New Myths of the East End

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Racial divisions in East London are exacerbated by state welfare provision that benefits Bangladeshi migrants at the expense of the white working class - or so says a new report. Chris Jones uncovers the hidden hand of neo-liberal ideology.

In common with many social science undergraduates in the early 1970s, I read Peter Willmott and Michael Young's Family and Kinship in East London. Published in 1957, it was regarded as one of the classics of British urban sociology. Although I cannot recall in fine detail all of its arguments, the book was one of the few around at that time which gave space to the varied voices of the working class in east London. It revealed the importance of family and kinship for those who lived in a part of London which for 100 years or more had exemplified many of the inhumanities of British capitalism - especially the casualised labour market of the docks. For us budding social scientists, the book was a rich learning source which taught us the values of ethnography and the richness of local studies, as well as a source of debate concerning the dangers associated with over-romanticising the solidarities of life among some of the poorest in society. The recently published The New East End comes out of the Young Foundation, the direct successor to the Institute of Community Studies which was responsible for Family and Kinship. The authors clearly hope that it will become as significant as its predecessor volume in shaping contemporary understanding of working class life, not only in east London but in cities and towns across Britain today.

The authors make much of this book's relationship with Family and Kinship. They present it in very large measure as an update, 50 years on from the original, and constantly refer to their project as a "restudy", drawing on the same methodology and research tools. However, one does not have to proceed far into the text to see that it is a quite different project with quite different objectives. The book's first sentence, in the authors' note, is revealing: "This is neither an academic textbook nor a government report, but a fairly general study of how life has changed over the last half century in London's East End." Although it is plainly not a government report, the note about it not being an academic text but a fairly general study suggests that we should not be too concerned about its lack of rigour.

But this is not a fairly general study of changes in east London. Rather it quickly unfolds into being a highly contentious tract which seizes on one of the most self-evident changes in Tower Hamlets - namely the arrival of a significant Bangladeshi community - to argue that British society is at great risk from a generous and highly centralised state welfare system. Controlled and orchestrated by a "ruling class" which is never defined but certainly seems to include most welfare professionals, this welfare system is deemed to fuel white racism (and, they argue, makes racism an understandable reaction). In time, the welfare system will also strip the Bangladeshi population of their positive characteristics and trap them in servile dependency. While Tower Hamlets is the specific location under question, the threats and problems, which are so apparent to Geoff Dench and his co-authors, are considered to be of more national importance and threaten multi-cultural Britain as a whole.

So this is no simple update of Family and Kinship, and it is certainly no academic text - it is a fullblooded polemic in a neo-liberal tradition.

Welfare as the problem

One of The New East End's key arguments is that the British welfare system has greatly advantaged the incoming Bangladeshi community, allowing for its largely successful settlement in Tower Hamlets over the past 30 years. It has simultaneously worked against the indigenous white working class, which in turn has fuelled their racism and antagonism. This theme is developed with particular reference to housing, education and social security policies. In making their argument they maintain that, contrary to progressive opinion which dismisses white racism as abhorrent and irrational, racism is in fact nothing of the kind. Rather, it is rooted in a critique of contemporary social policy which needs to be taken seriously:

"... the new principle appears to serve the interests of recent migrants as effectively as those of longer-standing residents. Indeed, as recent migrants to Bethnal Green have tended to be more needy, their needs have taken priority. We argue in Chapter 11 that the indigenous working class understand this all too easily, and this feeds their hostility towards migrants. They see the(ir) welfare state as having been adapted to suit migrants and morally undermined in the process."

Moreover, it is argued that these antagonisms are exacerbated by state welfare professionals: "'middle class do-gooders' are stoking the flames of communal tension by favouring newcomers against 'local' people".

The power accorded to welfare professionals such as social workers is awesome - they have even managed to "usurp" the authority of mothers and older women. However, it would seem that the Bangladeshis in east London have yet to feel this power, as their family ties are still robust, but "as time passes those who stay poor here should expect to find that the operation of the contemporary welfare state increasingly comes into conflict for them too with the maintenance of an active and fulfilling and supportive family life".

It is not altogether a surprise to find that given their enormous power, these state workers - who, apparently, were once trusted by the white working class - are described as the "political elite" and even the "ruling class". Moreover, they argue, the dismemberment of the British empire and the arrival of a "varied assortment of minorities in the metropolis prompted an alliance between the emerging intellectual and political elite and the traditional apologists for empire".

"This formed around an aspiration to turn Britain into a multiracial, multicultural society which would use liberal and social democratic institutions to govern a diverse population. Looked at this way, the new Britain provided an opportunity to make amends for the sins of previous empire in some style. Thus the creation of such a society soon became an important national goal. It now serves as Britain's distinctive rationale in the current world order, and in many respects can be considered a success."

No matter that such a view seems fanciful in the extreme, and certainly lacking in any substantive support - the authors contend that it is "pulling us into an increasingly polarised and unstable society, in which small groups feel powerless to resist the influence of mass, impersonal forces". As ever, it is state welfare to blame. It is over-centralised, bureaucratic and faceless. Worse still, it is deemed to be governed by principles that allow the most recent migrants to be entitled to generous benefits on the basis of need rather than on the grounds of contribution. According to the authors, this is the key to successful settlement of migrants:

"Some of our informants told us they believe that in Britain in recent years this has been reversed. The rights of immigrants and even of potential immigrants - who have yet to enter the system or even think about doing so - sometimes seem to them to be given greater moral weight than those of families who have been here for generations. The message that this sends them is that national resources no longer belong in any real sense to them as citizens of the nation, but are in the gift of the ruling class. So instead of feeling that they are at the centre of the nation, they feel more than just not championed by the elite, but actually pushed away by it. This is a prescription for mass civic insecurity."

Successful settlement, therefore, is something that needs to be earned by the new migrants. And the problem in Britain is that we have generous provision of benefits that are offered on the basis of need rather than by being earned through hard work. Not only does this cause understandable resentment among the white working class, it also undermines the migrants by locking them into state dependency underclass status:

"... we should not neglect here the extent to which the experience of generous state welfare benefits can distort newcomers' view of life in Britain, and their aspirations. In their own countries of origin, there may be few or no public supports available for its own citizens, let alone new migrants. The scale of material help given to them in Britain can lead them to believe that Britain must be enormously rich, which of course as a nation it is. However, many of them do not understand that there are many ordinary Britons - above all in their own locality - who do not live well, and may have a rational basis for resenting the competition arising from their arrival."

How it is possible for migrants to hold such views when living in Tower Hamlets is not made clear, but the target is clear - the current culture of entitlement has to be curbed, and there has to be a revival of reciprocity in which the family is once again restored to centre stage. The key to this, it seems, is the small family business!

Flawed and distorted

As with so many neo-liberal critiques of welfare, The New East End is characterised by exaggeration and an extraordinary disregard for history. There is now a huge literature on British welfare which details, from a variety of political perspectives, the contested nature of its development over the past 150 years. The shifts and trajectories are now widely recognised as being rooted in the changing politics of class, race and gender - but, above all, the ups and downs of capitalism.

Even a meagre attention to this literature would alert any reader to the paradoxical relationship between the working class and state welfare. The working class as a whole has rarely benefited unconditionally from advances in state welfare. Even the NHS, arguably the most popular part of all state welfare provision, disproportionally benefits the middle and upper classes.

But for great tracts of state welfare provision, class, race and gender divisions were deliberately exacerbated as a means of exercising social control and undermining more generalised class conflict.

Certainly any notion that state welfare somehow belonged to the working class - was their welfare - is largely fanciful. Even in the few years following the end of the Second World War, only a fraction of the working class viewed state welfare in this way. The New East End makes much of the way that the post-1945 welfare state was viewed by the white working class as a reward for their sacrifice during the war - an effort exemplified by the way that the East End bore the brunt of the Blitz. According to the authors, the war was mentioned on many ("many" is a much-used term in this text) occasions to explain white resentment to the Bangladeshi people who were deemed to have no comparable war record to merit their entitlements. This is a very specific and unusual reading of the post-1945 welfare reforms and demands far greater analysis, especially as it was a line peddled by the fascists in local elections. But then The New East End assiduously ignores any reference to influences, such as the tabloids or right wing groups, which might shape some of the white responses to the Bangladeshi settlement of the area.

Notwithstanding that some sections of the working class might feel that the welfare state was an unconditional gain - for the poorest, and those who had the most tenuous links with the labour market, state welfare has often been experienced as abusive, controlling and highly insensitive to their needs. Moreover, for this section of the working class - well represented in the East End of London - state welfare workers have rarely been considered to be "on their side", and are more commonly deemed to be part of the problem. The idea that it is only recent state welfare practice which is promoting distrust is demonstratively incorrect.

Again, any passing familiarity with British social policy would dent notions of its generosity. On virtually every indicator of social provision, ranging from pensions to social security, Britain features well down all the league tables when compared to similar advanced capitalist societies - British social policy simply does not do generosity. Instead, it shares with the book's authors Dench et al the notion that without the spur of hardship, the spectre of dependency would shroud all those who have no means to survive other than their capacity to work for wages. In The New East End, however, the impression is given that state welfare has become increasingly generous and extensive in recent years, with welfare professionals enjoying ever greater power.

With colleagues from the University of Liverpool, I am interviewing a wide variety of users of state welfare. The very notion "user" has become problematic because so few are able to access any but the most minimal services from the state, despite acute need. We are continually regaled with accounts of ever more stringent eligibility criteria and humiliating processes which block access to state welfare. These realities, and the scandal of unclaimed benefits in this country, make so much of The New East End feel completely unreal. But what has further fuelled my deep unease with this study is that our research is revealing that in some of the poorest neighbourhoods the family is becoming ever more central to wellbeing as state welfare retreats - in The New East End it would seem that the reverse is happening.

The onslaught on state welfare workers over the past 25 years, the reductions in welfare provision, the hollowing out of social and community facilities in so many working class neighbourhoods, the transformations in state schooling and social security - much of it informed by an ideology which asserts that welfare "rights" need to be balanced by an insistence on "responsibilities" - is simply whitewashed out of the account. Furthermore, the idea that state social workers can be regarded as part of a ruling elite, with the kind of hold over working class life described by Dench et al, is simply laughable. That is not to say that there are no social workers, or social service managers, who would not wish to have the sort of influence and power attributed to them in The New East End.

For the authors, this pattern of over-exaggeration of state welfare is necessary because they are not prepared to consider the East End in relationship to the dynamics of contemporary capitalism. While reading the book, I longed to learn about the impact of the new wealth in Tower Hamlets - and found virtually nothing. What about the impact of property prices? What about the decline in the value of wages since the late 1960s? What about the increase in working hours and dual jobs, and what of the emergence of highly racialised labour practices? Where is the discussion of the decline in trade unionism and the abandonment of the poor by New Labour? What about the massive increase in the participation of women in the waged labour market? These factors are hugely significant and have far more purchase in explaining shifts in working class family life than social workers in particular, or state welfare in general. Yet readers will look in vain for answers to these questions.

This book disappoints and fails on so many levels - many of which are beyond the scope of this review and my expertise. It would be remiss, however, not to mention its utter failure to discuss the extraordinary political ramifications associated with the ongoing war in Iraq. The opposition to the war has revealed much in recent years, not least an incredible energy and mobilisation of people - it has united people within and across all boundaries. The impact in east London has been considerable - the 2005 general election saw the defeat of Oona King, a highly favoured New Labour member of parliament. That this book, for all its claims to offer an in-depth study of this neighbourhood and its transformations over the past 50 years, can give no sense whatsoever to the emergence of a powerful anti-war movement that brings together all sections of the East End is a massive indictment.

So what do we have? A well written study, for sure. Its association with Family and Kinship will lend it some credibility, and we can expect that its active marketing will lead to some of its conclusions being given some time on the airwaves. But I wonder how many will actually bother to read it. If they do, they will soon realise that this is not a piece of serious scholarship informed by in-depth research. Even those predisposed to its assertions will find the lack of hard evidence disappointing and not sufficient to sustain any serious debate. And as polemic, frankly, it is old hat.

Chris Jones is emeritus professor of social policy and social work at the University of Liverpool.