Reviews > Books
25 July 2021
On Burnley Road: Class, Race and Politics in a Northern English Town
by Mike Makin-Waite
David Purdy writes on politics and economics and is a member of Democratic Left Scotland.
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Lessons from the life of a northern English town
Twenty years ago Burnley was beset by civil disturbances and the rise of the far right. David Purdy applauds an insider account of attempts to deal with town’s problems and the lessons to be learned in the promised era of “levelling up”
OVER a hot, sticky weekend in June 2001, the East Lancashire town of Burnley was rocked by a series of civil disturbances, involving violent clashes between white and Asian young men. Luckily, no one was killed and the police eventually managed to restore order, though not before people had been injured, buildings fire-bombed, cars torched and windows smashed. There had been similar disturbances in nearby Oldham in the spring and more were to follow later that summer across the Pennines in Bradford. For the communities concerned, the experience was traumatic, leaving a legacy of anger, resentment, tension and mistrust that took years to overcome. In Bradford, the emotional scars and social damage were compounded by the harsh prison sentences meted out to young Asians convicted of criminal offences in the course of what became known as the “northern riots” or sometimes “race riots”.
The following May, the far-right British National Party (BNP) won three seats on Burnley Council, an electoral breakthrough that triggered a marked deterioration in local race relations. “Racists were emboldened; hate crimes increased; and concerns and antipathies that had previously been expressed behind closed doors, or in coded and muted ways, were now stated openly, bluntly and rudely” (p11). In 2003, the BNP increased its representation to eight councillors, becoming the second largest party in the town hall. This proved to be the peak of its success. Nevertheless, the party continued to win seats and maintained a presence on the council until 2011.
Drawing on his experience as Burnley Council’s officer responsible for promoting good race relations, Mike Makin-Waite seeks to explain what led to these events, what came of them and why they still matter, not just in Burnley, but for everyone in these islands. His account of a turbulent period in the life of a northern English town is at once judicious and engaging. But the book is far more than a personal memoir and local case study. The story it tells is set against the background of the large historical forces that have shaped and reshaped our economy, politics and culture over the past 250 years: the industrial revolution, the struggle for democracy, the growth and decline of empire, two world wars, the post-war settlement and the neo-liberal revolution that destroyed it, ushering in the deregulated, financialised, globalised and crisis-prone form of capitalism that dominates our lives today.
At the same time, the author refuses to see people as mere victims or puppets of forces beyond their control, and pays close attention to the manifold ways in which, for good or ill, we all try to make sense of our lives and circumstances, while thinkers and ideologues of various stripes vie for our hearts and minds, and political actors, competing for power, solicit our support. Or as Karl Marx nearly said, we make our own history, but not in conditions of our choosing.
“Red-wall” blues and the politics of New Labour
The combination of deep historical perspective with an open-ended and agent-centred sociology provides a powerful set of tools for exploring the dynamics of class, race and politics in a “red-wall” town. Burnley’s cotton-masters once boasted that their mills produced more cloth than anywhere else in the world, and the parliamentary constituency returned Labour MPs at every general election from 1910 to 2005. In 2010, thanks in part to tactical voting, the seat fell to the Lib Dems, but in 2015 reverted to Labour, who narrowly retained it two years later. In between these last two elections, the EU referendum marked a turning point. Having backed Brexit by two to one, in 2019 Burnley’s voters returned a Conservative MP for the first time since the “Khaki” election of 1900.
Places like Burnley are often regarded as anachronisms: on the edges of modern multicultural and global Britain; inward- and backward-looking; left behind. But Makin-Waite argues that while Burnley is the archetypal de-industrialised town, blighted by long-standing structural problems of poverty and deprivation, its recent history can also be be seen as a microcosm of wider political battles and realignments unfolding across England over the past twenty years. The failures of the Labour Party, and of New Labour in particular – with its metropolitan complacency, embrace of globalism and ill-judged reliance on an over-extended and under-regulated financial sector – created a political vacuum, which was filled by successive incarnations of the far right: the National Front, the BNP, UKIP and the English Defence League.
Labour’s confused and uncertain response to the “northern riots”, at both local and national levels, illustrates what went wrong. In Burnley, even before the events of 2001, some Labour councillors had already left the party and got themselves re-elected as “Independents” on a platform designed to appeal to the town’s “white working class”, claiming that Asians were being given preferential access to council services and resources. In the immediate aftermath of the riots, the ruling Labour group had little to offer beyond the hope that a re-elected Labour government would provide more funds for community regeneration and school-building programmes. The government, for its part, commissioned a panel chaired by Ted Cantle, formerly CEO of Nottingham City Council, to investigate the causes of the riots and recommend appropriate action.
The Cantle report confirmed an emerging official view that there were problems with the long-established policy framework known as multiculturalism. Asian and white people in towns like Burnley were living “parallel lives”, in which “both communities” were concerned with the same issues – housing, jobs, education and health – yet because there was little meaningful contact between them, anxiety, resentment and hostility had developed. Accordingly, a new approach was needed, aimed at building “community cohesion”. This called for interaction between minority ethnic groups and the majority population in order to create a shared sense of belonging and civic pride, underpinned by institutions and norms that conveyed a clear understanding of “what it means to be a citizen of a modern multiracial Britain.”
“Cantle” stimulated a range of practical initiatives and, as an overall policy paradigm, remains in place to this day, with minor changes of emphasis and the word “cohesion” replaced by “integration”. When it was issued, however, the report sparked heated controversy. New Labour politicians who either misunderstood or misrepresented its diagnosis and prescriptions, “ ... tried to explain the riots as the result of cultural difference rather than the economic deprivation that was manifest in the three towns involved” (p 125). The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, even insisted that “immigrants” needed to understand “British values” and learn the English language.* Not surprisingly, these views drew strong criticism from anti-racist and left-wing activists, who objected to the idea that cultural diversity, not industrial decline and institutional racism, had caused tensions in northern towns, and saw the stress on “culture” as opposed to “structure” as a way of blaming the victims. Neither the government nor its critics seemed to appreciate that what towns like Burnley needed was not just decent jobs, better housing and new schools, but also a coherent and sustained plan for restoring civic morale and building bridges between their divided communities.
Lessons of Burnley’s peace process
Despite this sterile wrangling, one of New Labour’s other main policy preoccupations proved to be an unexpected boon. The government was constantly pressing local authorities and public agencies to find ways of improving service provision and tackling social challenges. As Burnley Council began to come to terms with the emergence of the far right, it hit upon a pioneering response. The council’s leader and chief executive were persuaded to invite Mediation Northern Ireland (MNI), a body which had developed through the peace process, to help the council and community groups open up and manage debates around racialised conflicts, with particular reference to housing regeneration and admissions to secondary schools. The “good relations programme” got under way in 2004. There were structured discussions with opinion formers, preparatory meetings with people MNI wanted to engage in dialogue, and training for local workers and volunteers, including community activists, youth workers, council officers and housing association staff.
Once the groundwork had been laid, the “big debates” began. These were often highly charged. Some brought together BNP activists with representatives of local mosques. As Makin-Waite notes (p178), “ ‘Peacebuilding’ can sound cosy and fluffy. It is not. There’s little point in bringing together people who already agree with each other or who feel relaxed together.” To be sure, the process can be eased by friendly warm-ups, informal humour and the provision of good food eaten in convivial surroundings. And the sharp edges of mutual antipathy and suspicion can be blunted by sticking to firm protocols for debate, making use of role-playing exercises and dividing participants into small, mixed discussion groups. But the point of all these devices is to encourage “active listening” so as to establish a context in which awkward questions can be raised and preconceptions challenged. The MNI facilitators got people thinking critically about the conditions and determinants shaping their lives. One of their key principles was curiosity: why do people act and feel as they do? Their questions stimulated interest in how we conceptualise our social worlds, and this in turn led to reflection on what happens when we interact with people whose multi-layered identities are different from ours and whom we see as “other”. It also provided opportunities to highlight the unseen market forces and opaque corporate decisions that can bring prosperity or ruin to places like Burnley, prompting the question, “What is ‘the economy’ for?”, just as a visitor from Whitehall once had the effrontery to ask Makin-Waite and his colleagues, “What is Burnley for?”
The aim of civic mediation, as practised by MNI, is not to avoid hard talk or produce a bland consensus, but to create a culture of civility which enables people from different social backgrounds to explain to each other why they favour particular policies and practices, and to develop the skills of negotiation and compromise that enable us to live together. It works best in situations where, as in Belfast and Burnley, a residential community is divided by a single ethnic fault-line, though it connects to the idea of “conviviality”, a term used by writers such as Paul Gilroy to describe how everyday social encounters are handled in ”super-diverse”, cosmopolitan cities. Civic mediation is not a panacea and requires sustained commitment and effort, as well as adequate funding. Burnley’s “good relations programme” petered out once the “age of austerity” began in 2010.**
Nevertheless Burnley’s experience shows what can be done to reduce racial antagonisms, repair the social fabric and re-invigorate local democracy. This rich and moving account of that experience is required reading for anyone who wants to understand why, over the past decade, England has re-enacted what Stuart Hall, writing in 1980, called The Great Moving Right Show, and is willing to question received wisdom about how to deal with racists, nativists and national-populists.
* According to the 2001 Census, the number of Burnley residents who were of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage was 7,371– just over 8% of the total population. Of this number, 5,423 – nearly three quarters – were born in Britain. As Makin-Waite notes, whatever else they lacked, the young Asian men who burned out the Duke of York pub had no trouble speaking English. Conversely, Blunkett’s nativist language betrays a lamentable failure in a Labour Home Secretary to appreciate the distinction between integration and assimilation.
** Burnley Council’s already inadequate core funding from Whitehall was slashed from £15.2 million in 2010 to £9.6 million in 2015.