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Does Burnley have a racism problem?

Engaging with the problems of post-industrial England requires more than a simplistic analysis that divides people into ‘the enlightened or the uneducated,’ writes LAURA BRIGGS

THE “White Lives Matter” banner flown over the Etihad by Burnley fans at the recent Premier League fixture between Manchester City and Burnley has reignited claims that the town has a racism problem.

The banner, organised by a handful of Burnley fans, provoked significant backlash. 

As with the widespread condemnation of working-class towns who voted to leave the EU, scores of people lined up to denounce Burnley and its people as backwards and racist. 

No doubt there are pockets of overt racism in the town, but the majority fall into the “All Lives Matter” camp and are critical of all social justice movements.

There is no denying that Burnley has had significant flirtations with far-right nationalist groups over the years. 

In the 2002 local elections, the BNP gained three council seats in Burnley and gained a further seven the following year. 

The 2005 general election saw the BNP gain 10 per cent of Burnley’s vote share.

Since then, Ukip has picked up several seats on the council, having established a base of support in many working-class towns. 

Even more recently, the Brexit Party took almost 40 per cent of the vote share in the 2019 EU elections, and the Tories took the town’s safe Labour seat in the 2019 general election.

So how has a small mill town in Lancashire strayed so far from the labour movement?

Manufacturing makes up almost a quarter of Burnley’s total job share, making it the highest proportion of manufacturing of any town in the country. 

Others with a high proportion include Derby, Telford, Sunderland, Hull, Blackburn, Mansfield, Rochdale, Huddersfield and Grimsby.

By modern, neoliberal standards, these towns are not productive. No British city with over 10 per cent of its job share in manufacturing met the national average in gross value added (GVA). 

Conversely, the top 10 areas for productivity have the lowest share in manufacturing jobs. 

Instead, their service-based economies are dominated by digital and creative; financial services; legal and business services; biotech companies; and headquarters or subsidiaries of foreign-owned multinational companies. 

These quaternary-sector industries — which provide abstract, knowledge-based services — are able to completely detach the exchange-value of these services from the labour power required to produce them. 

As a result, the surplus value (or gross value added) that can be extracted from these industries is phenomenal.

It is unsurprising, then, that the manufacturing towns — whose labour produces the least surplus value — consistently rank among those most ravaged by austerity. 

Correspondingly, they also tend to appear much higher in the nation’s deprivation index than their more productive counterparts.

Post-industrial towns like Burnley, which still cling to their manufacturing economies, are victims of neoliberal policy which deliberately siphons funding away from areas that are the least productive and producing the least profit. This is poverty by design.

In metropolitan cities like Manchester, significant private investment and the growth of start-ups has resulted in mass gentrification. 

Visibly, the city is booming. Suited yuppies, new-build apartment blocks and glass-fronted skyscrapers all suggest economic prosperity. 

But in reality, Mancunians are increasingly being forced into outlying areas of Greater Manchester whose councils are facing the brunt of funding cuts — Rochdale, Bury, Oldham, etc.

Meanwhile in Burnley (listed the second most deprived in the country, according to Mirror statistics), cuts to public services are not offset by private investment. 

Instead, the town suffers continuous economic decline. Residents are not being forced out, but instead watch public services diminish around them. 

Burnley — a town which has never know prosperity, even when it formed part of the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution — is home to the downtrodden and unheard working class.

So, when Black Lives Matter — an international solidarity movement which has again gained momentum after the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota law enforcement — leads to widespread discussion of white privilege, the residents of post-industrial, working-class towns like Burnley understandably fail to see how their lot in life is any better. 

They are affronted by calls to rally around a cause originating thousands of miles away as their experiences much closer to home have consistently affirmed that their lives don’t matter either.

Members of the forgotten working class, who work hard for their families, resent the intrusion of politics into their limited free time. 

Social justice politics seems a complete irrelevance to those whose are living pay-cheque to pay-cheque — possibly saving up for relative luxuries or holidays which give the illusion of a decent standard of living. 

Those who admonish the working class for not heeding calls for unity are perceived as patronising and obnoxious.

Already, the Premier League’s anti-racism and anti-homophobia campaigns (Kick It Out and Rainbow Laces) are met with hostility. 

Rather than display explicitly racist or homophobic attitudes, fans often reject these campaigns on the basis that political agendas are being forced into their traditions and pastimes. 

They recognise that their cause is not picked up by institutions, corporations and political movements with the same vigour, and they begrudge this disparity.

The left must abandon the moralism which attempts to guilt the working class into solidarity with “goodies and baddies,” “wokes and racists,” “enlightened and uneducated” rhetoric. 

Similarly, socialists must move beyond the assumption that the tokenistic worker narrative will undo decades of distrust in these communities. 

If proponents of mass political movements like Black Lives Matter are to find allies in the working class of northern England, they must demonstrate a real understanding of their social, cultural, economic and historical position — far beyond a simplistic anti-austerity, working-class unity message.

Virtue-signalling moral outrage on social media is easy; a rigorous analysis of the socio-economic conditions which breed these attitudes is much harder.

Laura Briggs is a Burnley fan and season ticket holder.

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