"We are ghosts": Race, class and institutional prejudice
times of transition and ill health are moments working-class people are most vulnerable, as they lack financial safety
This report is the result of a year-long qualitative research project and collaboration between Runnymede and CLASS. Conducted over 2018, interviews and focus groups with 78 people highlighted an increasingly punitive culture of services experienced across working-class, BME and migrant communities. Rather than the ‘white working class’ and ‘ethnic or migrant working class’ living different or separate lives, the researchers found significant overlap in everyday lived experiences, which was analysed using a ‘4P’ framework: power, precariousness, place and prejudice.
Findings and recommendations
Change the narrative
A set of shared conditions shaped the experience of working-class people across all ages and ethnic groups:
- being held back from fulfilling their potential
- social alienation in institutional spaces
- feeling discriminated against in the labour market
- experiencing indignity and neglect when navigating public services
- shared resentment and loss of community space in the face of gentrification
Interviewees’ local neighbourhoods were a main point of reference when discussing race and class dynamics: Ladbroke Grove and the Mangrove, the New Cross fire, and the Brixton uprisings would inform the conversations. Most interviewees displayed a great deal of pride in and commitment to their community, describing local values of solidarity and camaraderie as an integral part of their identity.
Despite this set of shared conditions, class was discussed with much ambivalence and confusion by interviewees. The question: ‘Would you call yourself working class?’ was a source of contention and debate. Older, male and white interviewees were usually the most confident in asserting their working-class identity, while other interviewees were more likely to be indifferent towards the term, to perceive it as only applying to white British people, or to reject it as a stigmatizing caricature.
- Stop counterposing race and class. Analysis of – and the policy response to – both race and class should focus on material conditions as well as on prejudice and discrimination. How we talk about working-class, BME and migrant communities currently legitimizes and institutionalizes their disadvantage.
- Root our understanding of the working class in people’s current conditions (4Ps: power, place, precariousness, prejudice), rather than top-down assumptions.
- Recognize the role of place in shaping how people interact and identify locally. National discussion and debates about inequality or community cohesion are often too distant from people’s experiences and needs.
- We need a conception of the working class that doesn’t pitch working-class people against each other along the lines of deserving/undeserving, white/BME, British/migrants: such divides have justified policies that make all groups worse off.
- Our conception of the working class must acknowledge the legacy of empire: the injustice faced by workers in and from British colonies, and those workers’ tremendous contribution to British economy and society over the centuries (Our Migration Story).
- Build on existing ‘framing’ work, notably JRF’s work on poverty, to outline the strengths of working-class communities and the current barriers that prevent them from securing better lives for themselves.
Rebuild the safety net, at work and through public services
Rather than a strong sense of ‘working class’ identity, what came out more concretely through focus groups was when and where interviewees’ backgrounds were experienced as resulting in a lack of ‘safety net’, particularly in times of transition, ill health and crisis. It was in those moments that working-class people were most vulnerable, as they lacked financial safety, institutional support and networks in comparison with more privileged peers. This was accentuated by general housing precariousness: without medium to long term stability of housing, interviewees found it more difficult to access local services effectively, and to develop and tap into formal and informal networks of personal support.
The changing face of contemporary work was a factor in blurring the lines of working class affiliation. Traditionally, work has been the anchor for working-class identity. However, with the growth of the gig economy, work has become more precarious and atomized. As new forms of low-income work do not provide the same sense of identity and common cause for mobilization, ‘working class’ as a badge of honour seems to have lost its resonance for many people.
- A genuine living wage. The current national living wage (for those over 25) is £8.21, £0.79 less than a genuine living wage. In London, the living wage needs to be £10.55.
- Adopt the Institute of Employment Rights’ ‘Manifesto for Labour Law’ to improve the security, pay, conditions and bargaining power of workers (IER 2018). This includes establishing a Ministry for Labour to rebuild and promote collective bargaining structures.
- Reinvest in public services to bring spending back towards pre-2010 levels.
- Different regions or localities will have different priorities, but these should all focus on tackling whatever inequalities need the most extensive focus at the local level (transport, labour market, housing, etc.).
- Stop the sell-off of public land. Local authorities should be encouraged not to sell land to private developers where they are failing to provide affordable or social housing (Wheatley 2019).
- Improve the security of housing tenure. As well as building more social housing, this will require providing more long-term, low-cost secure private accommodation (e.g. five-year leases with inflation-protected rental rises).
- Implement the idea of ‘universal basic services’, expanding the welfare state to include housing, food, transport and internet access (Portes, Reed and Percy, 2017).
- Lift the ban: give people seeking asylum the right to work, so that they can use their skills and live in dignity. Everyone deserves a chance to contribute to the economy and to integrate into our communities.’
- Re-introduce birth right citizenship as part of a wider review into race, immigration and citizenship law and policy.
- Relink benefits and inflation, and ensure benefits more closely correspond to the relative poverty line.
- Re-establish child poverty targets, including a specific target to reduce disproportionately high BME child poverty.
Strengthen voice and participation
The lived reality of being working class in London was typified by a shared experience of indifference and neglect from the state and public authorities. Interactions with local councils were often experienced as discriminatory, or complacent about residents’ needs and difficulties. As a result, people were deterred from trusting and seeking to access statutory services, and relied instead on local networks and friends when facing injustice and hardship. Despite the proven benefits of strong communities, many interviewees expressed frustration at the lack of recognition for their efforts and contributions locally, within communities that are chronically underresourced, overstretched and dispersed by cuts to services.
- Services should be co-produced, so that people are involved not just as recipients of public services but as shapers of how those services are better delivered.
- Devolve power, decision-making and resources locally. Invest in local community organizations and networks, especially those that engage and involve working-class and ethnic minority people. Democracy requires a stronger civil society voice locally, and such organizations can also serve as intermediaries between the state and citizens.
- Ensure not only that housing management organizations include working-class voices, but that those voices have real power over decision-making.
- Introduce the socioeconomic duty, making class an ‘equality ground’. This will allow for positive action measures to be taken on grounds of class as well as race.
- Organizations should set targets to improve ethnic minority and working-class representation in the workplace. This includes tackling discrimination in the labour market. Mandate equal pay audits and enforce tougher sanctions on companies who break the law.
Re-embed shared values at the core of policy
Most interviewees reported experiencing daily encounters with public services as punitive and disempowering – whether this was with the police, job centres or social services – to the extent that many discerned an active conflict of interest between services’ targets on the one hand and the wellbeing of working-class families on the other. Many interviewees talked about dehumanisation (‘They don’t see you as a person’/’They don’t treat you as a human being’). They also highlighted how racism or xenophobia exacerbated their ill-treatment. Wider public narratives around who is ‘deserving’ and who is ‘undeserving’ and the impact of the ‘hostile environment’ made engaging with public services an even more dispiriting experience. The gap between professional intervention and the intuitive knowledge of and challenges faced by communities was also experienced as a great barrier to trust and engagement.
A shared impression that local services and support have been designed to be out of reach further entrenches poor esteem of and confidence in services. The current experience of local services cements the belief that the levers of justice are not working for working-class people, and that their rights are ultimately unenforceable. As a result, people step away from support, often out of exhaustion and disillusionment with the support on offer and the way in which it is – or is not – provided. Services become another obstacle to navigate on top of other life stresses.
- Foster equality and dignity across all public services, embedding inclusion, equality, cohesion in, for example, procurement and planning decision-making processes, and considering social value clauses to enable community participation and control of services.
- End the hostile-environment immigration policies, and issue a thorough review of the Home Office’s policies, examining whether those policies are in line with human rights and race discrimination legislation
- End data-sharing between public services for the purpose of immigration enforcement. This destroys trust between communities and services and undermines the duty of care.
- There needs to be a cultural shift in how local services relate to working-class, migrant and BME people who use their services. This requires a new public service values framework, as well as training for all staff, from the front line to senior management, on how to ensure working-class, migrant and BME people are treated with dignity and respect when approaching services.
- Ensure equality law and the socioeconomic duty are taken seriously, respected and applied in relation to all policy, strengthening the ‘due regard’ clause in the public sector equality duty.
- In response to the extensive inequalities outlined in the government’s Race Disparity Audit, the government should adopt a race equality strategy across all public policy areas. This strategy should be led by a minister who regularly attends and reports directly to the Cabinet.
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