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Voices from the White Working Class Community in Manchester

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At first glance, the Open Society Foundations’ new reports examining Europe’s marginalized majority populations sound like an oxymoron. Even more so, perhaps, when one of the populations is the British white working class community of the Higher Blackley ward in the north of Manchester. At the last census, 80 percent of the ward identified as “white British,” which makes for a very crowded margin.

But through this research focusing on predominantly white communities in six western European cities (Aarhus, Amsterdam, Berlin, Lyon, Manchester, and Stockholm), we demonstrate that marginalization, be it economic, political, social, or cultural, is not a phenomenon reserved for minority communities. Segments of the majority can be disenfranchised and excluded too.

The Manchester study, among the first of six to be released, builds on our Muslims in EU Cities research, which showed that the voices of white communities need to be heard when we discuss social cohesion and participation. What are the experiences, what are the opinions, what are the concerns of people who are the mainstream of society in cities like these? How do they feel about living in 21st-century Europe?

All too often the white urban majority is demonized and stigmatized by the media (see Benefits Street for example) or misrepresented by opportunists on the political extremes. There is a moral component that is never far away when these communities are discussed. They are “problems”—hostile to outsiders and beset by crime. If the residents are racist, work-shy and benefits-dependent, then solutions surely lie in changing individual behavior. From the ground, as the report shows, the view is very different

Higher Blackley is a particularly powerful example of how de-industrialization has affected the working population of Britain. Imperial Chemical Industries used to make dyestuffs here, and pharmaceuticals like the antiprotozoal drug Atebrin and the malaria medication Plasmoquine. At its height in 1961, the ICI plant employed 14,000 people, more than the entire population of the ward in 2011, but nearly all the manufacturing jobs have gone. “It was easy to get a job; there was industry all over the place,” says one of our interviewees. “There’s no mill now,” another resident says, “but there is a Sainsbury’s [supermarket chain].” Where there are jobs, they are concentrated in the service sector where low pay is endemic.   

Unemployment and the number of benefits recipients are relatively high in the ward, and there are low levels of academic attainment and qualifications. Where the stereotype would look for a lazy and feckless population, we found a strong work ethic that includes people on benefits.

They want to work, but the jobs have gone and opportunities, especially for young men and women, can look bleak. “For one job there’s like a million people applying for it,” says 15-year-old Paul. “You’ve got more chance of winning the lottery.” Even those in work have seen real wages decline significantly. For 35-year-old Carl, “Working class nowadays, you’re struggling anyway.”

Everywhere we looked, in education and employment; housing, health and policing; and in participation and influence, we found gaps between the perception of the community and the reality, and sometimes the misunderstanding was on the part of the residents themselves.

There are a high proportion of people living in social housing in Higher Blackley. While policy has often aimed at breaking up concentrations of social housing, our respondents showed there are extremely strong family and community bonds in social housing that provide support systems that can ameliorate economic hardships. If these systems are seen to be challenged by “outsiders,” particularly immigrants, there can be tensions when housing inventory is scarce. Housing allocation is often seen to be unfair, benefitting immigrants at the expense of locally born people, even when this is not the case.

This perception of unfairness was articulated in some of our focus groups. People also spoke of positive everyday interactions with newcomers. Manchester has made strides to make its housing decision-making process more transparent, as better communication and information can reduce damaging hearsay. As one participant notes, “It’s that sort of speculation that causes tension.” Out of that tension can arise feelings of resentment, which respondents are aware can be misinterpreted. “We’re not racist,” says one, “just resentful.”

Inclusion is not a zero-sum game where the inclusion of one community comes at the exclusion of another. But the erosion of generations of social cohesion that happens when jobs and traditional networks of social security disappear at the same time is genuinely felt. There is a lack of access to opportunity. There are many poor health outcomes for local people. Political promises have been made and broken, creating a lack of faith in mainstream parties and a general disengagement from the political process. What it adds up to is the sense of exclusion, which is another word for marginalization.

Higher Blackley remains a community whose members have a very strong sense of place and often a tighter bond to local than national identity. As someone who was born in the north of England and grew up in Chorlton-Cum-Hardy in south Manchester, there was a lot of the report I recognize, but more with which I am not familiar at all. I left Manchester at 18 to go to university in Sheffield, and other than a period working in the Manchester Welfare Center, I’ve lived away ever since, in places like Mitrovica in Kosovo, Skopje, Kandahar, and Kabul.

From these perspectives, my view of the UK has been of a country that has been at the forefront in responding to change and a place that people look up to in terms of best practices on social cohesion and integration. It is a country that minorities want to move to because you can be different and respected for that difference.

In some of the other countries we are studying—Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands—the narrative on diversity and difference is still being formulated, and populism has been the response that threatens to undermine the social contract. If governments and the media continue to misrepresent, stigmatize, or pit marginalized communities against each other, then the demise of a well-organized and integrated society might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The conversation on white working class and marginalized communities needs to be reframed. Policymakers should hear the citizens’ real experiences that are not swamped in rhetoric or data. The local community needs to feel that the government represents them and that they are not excluded from discussions on issues like education housing, jobs, and immigration.

Higher Blackley is neither the most deprived nor the most affluent area of Manchester, yet there is real need here. As of 2010, there were 1,405 children living in poverty in the ward, many concentrated in the same social housing or estates that show the highest levels of unemployment, high numbers of people of benefits, poorer health, and low levels of average pay.

Higher Blackley is a very resilient community and there are similarly strong communities in Aarhus, Amsterdam, and other cities we studied. The social insecurity and powerlessness we heard needs solutions that address the whole system that produces it, and which builds upon these capabilities that already exist within communities.

People have found simple solutions to many everyday problems that have allowed them to survive difficult circumstances. They ask if a neighbor wants a hand. If someone is ill, they’ll pop in and help. None of this is anything the people of Higher Blackley don’t already know. As one 96-year-old resident of Higher Blackley says, “The working class were always giving back. My mother used to say, we come from Givington because they were always giving back.”

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