Injustice in post-industrial communities

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Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Simon Duffy is founder and director of the Centre for Welfare Reform. He works as a consultant and researcher with local social innovators and national governments and is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Health Service Management Centre. Simon spoke at last month’s conference “A future for post-industrial communities.” The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the University of Leeds.

Photograph of a lecture theatre at the Post Industrial Conference

The Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC), Leeds Social Sciences Institute (LSSI) and the charity Hope Not Hate came together to run an exciting cross-disciplinary event last month: A Future for Post-Industrial Communities.

The event was lively, stimulating and wove together a vast array of information, helped by the use of the PechaKucha format (where each speaker uses 20 slides, with each slide lasting 20 seconds), which forced all the presenters to concentrate their presentations to an essential minimum.

The central focus of the two days of discussion was the fate of the many towns and villages across the North, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales where heavy industry or mining had once been dominant. Where once the Labour Party was strong in these communities, now there is growing support for UKIP and a strong vote for Brexit.

Academic research presented on the day demonstrated that, contrary to the stereotypes, in these places people worked hard and took care of each other, but struggled with low pay, job insecurity, benefit sanctions and growing poverty. Today the UK is one of the most unequal countries in Europe with regards to wealth, and these communities are on the wrong side of that inequality. 

Many of the conference participants also noted that that these communities also lack power. The UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world and in these places people have minimal democratic control and minimal representation in London. They seem abandoned by mainstream politics. Moreover social structures, the meeting places, pubs, churches, working men’s clubs and leisure facilities have all declined, meaning people have fewer opportunities to meet, organise or advocate for themselves. Poverty has been privatised.

These facts are rarely discussed and the assumption is that these places are now client states (areas that rely on other states for support), dependent on subsidies from London. The truth is very different. For instance, if you calculate public spending in Barnsley, it is £0.84 billion less than what you’d expect if you divided all UK public spending equally by head of population.

The negative consequences of these overlapping injustices are severe and include much lower life expectancy. Yet none of this should be seen as inevitable; it was encouraging to hear at the event that in other countries, like Germany, industrial change has not led to these kinds of problems. Communities can be supported to develop and to get back on their feet. 

A further concern was that racism can feed off these social injustices. Speakers from Hope Not Hate shared their experiences of successfully over-turning prejudice in local communities where racists had exploited people’s fears and anger. But this also raised the question of what comes first: racism or injustice. And if, as most agreed, injustice comes first, how are we to understand and challenge that injustice.

Over the course of these two days I found my head whirling with competing categories and different understandings of social justice. Victims and perpetrators often seem to change places and people were forced to wear or to shed the group identities that mattered to some theory, but possibly not to people themselves:

  • White working class men are seen by some as a threat
  • White working class men are seen by others as victims
  • But do white working class men really exist?
  • Whose interests does this identity serve? Probably not the people shoehorned into it.

Clearly some identities matter because others have chosen to use those identities for the purpose of scapegoating or vile attack. Categories like race, disability or native country become desperately important if others are using these categories hatefully. Yet we may think that these identities shouldn’t be important. It is injustice itself that has made them relevant.

For some at the event, these problems are a function of capitalism. For others they are a function of class and elitism. Others stressed the organisation of power and the dominance of London and the big cities. Others looked back to the securities provided by large or nationalised industries; while some looked forward to new forms of cooperative enterprise or community action.

What is critical here seems to be our sense of what is that actual reform or action that will reduce injustice. Politicians talk about ‘investment’ in these communities, but, reasonable as this seems, the reality is more complex. Often it amounts to no more than selling off our assets, our industries and our people. In Salford increased investment led to new offices and BBC premises, but local people saw no improvements. Increasingly housing policies has disconnected people from their communities, forcing people to move out just as the money comes in. We cannot assume that places and people are connected if people have no right to stay in their home communities.

Some conference participants, but not all, were attracted to the idea that power and money must belong to the community. Only if people can make their own decisions, shape their communities around their own assets and goals, can communities flourish. Others preferred the idea of national industries and even greater central control. Some were understandably suspicious that governments will exploit localism and asset-based approaches in order to disguise the structural injustices created by their own policies.

Perhaps one telling trend was the agreement across a range of speakers that change must begin by listening to and empowering communities. The Labour Party, trade unions, Citizens UK and Hope Not Hate have all made community organising a central plank of their strategies. 

However this reinforces the need for more thinking about devolution in the UK. If we need to listen more, then this suggests that the current system is badly designed and people are not given the opportunity to be heard. If local communities are given more power, but the financial settlements are unfair, then this will just increase injustice. If devolution means merging large local authorities into even larger areas, under the control of one mayor, then the powerlessness of smaller communities will only increase.

This two day conference did not resolve these issues, but it was certainly one of the richest discussions that I’ve been involved in. Brexit seems an unfortunate backwards step for the UK; but if it forces us to pay more attention to the deep and underlying injustices in the UK today then it will have at least one positive consequence.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.