Trying to divide white and ethnic minority working-class people helps no one

Halima Begum
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Barcroft Media/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Barcroft Media/Getty Images

I was recently quoted in an interview with the Guardian saying that I believed this government had a long-term plan to “work up white nationalism” by stoking division between members of the white working class and ethnic minority working classes as a means to rally support before the next election.

My comments were made in response to a speech by the secretary of state for international trade and minister for women and equalities, Liz Truss, in which she outlined a plan to rethink and potentially dismantle UK equalities legislation.

Last week, in a question in the Commons, Tom Randall, Tory MP for the “red wall” constituency of Gedling, asked Truss to confirm that white nationalism had no place in government policy. She responded by stating her purported belief that “equality is for everyone”, before calling my comments “disgusting” and a reflection of “an attitude on the left that says if you’re not from an oppressed group, you’re not entitled to an opinion”.

With her speech and comments in the Commons, Truss seemed intent on creating a distraction from the government’s handling of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic by whipping up a fabricated media storm about Black, Asian and minority ethnic “exceptionalism”. This would be the myth that the protections against discrimination afforded to people of colour and other protected groups, including women and disabled people, come at the cost of acknowledging and acting upon the inequalities experienced by the white working class (and in particular white working-class men).

The rightwing media acted on cue: the Spectator and Telegraph characterised my organisation, the Runnymede Trust, as an enemy of the Conservative party. What Truss may therefore not want the white working class to know is that more than a decade has now passed since the Runnymede Trust first called for the working class to be given some form of protected status, regardless of ethnicity.

After all, class and race are not mutually exclusive. Such a move would mitigate against class-based prejudice and make a genuine impact on reducing social inequalities that result from differences in occupation, education and geography. To that end, we continue to invite the government to work with us to offer support that might, for instance, help working-class kids of all ethnicities exceed their educational expectations.

Related: It's not 'censorship' to question the statues in our public spaces | Charlotte Higgins

Of course, Truss and her cabinet colleagues know full well that for more than 50 years – from Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech to Tony Blair’s appalling Prevent strategy – the Runnymede Trust has endeavoured to nail the lie on racism with objective research and to hold Labour and Conservative parties to account. After 10 years in office, this government cannot be the exception.

But why amplify such truths when the rhetoric aims to divide communities along racial lines in order for the Conservative party to shore up the red wall vote? Indeed, this raises a fundamental question: if this government is so set on tackling the inequalities faced by white working-class people, then where are the policies? In the UK, working-class communities face stagnating wages, rising house prices and rents, cuts to social security and ever diminishing public infrastructure, yet we are still to see any real action from the government to “level up” these communities.

Instead of tackling inequality head on, and beleaguered with the twin crises of Brexit and the pandemic, the government favours dog-whistle media stunts. We saw it again when Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, spent valuable time putting forward a policy designed to save statues from anti-racism campaigners, rather than designing policies that might save lives. Instead of finding ways for working-class people living in overcrowded homes to self-isolate or protecting renters from eviction, Jenrick apparently thought it more important to harangue “woke militants”.

The government has latched on to a strategy that allows it simultaneously to shore up white working-class support and bury bad news, by fomenting disagreement along social and racial faultlines. But by implying that Black, Asian and minority ethnic working-class people have achieved parity while the white working class is discriminated against, the chance of genuine progress on equalities is undermined.

Keep telling the white working class that they’re the victims of inequality, but fail to rectify the underlying structural problems, and frustration will legitimately spread. It’s time for this government to move beyond the rhetoric of levelling up, to invest in education, towns and new industries across the entire UK. Only then can the multi-ethnic working class even begin to believe Liz Truss’s claim that “equality is for everyone”.

  • Halima Begum is director of the race equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust