Lessons from Burnley

Mike Phipps reviews On Burnley Road: Class, race and politics in an English Northern Town, by Mike Makin-Waite, published by Lawrence & Wishart

“For a few years, from 2001, Burnley became a focus of national debate on race relations and related social issues. Over the last weekend of June that year, the place where l lived and worked was one of the English northern towns that saw large-scale disturbances, often described as the worst ‘race riots’ in Britain for a generation.” So opens Mike Makin-Waite’s book On Burnley Road.

The following May, the far-right British National Party won three seats on Burnley Council – the first time it had ever returned a group of councillors. In 2003, it increased its representation to eight councillors, becoming the second largest party in Burnley town hall.

This book explores what led up to these events and what came out of them. Many of these issues have since become highly salient in parts of northern England: “antipathy to immigration and to Europe; racialised issues in housing and education; deepening poverty and inequality; the influence of racist, far-right populist politics; and the ongoing distrust of politicians and democratic process that informed the 2016 Brexit vote, and that has not been dispelled during the Covid-19 situation.”

One expression of all these problems is a profound crisis of support for the Labour Party in its ‘traditional heartlands’. In the 2019 general election, Burnley went Conservative for the first time in a century.  Events that were seen as exceptional twenty years ago by condescending Westminster politicians now seem portentous.

Mike Makin-Waite grew up in Blackburn, which also had its problems with fascist councillors in the 1970s, and worked for Burnley Council from the mid-1990s, most recently with responsibility for promoting good race relations in the town. He believes local authorities are well placed to help address divisive social attitudes, but neither the leadership nor the funding are always available.

His book traces the history of the town, the importance of the cotton industry and the impact of post-war immigration from the Indian sub-continent.  He notes that while some commentators stress that migrants came to help build up Britain’s post-war economy,  this positive association between immigration and prosperity applied less to east Lancashire, where Asian immigrants worked in the declining cotton sector, and were thus  associated for some with the problem of decline.

During the 1970s, employment in cotton goods manufacturing fell from 83,580 to 32,440 nationally. The same employers who had issued their workers with placards to protest with, reading ‘Keep Weaving – Buy British’, now declared they had ‘no choice’ but to transfer remaining production overseas, where wages might be one-tenth of what Lancashire workers were paid.  Meanwhile union officials colluded with management in more prosperous areas of employment to operate a colour bar against migrant applicants, and later a quota system.

In the 1980s, Thatcherite deindustrialisation “fragmented and disorganised the working class as it had been constituted across the post-war decades.”  Employment in manufacturing fell from 6.8 million workers in 1979 to 2.5 million by 2010. Globalisation was blamed more often than government policy.  Makin-Waite notes:

“Individualist consumerism was now promoted as the way to give life meaning, but across inner-urban Burnley, where 42 per cent of children were eligible for free school meals (compared to 18 per cent nationally), this was more of an insult than an option.”

By the start of the 21st century, Burnley was in the top 50 most deprived districts in the country (today it’s in the top ten). High unemployment, crime, neighbourhood abandonment were all features of this.

Long before the far right got representatives elected in Burnley, at least one Labour councillor was pressurising officers not to house “unsuitable” – in other words, ethnic minority – applicants in council housing in his ward. To Labour’s credit, he was expelled from the Party for his racist behaviour, but went on to retain his seat in 1998 as an Independent. Other Independent defectors from Labour joined him with a similar outlook.  Meanwhile, notes Makin-Waite, “the local press promoted the myth that unfairly disproportionate funding was ‘going to Asians’: resentment sells newspapers.”

These resentments, invariably based on inaccurate information, as well as divisions within Burnley’s ethnic minority communities, helped construct racialized political identities in the town.  A New Labour government at national level was of little help: “By 2001, Burnley was the only district council in the country whose government-fixed Standard Spending Assessment was lower than it had been in 1993.” Between 1997 and 2002, Labour lost 37 per cent of its members in the north west.

The BNP’s rise was rapid. From May 1999 to the end of the year, the party went from two to 200 registered supporters. Strangely, the June 2001 riots that gave them an electoral foothold in the town were sparked not by a racial assault involving whites and Asians as originally rumoured – the actual incident was between two Asian men and was “in no way racial”, according to the police.

What followed certainly was, with football hooligans smashing the windows of the Indian restaurant, Asian-owned taxi offices and fast-food outlets. Residents noticed that the selective targeting of premises was organised by ‘strangers’, white men from outside the area, according to the subsequent Burnley Task Force Report.

Asians fought back. An estimated 400 people took part in the days of rioting. Two- thirds of those arrested were white, but the media focused on confrontations between Asians and police. Academics were quick to shoehorn the events into their own theories, but the outbreak of serious unrest in Bradford that summer quickly shifted their attention from the specifics of Burnley.  

But it was in Burnley that the BNP began to hone its carefully crafted message: for freedom (defined in terms of opposition to the European Union), democracy (against immigration), security (from crime and the effects of globalisation) and identity. With 1,000 local members by May 2002, the Party took three council seats – and turnout was high. Makin-Waite comments: “Tabloids that had spent years stirring prejudice against immigrants and refugees now attacked Burnley as ‘Britain’s Race Hate Capital’.”

Burnley was widely ‘othered’ as a problem place. “Whitehall representatives dispatched to Burnley seemed to have already formed the view that the far right breakthrough must reflect catastrophic failures in local civic leadership, rather than recognising Burnley as a kind of social microcosm, simply the first location to bring to the surface trends and issues that would soon become more widespread.”

The traditional anti-racist response, that the BNP were just a bunch of Nazi thugs, failed to cut through against the more sophisticated electoral approach Griffin’s party was now trying out. Later, the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight advised that campaigners against the BNP should “establish their own local identity.”  But this would take time. Meanwhile, a year later the BNP increased its representation on Burnley Council from three to eight, the second biggest group in the Town Hall.

And they were building on their success in other ways. The party claimed that Asians had preferential treatment in a range of job, housing and funding opportunities. The Sun, possibly briefed by the Conservative Research Department, enquired if Burnley Council wasn’t putting up a Christmas tree one year because it had a Muslim mayor – not true. More sinister: children throwing stones at taxis being driven by Asian men said they were being given cash by men to do so.

As someone in charge of community cohesion in the aftermath of these events, Makin-Waite saw real progress in council approaches and local attitudes over time. In 2004, a high-profile councillor left the BNP, and although the party was not finished elsewhere, in Burnley it lost momentum – partly due to the local Labour Party making serious efforts to engage with voters and drive a wedge between them and the BLP leadership.

The lessons the author draws from all this are important. The BNP did not emerge out of nowhere. “If Tories and tabloids had created the broad framework for such views, New Labour’s response could be taken as confirming the choices voters were making.” Its Home Secretary declared children of asylum seekers were “swamping” Britain’s schools, a ploy which gave the far right further legitimacy.

Second, while not all BNP voters should be simply dismissed as racist, Makin-Waite believes it is equally mistaken to misrepresent their concerns as simply about jobs or housing. The ambiguities in their outlooks can be an opportunity to advance progressive politics, but there is nothing progressive about the BNP vote, however anti-establishment it may appear.  One phrase used relentlessly by the BNP and later taken up in the mainstream media is the notion of a ‘white working class’, a bastard concept that does not describe reality so much as construct it, with its racializing, essentialising and generalising dimensions.

As Reni Eddo-Lodge has argued: “Affixing the word ‘white’ to the phrase ‘working class’ suggests that these people face structural disadvantage because they are white, rather than because they are working class. These are newly regurgitated old fears of white victimhood, fears that suggest that the real recipients of racism are white people, and that this reverse racism happens because of the unfair ‘special treatment’ that black people receive.”

Third, engaging with far right voters does not mean making policy concessions. The re-emergence of ‘Blue Labour’ thinking under Keir Starmer, emphasising nationalism and cultural conservatism, is ultimately patronising and will not help the Party win back the ‘red wall’, as recent results show.

Local authorities, concludes the author, can play a vital role in strengthening democratic structures. But their capacity to do so is undermined by the relentless cuts in central government funding and outsourcing of services that renders them unaccountable.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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