This Conservative Government is unprecedented in its reach out to all sorts of different communities and geographies across the UK. We now represent seats across coalfields, industrial towns and coastal areas to a greater extent than ever before. Many of these communities are former Labour strongholds, driven away from the left by an identity-obsessed narrative that didn’t connect with their world view. Many of these communities might describe themselves as ‘white working class’. I’d go as far as to say the majority of those seats we won for the first time in a while are those that feel left out, left behind or even forgotten.
Many of those seats also voted Leave in the referendum. Part of the rationale for returning the Conservatives to Government was to fulfil that promise to exit the EU. We’ve delivered on that and we’re taking the country forward. That can go part of the way to restoring trust in our institutions and in politicians. Many have said though that the vote to leave was a symptom of something bigger. It was a chance for the voiceless to change things; for communities to ‘take back control’ for themselves and to be heard. We have to understand and accept that if we are to keep these seats, things need to change.
It’s not just Governments, but whole institutions that are guilty of ignoring these communities. Last week in the Commons I tried to raise a ‘Women and Equalities’ question about the educational attainment of white working class boys. This is a hugely important issue to me and to communities like Mansfield where less than 1/3rd of these lads get GCSEs. It’s an inequality stemming from all sorts of different problems, including cultural attitudes towards school in post-industrial communities as well as the ever-evolving and often unclear societal definition of masculinity. Though the stats all show it’s a huge and genuine issue, I was told that these questions are not a related to ‘equalities’.
I think that’s shocking. The protected characteristics defined in the Equalities Act 2010 name ‘sex’ and ‘race’ as being protected, not ‘female’ and ‘BAME’. Inequality can affect boys as well as girls, it can affect white communities as much as any other. This particular issue about education for white boys is a statistical fact. Why do our institutions seem to wish to pretend that white men don’t face cultural problems or face discrimination? They do! I don’t think it’s deliberate, I think it’s been institutionalised over many years. There are issues at all levels, from ‘first world problems’ like being told you can’t apply for a role because the next appointee must be female, as if that would ever be acceptable the other way around, to these lads who are struggling for their very survival at school without support, we should not cover up the fact that all communities across our diverse United Kingdom face their share of problems.
The issue of educational attainment is not new. These stats have persisted for decades. Even a former Head of Ofsted has said the issue is ‘taboo… brushed under the carpet’. The notion of white male privilege is bandied around certain circles, and particularly in the metropolitan language of Westminster and the media. The confrontational tone of debate and the fear of being accused of being racist means we too often don’t take on these issues, even though it’s these young white boys that are most likely to take their own lives. I challenge you to come and talk to these boys struggling at school and for a purpose about white male privilege. Come and talk to their dads! Blokes who spent decades down the pits mining coal to keep your lights on, and who are now struggling with or dying from lung diseases in their 50s and 60s as a result. Where’s their privilege?
Now, in truth I’m sure the challenge of asking these questions in the Commons is easily overcome. I spoke to the Minister for Women and Equalities about ensuring her Department is willing to answer these kind of questions and she was very supportive. I’ve spoken with the Table Office about how to work around it, though it shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place.
The bigger question though is a wider one about what kind of Government and society we need to be, and who we represent. If we’re to break the mould and genuinely support the kinds of communities, like the North Nottinghamshire coalfields, that we now represent in greater numbers that ever before, our Departments and Public Bodies and QUANGOs, our institutions of Government, need to break out of their box and consider the plight of white working class communities just as much as they consider all others. ‘Forgotten towns’ can be forgotten no longer. Those who have considered themselves voiceless need to have a voice. It cannot be business as usual. When we talk about ‘One Nation’ – though it’s far from my favourite phrase – what it should mean is that we value all of these communities across our country equally and we are working for them, regardless of race, gender or any of these other ‘protected characteristics’.
Levelling up has to be about lots of things; from infrastructure to skills, job creation to tackling health inequalities. It also has to be about restoring pride and esteem to the white working class communities that too often seem to have lost it. If we can make strides to ensure that these people feel valued and listened too, we will have done our country a great service.