While Liz Truss outbids Rishi Sunak to revive culture-war rhetoric, it’s stagnant wages and rising prices – not ‘woke’ issues – that are worrying Britain’s ‘left behind’. James Morrison, author of the new book The Left Behind, explores how out of touch the Conservative Party is.
As it stutters through a disorientating, intermittently scorching summer, the UK finds itself wedged in the interface between two sharply defined, but wildly diverging, parallel realities. In one dimension lies the now all too familiar terrain of post-austerity Britain: a land ravaged by a decade of cuts to benefits and basic public services and now facing the most dramatic dive in living standards since records began – thanks to a perfect storm of factors including (but not limited to) Brexit, post-COVID supply chain issues and the economic fallout of the Russia-Ukraine war. Despite being the world’s fourth richest country, this is a realm in which a quarter of children grow up in absolute (not relative) poverty; the richest fifth of the population earn 12 times as much as the poorest fifth; reliance on foodbanks increased a hundredfold between the financial crash and the pandemic; and exponential rises in gas and electricity bills will leave working-aged benefit recipients (many already close to destitution) spending up to half their incomes on energy if a zombie government and supine regulator continue letting prices spiral unchecked.
Then there’s Toryland: a curiouser and curiouser looking-glass world inhabited by the two candidates vying to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative prime minister. In Toryland, the biggest threat to livelihoods aren’t the cost of living crisis or greedy corporations whose soaring profits fuel inflation, but a rogues’ gallery of folk-devils beloved of the populist Right – from taxpayer-draining benefit claimants and asylum-seekers to ‘militant trade unions’ and other ‘left-wing agitators’ happily ‘bulldozing’ our cherished values, whether by ‘pulling down statues of historic figures’, promoting ‘anti-British propaganda’ or rewriting our lexicon to promote a politically correct agenda.
But as Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak burrow ever deeper into the bafflingly abstracted rabbit-hole of Toryeality in pursuit of the 0.2 per cent of British voters who will determine the next resident of Downing Street, the wider public is preoccupied with much more prosaic – and pressing – concerns. Supposedly widespread resentments about ‘wokeness’, exploitative immigrants or even the distant and unheeding liberal elites of lore carry little resonance for millions of people battling to feed their children, heat their homes, and pay their rents and mortgages – as I found while researching my new book, The Left Behind. In the 50-plus interviews I carried out with people from some of Britain’s most economically disadvantaged communities, I heard countless stories of precarious jobs, low wages, benefit cuts, parlous social care and decaying infrastructure – but found little or no evidence of engagement with the ‘culture wars’ gleefully stoked by the right-wing press.
When asked what they considered the biggest challenges facing their communities, people’s responses were strikingly consistent – whether they happened to be struggling parents, unemployed or disabled people, or local parish councillors and business-owners. Top of the list was insecure, underpaid work and a general lack of opportunities, especially for young people. But not far behind was a litany of other markers of disadvantage, which I collectively conceptualize (perhaps somewhat inelegantly) as ‘dimensions of leftbehindness’. These ranged from the sense of disconnection caused by weak transport links, sluggish Wifi, and closed police stations and post offices to a feeling of being unloved and ignored by distant, disinterested politicians – at local as much as national level. Moreover, given that many of my interviewees were residents of post-industrial towns and cities all too accustomed to being labelled ‘left behind’ – from Stoke-on-Trent to Doncaster to Great Yarmouth – it was hardly surprising that expressions of ennui and anguish were often bundled up with a sense of their locales being reduced to faded relics, or crumbling husks, of their former selves, as closed or mothballed industries had taken with them the life, soul and essence of once vibrant communities. Almost nowhere in these testimonies, however, were there any gripes about middle-class liberals or job-poaching immigrants – let alone tirades against trans rights, efforts to decolonize British culture or any other causes attributed to Britain’s fabled army of woke warriors.
For single mum Jenny – at 39, too young to remember Stoke’s heyday as Britain’s pottery capital – the stubbornly high unemployment on the city’s deprived Bentilee estate was down to the mass closure of pot-banks, decades of underinvestment and a lack of apprenticeships, not competition from foreign migrants – a myth she angrily condemned while recalling the isolated incident of abuse towards a ‘lovely Polish lady’, which she blamed less on racism than the fact that youths had ‘nothing to do on the estate’. Ex-coalminer Mike, from Leigh, was similarly downcast about the prospects for today’s youth, lamenting the fact they would never experience the ‘job for life’ he and others had once known – at least up to the point that his family plummeted into poverty when the last local pits closed in the 1990s. But it was the degradation of local services and infrastructure that most exercised Peter Jones, chair of Forsbrook Parish Council on the edge of the Staffordshire moorlands. ‘You go through [the village] and you can’t get what you want. You want to go into town to get it but there’s no bus to take you there’, he complained, adding that ‘if you want your hair done, there’s 11 hairdressers, [but] if you want a post office we haven’t got one’. And similar tales abounded in and around the once flourishing east coast resort of Great Yarmouth, where Belton councillor Margaret Greenacre described how the 4,000-strong population, many of them elderly, had been left without a GP after its last surgery (based in the village hall) closed due to NHS cuts.
This is not to pretend there was no mention at all of pressures that might be attributed (at least in part) to issues like rising immigration and resulting competition for jobs and local services. Andrea, a retired secretary, recalled a Bentilee resident moaning that ‘it’s not right’ how recently arrived Poles and Romanians had leapfrogged their granddaughter to obtain a council house – though, she added encouragingly, ‘younger people’ were less likely to harbour such resentments, having been ‘brought up with’ migrants. Over in Leigh, Greater Manchester, Susan Gredecki, whose grandfather was Polish, described how tensions around scarce and dwindling resources had been sensitized by the Brexit referendum – adding that ‘through the ages, when people came over from the Caribbean they weren’t welcome, the Irish weren’t welcome: now it’s the Europeans’.
Yet, unsettling though these anecdotes might be, the abiding impression I took away from my research was that, where ‘us-versus-them’ resentments existed to any noticeable degree, they appeared to be exceptional rather than endemic. Moreover, when people raised concerns about ‘cultural change’ – oft-cited as a preoccupation of post-industrial ‘left-behind’ communities, especially those in the legendary ‘red wall’ – this more often related to the erosion of their industrial heritage after decades of neglect, or outward population movements by younger generations seeking opportunities elsewhere, than any imagined influx of marauding foreigners. Whatever the Truss-Sunak Show might like to pretend, we need to get away from talk of culture wars – and conflating so-called ‘socially conservative’ (white) working-class values, like patriotism and pride in place, with empty gestures like flag-waving. Even if the identities of those dubbed ‘the left behind’ are sometimes expressed through the language and iconography of culture and tradition (unifying qualities that only become divisive when perverted by populists), the concerns that keep them awake at night are invariably more mundane – and urgent.
James Morrison is the author of The Left Behind: Reimagining Britain’s Socially Excluded. He is a reader in journalism at Robert Gordon University, and spent over a decade as a staff reporter for newspapers including the Independent on Sunday as well as working as a freelance writer for the Guardian. His previous books include Scroungers: Moral Panics and Media Myths.