The view from Burnley Road

A new book by Mike Makin-Waite considers the long-term factors which explain Labour’s challenges in “red wall” seats

On Burnley Road begins by looking back to the serious racialised rioting which took place in this small Lancashire town twenty years ago.

Summer 2001 saw similar trouble in Oldham and Bradford, too. These “northern town riots” generated concerned debate about multiculturalism and race relations. Prime minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary David Blunkett introduced a new policy approach: “community cohesion”

The year after the riots, Burnley became the first place to see a small group of far-right British National Party councillors elected. Then, in 2003, Nick Griffin’s organisation made further gains in the town, and had localised successes in other places.

Back in the early 2000s, these controversial events were seen as a kind of aberration. Some condescending journalists and politicians dismissed them as a result of northern ‘backwardness’ – an arrogant, patronising outlook linked to the so-called north-south divide.

Such ‘explaining away’ got in the way of people understanding what was actually going on.

It has turned out that the riots and the BNP’s political gains were a precursor and early warning sign of the growth of right-wing populism which has become such a negative and divisive factor in English politics.

In a series of stages, themes of opposition to immigration, racist anxiety about multiculturalism and antipathy to ‘Europe’ were more widely promoted by Nigel Farage’s UKIP. They then fed into the 2016 Brexit vote, reshaping the agenda of the Conservative Party.

By now, Burnley no longer stood out from general trends across smaller towns in northern England. It voted by two-thirds to leave the European Union and then, after decades of deindustrialisation and the impact of austerity, it became one of the so-called ‘red wall’ constituencies which Labour lost to Johnson’s Conservatives in 2019’s “Get Brexit done” general election.

My take on all this is shaped by first-hand experience. I lived in Burnley and was a paid worker for the local council.  After the first BNP election successes, I was appointed to a job to promote good race relations in Burnley. I held this post throughout the decade in which far-right politicians sat in the town hall, although they were always a minority group. The book is thus a mix of ‘inside story’ memoir and analysis.

One of my key arguments is that responding to racism and Johnson’s policies does involve many urgent tasks, including the need to speak out for equality and against racial injustice. But this work needs to form part of a long-term project to build up new popular understandings which are also pitched to those people who have supported the right in different forms over the last twenty years.

This isn’t about indulging or mirroring these voters’ current views and understandings. Union Jackery of the kind that was tried – and failed – in Hartlepool, and Blue Labour’s ‘family, faith and flag’ mantras, are sometimes promoted on the grounds that we need to ‘connect’ with people ‘where they are’.

This mixes up and conflates two distinct things: the need to engage with people, and the work of promoting an accurate understanding of current issues and challenges which can be the basis for progressive politics.

This does mean listening to voters we may disagree with, and doing so genuinely, but that is quite a different thing to ‘accepting’ everybody’s views as they are. The road which took Burnley from the 2001 riots to electing its current Tory MP shows the importance of taking up people’s frustrations, concerns and aspirations – and of recasting and developing them into a progressive and positive agenda for change.

Mike Makin-Waite is a member of the Labour Party in Rossendale and Darwen. He is a member of the editorial board of Socialist History.  

There will be an online launch event of On Burnley Road on Wednesday 26 May. Tickets here.

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