By Simon John Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform (@CforWR).
The Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change and Hope Not Hate came together to run an exciting cross-disciplinary event: A Future for Post Industrial Communities? The event, organised by CERIC’s Professor Jane Holgate, was lively, stimulating and wove together a vast array of information, helped by the use of the PechaKucha format, which forced all the presenters to concentrate their presentations to an essential minimum.
The central focus of the two days of discussion was the fate of the many towns and villages across the North, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales where heavy industry or mining had once been dominant. Where once the Labour Party was strong now there was growing support for UKIP and a strong vote for Brexit.
Academic research demonstrated that, contrary to the stereotypes, in these places people work hard and took care of each other, but struggled with low pay, job insecurity, benefit sanctions and growing poverty. Today the UK is the most unequal country in Europe, and these communities are on the wrong end of that inequality.
Many also noted that that these communities also lacked power. The UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world and in these places people have minimal democratic control and minimal representation in London. They seem abandoned by mainstream politics. Moreover social structures, the meeting places, the pubs, churches, working men’s clubs and leisure facilities had all declined. People have few opportunities to meet, organise or advocate for themselves. Poverty has been privatised.
These facts are rarely discussed and the assumption is that these places are now client states, dependent on subsidies from London. The truth is very different. For instance, if you calculate public spending in Barnsley it is £0.84 billion less than what you’d expect if you divided all public spending equally by head of population.
The negative consequences of these overlapping injustices are severe and include much lower life expectancy. Yet none of this is inevitable; it was encouraging to hear that in other countries, like Germany, industrial change has not led to these kinds of problems. Communities can be supported to develop and to get back on their feet.
A further concern was that racism can feed off these social injustices. Speakers from Hope Not Hate shared their experiences of successfully over-turning prejudice in local communities where racists had exploited people’s fears and anger. But this also raised the question of what comes first: racism or injustice. And if, as most agreed, injustice comes first, how were we to understand and challenge that injustice.
Over the course of these two days I found my head whirling with competing categories and different understandings of social justice. Victims and perpetrators often seem to change places and people were forced to wear or to shed the group identities that mattered to some theory, but possibly not to people themselves:
– White working class men are seen by some as a threat
– White working class men are seen by others as victims
– But do white working class men really exist?
– Whose interests does this identity serve?
– Probably not the people shoehorned into it
Clearly some identities matter because others have chosen to use those identities for the purpose of scapegoating or vile attack. Categories like race, disability or native country become desperately important if others are using these categories hatefully. Yet we may think that these identities shouldn’t be important. It is injustice itself that has made them relevant.
For some these problems are obviously a function of capitalism. For others they are a function of class and elitism. Others stressed the organisation of power and the dominance of London and the big cities. Others looked back to the securities provided by large or nationalised industries; while some looked forward about to new forms of cooperative enterprise or community action.
What is critical here seems to be our sense of what is that actual reform or action that will reduce injustice. Politicians talk about ‘investment’ in these communities; but, reasonable as this seems, the reality is more complex. Often it amounts to no more than selling off our assets, our industries and our people. In Salford increased investment led to new offices and BBC premises, but local people saw no improvements. Increasingly housing policies has disconnected people from their communities: forcing people to move out just as the money comes in. We cannot assume that places and people are connected if people have no right to stay in their home communities.
Some, but not all, were attracted to the idea that power and money must down to community. Only if people can make their own decisions, shape their communities around their own assets and goals, can communities flourish. Others preferred the idea of national industries and even greater central control. Some were understandably suspicious that governments will exploit localism and asset-based approaches in order to disguise the structural injustices created by their own policies.
Perhaps one telling trend was the agreement across a range of speakers that change must begin by listening to and empowering communities. The Labour Party, trade unions, Citizens UK and Hope Not Hate have all made community organising a central plank of their strategies.
However this reinforces the need for more thinking about devolution in the UK. If we need to listen more now then that suggests that the current system is badly designed. If local communities are given more power, but the financial settlements are unfair, then this will just increase injustice. If devolution means merging large local authorities into even large areas, under the control of one mayor, then the powerlessness of smaller communities will only increase.
This two day conference did not resolve these issues, but it was certainly one of the richest discussions that I’ve been involved in. Brexit seems an unfortunate backwards step for the UK; but if it forces us to pay more attention to the deep and underlying injustices in the UK today then it will have at least one positive consequence.