Just before the pandemic, the historian Anne Applebaum appeared on the Bertelsmann Foundation series How to Fix Democracy. The challenge of our age, she said, was maintaining the ability to talk to one another.

A wealth of new information and ideas have contributed to polarisation, with different political communities accessing different narratives and funnelling them into remote frames of reference.

To understand why some issues continue to divide, we should consider that we are speaking fundamentally different languages.

The trouble with ‘White working-class underachievement’

On Tuesday 22 June, the Education Select Committee of Tory and Labour MPs published a report on White working-class underachievement. It recommended the government focus on addressing low educational outcomes, targeting ‘forgotten’ communities away from the cities and redressing a culture of low ambition.

Beyond this, the report has divided opinion. Some have found the paper a shallow and limited follow-up to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report published in March, dressing White poverty up as the victim of so-called ‘woke culture’. Its writers, critical of the CRED report, have argued that disadvantage goes beyond poverty, with White communities held back by attitudes towards education and by neglect in policy and funding.

The general focus on — dare I say it — levelling up parts of the country is welcome. In London, Britain has the richest area in northern Europe. The island also has nine of the ten poorest.

Throughout the report, one could often remove the word ‘White’ without changing the essence of the sentence. And where race is used to qualify disadvantage without progressing the point, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Critics will say the focus on White poverty is a wilful perversion to detract from antiracist dialogue. If the challenge is to ‘advance a new way to discuss disadvantage without pitting different groups against each other’, the report could have been more delicate.

Seeing eye to eye

Having come from one of these ‘forgotten’ communities, however, it is painful to read that ‘a culture of low expectations is damaging for White working-class children’. There is something immediate and obvious about talk of damaged families, a lack of role models and mental health support, underfunded community hubs and disillusionment with education. I know many who could not have a serious conversation about university with their parents. I know many who have been let down by the school, the police or the NHS, throwing away their lives for crime, drugs or alcohol.

Now living in London, it is clear how detached the city is from the narratives of those outside the M25. In this gap — which is cultural and not strictly financial — communities start to speak past each other. These groups often have different base assumptions about race and neglect. Though I did not vote to leave the EU, I sympathise with those who pushed against the inertia five years ago this week. As the economist Francis Fukuyama wrote in Identity, the decisions underlying Trump and Brexit were not always the rational processes of homo economicus but of a jaded people demanding the dignity of a voice.

Whether disadvantage is caused by or correlated with whiteness, what has been missed is why the dialectic has swung this way at all. Why are some now trying to understand these issues in these terms? It is odd that Guardian writers assume very different premises when talking about this report to the 99.4 per cent White communities who struggle to identify where their privilege starts and ends. It is odd that the language of GB News — professing to speak for the ‘regions’ — is so far removed from the paradigm of other outlets. And it is odd that after five years we are still debating why Brexit happened.

Moving between city and countryside, I find it unsurprising that a proportion of the ‘forgotten’ will feel forgotten. Many will fail to cooperate with the discourse on race and privilege, not least because it comes packaged in academic language that their communities have been denied. Is it not that these ideas now mean very different things to different audiences? Is it not the case that the reference points of ‘forgotten’ lives are now largely removed from those of their north London representatives? If Keir Starmer could speak, we could not understand him, and so on.

How to win friends …

If Labour is to recover its base outside of London, it must be careful how it handles these conversations. On booing footballers for taking the knee, the Tories have alienated the affected communities in order to identify — in part — with the base the Opposition needs: those who don’t get it. Boris’ invertebrate opportunism lends itself to mopping up the communities Labour fails to resonate with. Starmer must do better. The response this month takes the bait, generating a reactive comment that will neither reassure supporters nor flatter the disinterested. Both parties have failed to make these groups communicate in the same terms.

In seeming either self-evident or offensive, the report is telling of the challenges of communication we face. Since at least 2016 a slice of the country has felt unsettled with the way things are. And for different reasons, another slice feels the same. But as communities grow in different directions, receive different information and become invested in different issues, the aim is to try to understand this polarity — with the hope of bringing things back together.


Words by James C. Reynolds

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