Right.

They appear to be have been largely ignored by policy-makers, politicians and researchers, as well as looked down on by many producing films and TV.

At best they appear to be a hidden group that have merited only limited serious research.

As one woman in our research put it: “I may be from the 19th floor of a tower block, 30 and have a child, but I am not stupid! I see the news. My father’s got O and A-levels and all that. I get fed up of being seen as thick.”

So the new Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) report White working-class views of neighbourhood, cohesion and change was commissioned because JRF recognised these negative views and was already committed to engage with these communities.

Over the last year, JRF has published powerful evidence of how people in West Yorkshire feel about the areas they live in.

It reflects much of the evidence I found, with people feeling disconnected from policies that impact on their lives, and this fuelling disenchantment with political leaders and civic leaders.

But it also found that people really want to be listened to and want to see their communities improve.

Based on the views of white working residents living in three different neighbourhoods in three different cities (Coventry, Birmingham and London) it echoes what we hear elsewhere from Yorkshire’s cities. The report has some clear messages for people in power.

Those interviewed feel let down, left behind and “‘the last in line”.

They feel ignored by politicians.

They think debates about matters that they feel passionately about – such as housing, immigration and neighbourhood change – are stifled.

“Community cohesion” was seen as something of a “top down” policy, not connecting with their typical experiences of life.

Many government initiatives regarding equality issues were viewed as exercises in “political correctness”.

Residents felt they couldn’t talk about issues that concerned them, such as housing or immigration, without being labelled as racist.

At the same time, the residents questioned rejected racism and far-Right politics. One interviewee summed it up: “Groups of people have issues and they want to make themselves distinct from other groups. We are going against this by smothering over differences. Conflict is not really bad and difference is good although it is a challenge.”

So rather than the popular portrayal of a feckless mass, annexed in dysfunctional housing estates, our research paints a much more complicated and complex reality.

Even working out what traditional white working class means is not easy, with people being incredibly diverse in terms of ethnicity, income and the types of housing they live in.

What came out time and time again, though was that they valued hard work, reciprocity and mutual support.

What can be done? Well, the Government needs to start listening again to the white working class, engaging with groups and the issues they are concerned about.

Crucially, more transparency can be a vital tool to make it clear public resources are allocated fairly and properly.

Grassroots opportunities created for people to share common concerns and solutions can pay real dividends too. This can both help people recognise what the reality is of resource distribution – particularly as those resources are stretched by cutbacks – and hopefully encourage more engagement.

Racism is never acceptable. The report demonstrates that it is not the domain of the white working class either. Extremist parties have been shunned by residents. These are super-resilient places, with people who simply want to be heard, valued and treated fairly, rather than forgotten.

Hopefully, this is a message that will be heard and acted on.

And the people in Yorkshire’s traditional white working class neighbourhoods, so similar to the one I grew up in, can stop being stigmatised and left to feeling “last in line”.