Are poor white people stupid?

The response, on the whole, of the mainstream press (or at least the non-Nazi press) to the swing towards the BNP in various working class suburbs last week goes like this: how can we expect working class white people to vote right? They’re pissed off. Voting for the political heirs of the scumbags who bombed their cities and slaughtered millions in Europe is a quite rational response to the treatment they’ve had at the hands of the distant, cosseted elites in Westminster and the media. So, are poor people stupid? Can they not be trusted with the vote?

The background to all this is obvious. The newspapers are full of foreign criminals (the worst kind, obviously), slit-eyed people traffickers, nasty Afghan hijackers, shifty East European migrants and other scary outsiders. Fascists are riding a wave of fear and alienation into local power. The lesson is one we’ve failed to learn before: social change, when it comes, hits working class communities hardest. These communities have no buffer, no wiggle room and nowhere to go. Prosperity, once you’ve got it, provides insulation from nasty stresses of all kinds, literally – gated communities and rural retreats – and in subtler ways – paid time off and more holidays.

Poor communities just have to put up with it. As for mass immigration, big populations have been moving around the planet for economic reasons for hundreds of years and the poor have always held the role of unappointed welcome committees in pressure cooker communities like the North Side of Chicago, London’s East End and the housing estates of suburban Paris.

So now unprecedented economic integration and social strife in territories not far from our own doorstep are producing a new wave of aggravation for the white working class in Britain. Kosovans, Poles, Iraqis, Kurds, Sudanese, Czechs and a dozen other nationalities are flowing into accommodation at the bottom end of the housing pyramid, making new demands on social infrastructure that’s already creaking. Resentment is building. The result is 20-odd incompetent and divisive BNP councilors nationally and an increasingly loud and unwelcoming turn-of-phrase from the communities themselves.

It looks like we can’t continue to rely on working class communities to provide integration services, to act as a kind of invisible agency, ‘processing’ incomers and absorbing the pressures produced by social inequity and rapid change as populations mix and tussle for access to resources We’re practising a kind of ‘social outsourcing’ – expecting established communities, already coping with poor housing and crappy infrastructure, to manage the assimilation of newcomers on their own. If we don’t want to see communities all over Britain go the way of Barking we need to take seriously the concerns of these hard-pressed communities and apply some resource to the problem.

But what can we actually do? This is the tricky bit because what’s pretty clear is that we can’t do the one thing the BNP and their apologists in the media would like: stop social change. We can’t switch off the flow of incomers, freeze the British economy and reverse the effects of globalisation (the fact that the BNP think we can do just that is good evidence that they are fascists and not just racists, by the way, but that’s another story). Change, for now, is a given. Population flows will continue and the obligations of wealthy states to the planet’s dispossessed cannot be significantly scaled back (try it. See where it gets you).

Our effort, in the wealthy world, (where, let’s face it, immigrants are going to continue to arrive in large numbers if we’re to remain wealthy) must go into improving the capacity of our reception communities (Barking, Keighley, Burnley and all the rest), boosting the resilience of the bottom social tier, taking working class grievances seriously and easing the pressures produced by ineluctable change. The goal must be to build social solidarity, to neutralise the embitterment and disconnection that feeds the fascists.

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