- The absence of extremism is not automatically evidence of ‘cohesive’ communities.
- Recent research identifies possibilities for intervention and political change which involves both reframing the problem of ‘cohesion’ and expanding its scope.
For a number of years there has been growing interest in the disadvantage experienced by ‘poor white British’ communities. Over a decade since the Runnymede Trust produced its report ‘Who Cares About the White Working Class?’, it’s a question that preoccupies politicians, journalists, and academics. There is also an increasing focus on what these communities themselves want, as at national and local levels, politicians consider ways to build more ‘cohesive’ communities.
An increasingly marginalised group?
This interest has been stimulated by key social and political developments; firstly, the Leave vote in the UK Brexit referendum, coupled with support for far-right organisations such as UKIP, the BNP and the EDL. Secondly, growing concerns that poor, white British communities are becoming increasingly marginalised, failing within the education system compared to their black and minority ethnic counterparts, lacking aspiration, and struggling to compete in a new economy. These themes of a community being ‘left behind’, were prominent in Lord Casey’s 2016 review into ‘opportunity’ and ‘integration’.
However, there are problems with such assertions. The Runnymede Trust warned that focusing on the ‘whiteness’ of the ‘white working class’ could detract from the inequalities experienced by black and minority ethnic groups, who continue to face disproportionate disadvantage. Indeed, the marginalised position of white communities vis-à-vis mainstream white society has been used by some to critique multicultural and race equality policies. Similarly, this emphasis might create a political climate in which white residents increasingly identify by race, over potentially less divisive forms of alignment such as place and class.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Preventing Hateful Extremism and Promoting Cohesion Commission is part of a wider move to improve cohesion. This, however, is not a straightforward task. The absence of extremism is not automatically evidence of ‘cohesive’ communities. A regional strategy document – ‘Our People Our Place’ called for the creation of an area where ‘all voices are heard….’ Here, ‘every neighbourhood should be a place where people want to live: clean, safe, cohesive neighbourhoods where people belong and are active.’
We must therefore do more than address manifestations of political extremism, urban unrest and crime. Indeed, despite its obvious importance, the quest for ‘cohesion’ might indicate a lack of political ambition suggesting absence of conflict as the political end goal, rather than, say, the elimination of poverty or greater educational attainment.
There are also problems with how identity is framed. Policies tend to define communities in racial, ethnic, or religious terms, with Muslim and marginalized white communities predominant. There is also a disproportionate emphasis on the need for cohesion amongst ‘young people’, particularly males, with a tendency to impose homogeneity, denying their diversity.
This often leads to simplistic correlations between young working-class whites and racism (as well as between young Muslims and terrorism). A failure to dig down into the complex biographies and trajectories that lead people to political extremism often results in approaches which can alienate and denigrate as much as they solve or explain. Related to this, localised patterns of interaction, contact and culture are often addressed, rather than wider inequities in resource and opportunity.
Critiquing how poor, white communities are seen in policy narratives, is not to deny they face significant challenges. A series of studies by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found communities that felt isolated, fearful, stigmatized, and remote from political decision-making. Closer to home, a report by the Open Society Foundations, which focused on Higher Blackley, identified a population suffering from unemployment, low-paid, insecure work, housing insecurity and competition and poor health. Compounding this were concerns about crime and safety, declining political participation, political neglect from a newly professionalised but distant political class, and cultural representation that demonised poor white residents and areas.
However, these challenges are not uniquely the preserve of poor white communities or one UK region. Indeed, they are very evident within Greater Manchester. Here, the boom apparent in the city centre and amongst more affluent areas of the city, seemingly bypasses many other places altogether. Older industrial towns such as Oldham and Rochdale represent some of the poorest districts in the country, confronted by long-term patterns of urban decline and deepening inequality. These challenges are likely to increase in the coming years with one report listing Oldham, Rochdale, Manchester, Bolton, and Salford within the top 50 districts of England, Scotland and Wales predicted to be hardest hit by proposed welfare reforms.
The opportunity for change
Recent research identifies possibilities for intervention and political change which involves both reframing the problem of ‘cohesion’ and expanding its scope.
Firstly, accepting the grievances of poorer white communities is not the same as agreeing with the way these social problems are articulated and understood. Framing these challenges as a question of ‘race’ rather than of class inequality encourages division and hostility. Politicians and policy makers must offer more inclusive narratives about the people and the places that matter as has been attempted in Detroit, for instance, recognizing shared feelings if not degrees of marginalisation.
We must not simply lapse into urban boosterism. There must be more local communication and consultation through community forums which enlists a wide range of voices and experiences. Post Brexit, politicians must be more proactive, not pander to concerns rooted in tendencies to racism and xenophobia where they exist, but develop a wider sense of community and place. The prospects for cohesion rest on improving the conditions for all marginalised groups.
Secondly, addressing economic and housing insecurity is central. Poverty, low wages, and poor, insecure housing facilitate environments in which hostility can thrive. Manchester could introduce a district-wide minimum wage, and lead discussions about the possibilities for a universal basic income. The expansion of affordable housing, secure tenancies, greater regulation of the private rented sector, property ownership and rent controls are policy initiatives to consider.
Finally, there must be a greater emphasis on creating and sustaining more inclusive forms of development. Key here is to build institutions anchored in communities that serve the needs of a diverse constituency and bring people together in pursuit of shared aims and aspirations. Community centres, local jobs, schools, training, leisure and health facilities, community-led organisations, local cooperatives and financial institutions, could be supported and developed through investing in the social economy. Montreal for instance has taken steps in this direction and Greater Manchester could encourage or require city investors, through economic incentives and procurement, to make such commitments.
The need for policymakers to meet the challenge of ‘cohesion’ is increasingly recognised as urgent and necessary. However, focusing on communities in ways that promote ideas of division and difference, and that rely on assumptions about the links between extremism and race, class and/or age, risk fermenting tension.
‘Cohesion’ itself might be better viewed as the by-product of a wider suite of policies to reduce inequality, insecurity and increase inclusion and opportunity, rather than a goal in itself.