White working class disengagement from politics


Ishan Cader talks to Dr Nathan Manning of the Centre for Applied Social Research, University of Bradford about his research on the cynicism and political disengagement of white working voters.

Nathan Manning: This paper came out of work I did with Mary Holmes, who is soon to be based at the University of Edinburgh. We were concerned about the rise and increased success of the British National Party (BNP) during the European elections during 2009. We did a quick and fairly small-scale piece of research to try and explore the views of potential BNP supporters in the lead up to the 2010 (General) elections.

We wanted to use qualitative interviews because research on electoral politics tends to be dominated by more quantitative approaches. So we used qualitative interviews with white working class people in Yorkshire and Lancashire. We chose areas with high support for the BNP and/or low voter turnout. We did interviews in Barnsley, Burnley, Doncaster and Hull, and we used a YouGov poll that had been done just after the European elections to try and match our sample to people they identified as BNP supporters. We went about asking people what they thought about politics, what they thought about politicians, the major parties, the BNP, and the issues that they themselves thought were important (and MP’s expenses).

We are used to thinking about public debate and concern over young people’s disengagement from electoral politics, and the idea that young people are apathetic. But we would argue that this masks a broader problem of adult dissatisfaction with electoral politics- but we don’t have much data from citizens themselves as to why they are disengaged or dissatisfied. There are a number of different explanations for this: Political Science tends to point to processes of de-politicisation where various functions that used to be within Government have now been outsourced to external bodies- the Bank of England is a good example. This can lead people to perceive politics as being ill-suited to be able to deal with our pressing problems.

There is other similar work that argues that citizens are increasingly positioned as consumers, and politics tends to generate compromised and messy outcomes, and if we are positioned as consumers, then we are going to be inherently disappointed by these compromised outcomes. Other work points towards Party convergence, which is particularly relevant in Britain- the sense that there is no real choice between the parties- so that can drive down turnout as well.

All these things are important and relevant, but there is more to it. We would argue that fundamentally, politics is no longer perceived as addressing socio-economic concerns of white working-classes, and of course, other working people. There is a profound sense of distance and separation between politics/politicians and everyday life.

Ishan Cader:  What kind of responses did you get whilst undertaking your research?

NM: We had real difficulty recruiting people for this project. Partly that is because we did a lot of cold canvassing, so people didn’t know us, and that makes it quite easy to say no. We also approached people in workplaces, which can make it difficult as well. Mostly people didn’t say they were too busy or that they didn’t have time- mostly they said they were just not interested and didn’t want to talk about it. This was even after we impressed upon people that we wanted to talk to people that were not interested in politics. The title of our paper actually came out of an attempt to recruit some people- Mary approached some council workers and asked them to be involved in the study, and one of them said “them that runs the country don’t know what they’re doing.” This was a common experience trying to get people to be involved.

One of the key themes that came out of the work was that the people we spoke to were critically disengaged rather than being apathetic and just not caring about politics. They had a whole range of criticisms. Some people didn’t vote, or only voted occasionally. There were a couple of people who were interested in politics, so overall we had quite a little spread.

There were criticisms around the electoral system; problems with first-past-the-post. A young woman in Doncaster, in a cafe earning minimum wage said: “You probably know about Doncaster, its quite a Labour stronghold; what difference is my vote really going to make then?”

There was also more general cynicism. Another person from Doncaster who worked in a bar said: “To be totally honest, I don’t really understand much. What does happen- you read about it, you hear it on the news- it doesn’t give you much faith in wanting to get to know much about it [politics]. It’s just so negative all the time, the different things you hear, especially lately with the expenses. Just the politics world and everything that surrounds it, and the people involved in politics- I just think it’s quite dark.” So they use words like negative and dark that doesn’t promote an interest or faith in politics.

The sense of a profound separation of everyday life and people and politics/politicians- an older woman from Hull, who was a courier, she talked about politics as being in a bubble. She said: “My view is they are in government, they are in power, they are in Downing Street, and they are in a bubble of power. Most of us will just muddle along won’t we. We’ll be in our own small worlds, trying, battling on to make a living, and the government people will just get on with what they are doing. And at some point the two us will meet- we’ll get affected by the policies they put in. Whether fuel comes down in price remains to be seen” [Fuel was an important issue for her being a courier] That sense of a separate sphere came through very regularly with our respondents.

IC: You said that your study was initially inspired by the rise of the BNP in the North-west. How would you say the rise of the far right in the last few years has changed or harnessed the political concerns of the white working class communities that you researched?

NM: Firstly I think it’s interesting to note how quickly politics changes. We did this work in the lead up to the 2010 election, and of course the BNP had enjoyed recent success around that time. But after the election, they were no longer a political force. We don’t really talk about the BNP in the way we did a few years ago. But of course at the local elections we’ve seen the rise of UKIP. They articulate some of the same kinds of messages as the BNP, but they do it in different ways and perhaps they tap into different parts of the electorate as well. So not to say that the Right has disappeared, but the BNP has certainly dissipated.

I think it’s also important to note that the general shift to the Right within mainstream politics, which of course began under New Labour. There is research that shows that attitudes hardened towards welfare recipients, for example, under New Labour. So it’s not just the far Right that has shaped these dynamics, but the major parties and the media as well. So in the Leader’s debate of 2010, at least on one occasion, we saw the leaders try to out-do each other on how tough they would be on immigration and asylum seekers.

Going back to our study, while our participants shared various characteristics with BNP supporters, most of them were either uninterested or quite critical of the BNP. They described the BNP as distasteful, as playing on people’s fears, or wanting to incite riots, or just as too extreme. But we think that the gap left by Labour’s shift to the right has meant that racist discourses have become a way of explaining white working class disadvantage. So, if you like, the tenants of multi-culturalism have been warped to serve claims that white people have been left behind and this racialisation of the white working class pits a black ‘them’ against a white ‘us’- in partly imagined battles over jobs and resources.

So one of our participants, a young woman who was a hairdresser- she was asked what she thought what politicians should be working on, and she said: “It might sound a bit racist, but stopping others coming in and taking our…[she doesn’t finish that thought] I’m not a racist person but they make me want to be, when they get all the help and we don’t.” I think it’s quite clear that she’s trying to talk about class disadvantage, but the way in which she articulates that is quite racist.

IC: So you’ve touched upon the two prevalent discourses of the last few years- first of all the rise of an Islamaphobic or more generally racist discourse in the media, which is also matched by a discourse against the white working class. The issue of ‘chavs’ or the issue of welfare dependency. How do you think these discourses can be combated?

NM: This is a really interesting question, and I’m not sure I’ve got a great answer. The coalition have been really successful in demonising and dehumanising welfare recipients. And at the same time, people seem to largely accept the need for deep cuts in public spending- and of course we’re not hearing a strong counter-narrative from Labour. If things are to change, I think we need to develop new ways of talking about people’s socio-economic concerns which don’t pit groups, be they ethnic groups or categories of deserving and undeserving, against each other. We need perhaps a new kind of language around this sort of stuff. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but I do think there is a role for political leadership in combating these kind of discourses. Imagine if we had political leaders that talked about the positive contribution that migrants have made to Britain, rather than always framing migration as a problem- even at best its just about some sort of management, but it’s usually much more negative than that.

At the same time, I’m doing some other work on the use of public space in Bradford. Bradford has a fairly new public square, and we’re looking at how people use the space- it’s a very popular site with Bradfordians. I think sometimes there is a difference between this level of discourse- which is clearly there, and I wouldn’t want to sound too optimistic about this because the discourses around Islamaphobia and ‘Chavs’ has been really quite nasty- but at the same time I think ‘Everyday Life’ there is often a real conviviality we see, and people sharing public spaces and getting on with life. Sometimes the everyday reality of living in multi-cultural Britain isn’t reflected in discourses, so there might be a bit of a gap between them.

IC: This refers to some of the points you made at the beginning, which is how your respondents during your research talked about that gap between the ‘everyday’ experience of their life and mainstream politics. Do you think there is anything that can be done to at the moment to bridge the gap between mainstream politics and the concerns of the white working class, or indeed the working classes in general?

NM: I think it’s fair to say that we know intuitively and also from research that dissatisfaction with mainstream isn’t confined to the white working classes. There is quite recent research to show that people are profoundly with electoral politics. On the political side of the equation there needs to be political will to bridge this gap. Voter turnout was about 65% in the 2010 elections, and as long as doesn’t drop below 60%, I don’t think the political elite are going to rock the boat to drive up voter turnout. So it’s a bit hard to see where the political will will come from at that level. But I also don’ think that more moderate are necessarily going to do it either- tweaking, making voting more accessible- though those sorts of things are important. Perhaps if the electoral role isn’t tied to residency so it makes it easier to vote- but I don’t really think they are going to profoundly re-shape the way working class people relate to politics.

I think people will feel politics is relevant to their lives. It’s not as Elizabeth (one of our participants) said, that there is a separate bubble of power. People need to feel that politics is there for them. And I really don’t think that that is the case [at the moment].

IC: It seems to me that demise of, for example, trade union structures, and perhaps more broadly the Left, has also been quite incapable of filling this gap between everyday political concerns and political will, and representation. I think it leaves a gap where organisations- not electoral organisations like the BNP- but organisation like the EDL that are enjoying a huge amount of renewal in support, this year especially, that allow that politicisation to occur outside the domain of mainstream electoral politics, and is expressed in a quite virulent, angry and aggressive street politics.

NM: Yes, I think that is true. There is no doubt that some of the older structures that used to marshal and channel our political assets towards electoral politics no longer exercise the same force that they did. But in some ways it’s interesting to think that at an electoral level we haven’t seen radical politics in Britain as we have in other parts of Europe. It’s an open question as to whether this will change. But it certainly could with further economic shocks. I think it’s interesting that broadly, the public have been fairly accepting of really dramatic public spending cuts. But as they continue to bite and economic growth continues to be sluggish, the pressure will continue and we could see some real resistance flourishing. But at times it is very hard to see where that will come from. And on the Right, we do have flare ups of really nasty, really violent protests, particularly from groups like the EDL.