This week the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies are running #ReclaimTheAgenda, a social media campaign focusing on overcoming ‘divide and rule’ rhetoric. Such language has long fuelled prejudice and oppression of migrant and black and minority ethnic (BME) people while distracting us from addressing the issues affecting UK’s diverse working class. Brexit is an obvious example. Here Runnymede's Research Analyst Laurie Mompelat introduces the campaign.
This week, we were supposed to leave the European Union, but many of us don’t bother following Brexit news anymore. How jarring it is to be reminded, time and time again, that so much energy has gone into sustaining a process that most of us don’t even understand? How have people’s genuine concerns and voices been silenced into such a historical hijack of the political agenda?
#ReclaimTheAgenda to challenge inequality and prejudice
Regardless of what happens this week, #ReclaimTheAgenda is calling on Government, MPs, media, civil society and all of us, to meaningfully address the inequality, precariousness, prejudice and lack of voice that led us to Brexit in the first place. Each day of our week-long campaign will see one of these key themes - inequality, precariousness, prejudice and lack of voice - being addressed, alongside powerful opinion pieces from working-class and BME-led initiatives across the UK.
We will also be sharing quotes from interviews with diverse working-class communities, alongside recommendations to those in power and useful tools to help organisations and advocates of all kinds, and everyday people, to counter divide and rule narratives.
#ReclaimTheAgenda builds upon Runnymede and CLASS’s five years of work and research in this area, where we have seen a growing gulf between the shared experiences of marginalised communities and a public debate that crystallises these communities as strictly separate.
> Please get involved by sharing the hashtag #ReclaimTheAgenda across your socials
Although different communities face different challenges, funding cuts have slashed the safety net for most of us. This has made engaging with public services an increasingly difficult experience across working-class, migrant and BME communities, as highlighted in our latest report. Yet these communities are often presented as having strictly different interests and experiences.
This feature of our public debate is not only at odds with our history, which tells us that the UK’s working class is and has always been diverse. It also serves clear political purposes and it was crucial in delivering the Brexit referendum result which we still are breathing through today.
So-called ‘working class’ issues were indeed at the forefront of the 2016 referendum campaign. And it could have been for the best. Especially after decades of a political rhetoric championing middle class aspiration as the key ingredient for ‘success’ in society. It's quite the irony, when we know that social mobility has virtually ground to a halt in the UK, according to the Government’s commission on the topic.
Divide and rule tactics dehumanise us
Most of us don’t need numbers to know that for generations, working-class communities have been held back from fulfilling their potential. Working class concerns and realities returning to the front line of the political agenda could have not only brought such injustice to the surface, it could have also forced concrete change to improve the status quo.
But that debate has long been hijacked by immigration-blamers and dog whistlers, as our explainer video highlights. The working class became white and was pitched against those from migrant and black and minority ethnic communities - ‘they’ needed to ‘go home’, so that the real working-class could flourish again.
There is certainly nothing new about such political tactics. ‘Divide and rule’ was widely used during the colonial period to keep workers silenced and disciplined, from the mills of Wigan to the sugarcane fields of Jamaica. And the tragic consequences of such narratives today are becoming more and more obvious: utter Brexit chaos, increased hatred of ethnic minorities, growing racial disparity in policing, and dehumanising Hostile Environment policies leading people with no choice but to take deadly risks to reach this country.
Are we ready to acknowledge that none of the above has improved the conditions of working-class communities, across cultural, religious and geographical backgrounds? Are we ready to accept that we need a drastic U-turn in our narrative? We believe that this shift in our discourse should start with re-centering people’s voices and current conditions at the core of the public debate.
And this is exactly what #ReclaimTheAgenda is about.
Solidarity across difference
Every day, people up and down the country are grafting and pushing back against a status quo that keeps protecting a wealthy few, while most others fight for scraps. People are pushing back in various ways, often away from the spotlight and despite a serious lack of public support. It may be the youth organisation caring for your kid after school, or the BME women’s centre that kept your auntie safe when she needed protection and understanding of her cultural background.
Every day, people are fighting small fights: the heroic juggle to gather the rent, protecting your kids from racist abuse at school, the hustle to get a job when you have the wrong name or the wrong accent. Where have these issues gone from the agenda?
Brexit or not, we are asking for concrete action for us to start rebuilding society for good. We want class and racial justice now, and we are standing up against those trying to tell us that these are separate struggles. In the face of the tremendous challenges at the turn of this decade - climate collapse, rising far-right populism - what we need more than ever is solidarity across difference.
Pic: The Grunwick Strike - Jayaben Desi leading a strike of South Asian women in London in 1977
Pic credit: Unison Flickr