Posted on 20 December 2021 in class, democracy, ethics, policing, politics, race, symposia

ISRF Symposium – On Burnley Road: Class, Race and Politics in a Northern English Town

In November 2021, former ISRF Fellow Mike Makin-Waite discussed his book On Burnley Road: Class, Race and Politics in a Northern English Town with Manjeet Ramgotra and Councillor Anwar Afrasiab.

Despoina livieratou

ISRF Academic and Administrative Assistant

How was the emergence of the far right in England experienced at the community level? And what can we learn from this experience about the present moment?

A face-to-face ISRF event in November 2021 brought former ISRF Fellow Mike Makin-Waite together with Manjeet Ramgotra (SOAS University of London) and Councillor Anwar Afrasiab to discuss Mike’s important new book, On Burnley Road: Class, Race and Politics in a northern English Town.

This edited symposium draws together a curated section of the book launch panel, as an aide-mémoire for those present at the event and a resource for those unable to join us. A video recording of the event is available here.

MIKE MAKIN-WAITE:  I’m going to start by thanking Chris and the ISRF for organising the event and for the support the Foundation provided while I was writing the book. I’m of course really pleased to be talking about this book in Burnley—and particularly pleased, as well, that Afrasiab and Manjeet have agreed to open the discussion.

What I try and do in the book is explain, or try to explain, why it is that those politics emerged here. What was the context for those controversial developments? And the main argument that I put forward is that the main context and the driver for it was deindustrialisation, the loss of jobs, the decline of manufacturing, something that had been happening long-term for the so-called traditional industries—cotton goods manufacturing and coal mining—but then happened here in a very concentrated way. Job losses and factory closures were visited on Burnley in a sudden, deliberate, and concentrated way in the 1980s. There’s a description in the book of the numbers of jobs that were lost, good manufacturing jobs—with very few part-time and insecure service sector jobs coming up in their place. 

These kind of resentments, these hurts, were connected to instead by the independents and then by the BNP, they were fostered, and they were articulated into racialised resentments. The explanation for why people felt dislocated and felt change in the town was turned into a negative and divisive politics. It was directed against Asian-heritage residents of this town in relation to initiatives such as regeneration.

Earlier this afternoon I was driving Chris around parts of Burnley, and I was explaining how, in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, one area—Burnley Wood—was being presented as neglected, left out and another area—Stoneyholme and Daneshouse—was being presented by racist politicians as having funds and goods and gold lavished upon it and showered upon it. The areas are similar: the people that live there face similar issues, they are facing the grind of living their lives, holding their jobs, getting their kids educated, and living in housing which is equally good—or equally poor. But divisions between people from these different neighbourhoods—on the basis that some of the residents are Asian-heritage and some are white British—were fostered as a result of those politics in the late 1990s, early 2000s. 

The book also looks at many of the responses that there were to these developments, and I’m really delighted that there’s so many people in this room this evening who personally played a big part in some of those responses. In discussing the response of mainstream political parties, I highlight the way that the Liberal Democrats in the early 2000s repositioned themselves. Having previously really operated under the shadow of the dominant Labour Party, the Lib Dems repositioned themselves as a mainstream alternative to Labour and that actually drew a lot of the votes of people who wanted a different kind of politics in the town. For their part, the Labour Party (of which I’m a member) quite quickly began recognising that we need to connect to the people, that we are seen as not listening to them. So instead of walking away when people say they’re voting BNP, they decided to ask them: why are you voting BNP, what are the frustrations? What are the concerns that are leading you in that direction? 

In the room today, we have trade unionists and others who were involved in grassroots anti-racist initiatives, people who were involved in the voluntary sector, in the town’s interfaith network. I personally focus in the book on the way that Burnley Council, as an organisation, was affected by and responded to these events, including through the housing market renewal programme, ‘Elevate,’ and through innovative community cohesion work. Of course, I was employed at the Council, involved in this work, I was employed in politically restricted posts. While I was doing that work, I did of course have my own political views, questions, confusions running in my head all the time. And what I’ve been able to do with the support of the ISRF is write some of those into the book that we’re talking about tonight. 

I’m conscious that there’ll be many people in this room who won’t share some of the arguments that I’ve put into the book. These included leftist criticisms of the Labour Party, and ongoing opposition to Brexit, which I see as a big mistake, including for this town. You don’t have to, I think, agree with my particular political views to be sympathetic to the main arguments that I’m setting out here. The first one is that what happened in this town in the 2000s was not only significant for Burnley but had national significance. This was a place where some of the themes which have reshaped English and British politics over the last decades first surfaced in their current form. 

I remember that back in the early 2000s, we used to have civil servants and researchers and journalists getting off the train. Many of them assumed that for a town to have had the riots that we suffered, to have far-right politicians on the council, the place must be a basket case. There must have been a catastrophic failure of management, people must not be doing the right things. Not so. Good people were working hard to address this town’s needs. The council was being run in an entirely competent and professional way. But what was really going on, it pains me to say it, was that Burnley had become a precursor, it was a harbinger, a sign of things yet to come, in which politics were going to be increasingly shaped by antipathy to immigration, an antipathy to others, a shallow, narrow conception of nationalism and opposition to something called ‘Europe.’ These themes were then picked up and articulated in slightly more polite forms by UKIP and Nigel Farage and then later fed into the Brexit vote, which was very strong here in Burnley. And of course, those views have now been incorporated into Boris Johnson’s variant of the Conservative Party, which in 2019, had a Member of Parliament elected here representing this town.

The second main argument is that in spite of all those controversial developments, which I see as negative, many of the very positive things that have been pioneered or done well in Burnley are precisely some of the things that need to be done more widely and more deeply in order to move things in the right direction. This includes partnership working between different agencies and between agencies and the community; the way that businesses and voluntary sector organisations and the council and other public sector bodies make the most of the too limited agency and resources which they have, and do their best in spite of very challenging circumstances. It also includes the way in which people in this town say things as they see them—Burnley is a place which benefits from a culture of plain talking and frank exchange of views in order to recognise the challenges that we face and have an honest exchange about them: what are the issues, what are the problems, what shall we do about them? That’s what I wanted to say introducing the book. I’m looking forward to hearing what other speakers are going to say.

MANJEET RAMGOTRA: Thank you very much for inviting me and, Mike, thank you immensely for the book. This is a really important book. It’s fascinating and I highly recommend it. The book brings together meticulous research, combined with personal experience over many years, and a real in-depth understanding of issues and, more importantly, of constituents and the problems that they face regarding unemployment, growing inequality, worsening poverty, blocked ambition, lack of a future vision, and a deep, deep sense of frustration and powerlessness. 

One of the most insightful parts of the book is the very end, where Mike makes some recommendations about how to regain the space that we’ve lost, a space in which we can come together with respect for each other and express our views no matter how opposed and or different these are. Or at least regain the space where we can listen to each other, not necessarily to agree or to overcome the differences, but to hear each other. This is a space that we have lost, in the last five or so years, notably since the Brexit referendum of 2016. But things had been building up to that, where we can’t come together in a common space without tearing each other apart, so to speak. I think it’s really important that we try to regain that space, because our politics has become so polarised that we have lost the capacity to work together and find solidarity. We’re at a very critical moment where we need to be able to work together, to find some sense of solidarity in order to confront the existential crises that we are living through at the present moment. 

I want to talk a little bit about the conclusion of the book, where Mike gives some really positive recommendations about building community and re-building our politics and finding a way forward. He points very concretely to some steps as to how we might regain this and build a politics of respect and solidarity despite our differences. Interestingly, he constructs this through a vision of a more local politics as opposed to a national politics that is often detached from people’s everyday lives. 

First, Mike argues that decision-making ought to be about social reality. It ought to address the real needs of ordinary folk at the grassroots level. It should not be about spinning hypothetical or false narratives, that the rich and powerful want ‘ordinary people’ to buy into in order to maintain their standing and privilege. Rather, there needs to be some sort of a mechanism through which we can hear what those needs are, and deal with the real politics at the grassroots levels. 

Second, he recommends “defending and improving democratic structures”, and maintaining “high standards of office” in order to “rebuild a robust democratic culture that is inclusive, and built up from the local level”. Here I want to pause on the notion of high standards of office. This is significant. For standards of political office have consistently and increasingly been disrespected over the last few years. For instance, over the last few weeks there was the scandal surrounding Owen Paterson, who many people believe was effectively being bribed whilst in office. This level of corruption that we appear to have in the government is something that we need to be able to hold people in power to account over. But we should also to cultivate an ethics of high standards of office. We need to rebuild from the local level, such that people can both access and participate in the democratic process. It is important that it comes from the local level, because that’s where we live and experience politics of the everyday; that is where we confront all of our differences, and so on. 

Mike also recommends, interestingly, proportional voting over the first-pass-the-post system, so that we don’t get governments that represent only a minority of the population and yet have a majority of parliamentary seats. This remains an unresolved issue because although there was a referendum on the Alternative Vote system in 2011, that didn’t result in any changes.

Finally, Mike contends that the effort to rebuild our towns and cities, and of course our democracy, ought to be at the local level, because this is the space in which “diversity and commonality are negotiated.” We understand and know our shared ends at the local level, not in large, autonomous groups involved in the nation. We live and understand our differences in our local communities, and all ought to be welcomed into these public spaces. Or, as Mike puts it: “Any organization and every individual who is prepared to participate should be welcomed in such spaces and supported to take part”. For “democracy consists in difficult conversations, dialogue and learning. It is about finding shared solutions and not sticking to our stances.” 

This is the ground we’ve lost, this ground about finding shared solutions and not sticking to our stances. It’s the ground where we can come together with our differences and listen to each other. But this does require sacrificing our interests. Doing so is required in the interest of the common good. Yet, we need this more than ever, in our present moment of existential crises: climate change, a global pandemic, a politics that is increasingly polarised and where we are unable to share political views without getting into very vociferous arguments. At the same time, Mike insists that “it is through the construction of a collective will through difference, that we need to address racism and class inequality”. And I think that this is key: the idea of being able to come together, articulate our differences, and find a collective way forward, such that we have a collective will and we can live together in solidarity and in peace, with our differences, different ways of being and living. So, thank you very much, Mike, for this really excellent book.

About the Contributors

Mike Makin-Waite was an ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow 2019-2020. He has worked as a youth and community worker in Blackburn, Lancashire; on the Wirral, Merseyside; and as a local government officer in Burnley. From 2002 until 2018, his work for Burnley Council included responsibility for community engagement, ensuring compliance with equalities legislation, and promoting good race relations. Mike holds an MPhil in Sociology (Lancaster University, 1992), and a number of post-graduate professional diplomas.

Manjeet Ramgotra was an ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow 2020-2021. She is also Senior Lecturer in Political Theory in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London (UK) as well as an ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow affiliated with the Department of Politics at QMUL. Her research chronicles a history of republicanism extending from classical European to twentieth-century anti-colonial political thought. She is a strong advocate of decolonising the curriculum and has co-edited a book on Decolonising Curricula and Pedagogy in Higher Education (Routledge, 2021)Currently, she is working on a project on post-colonial republicanism in India and co-editing a political theory textbook called Reconsidering Political Thinkers