Whose voice, and which wilderness?

I was dismayed to read the Rt Revd Philip North’s article in the Church times on Friday, “Heeding the voices of the popular revolution.

He begins well, stating “We need to hear the voices of the poor.” I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing. But then the Bishop of Burnley makes the same mistake as a number of other commentators: assuming that the votes for Brexit, and the votes for Donald Trump, came entirely or even largely from the “dispossessed and marginalised working class”, angry at their voices being ignored and their needs unrecognised by a middle-class society. He particularly states that these voices will continue to go unheard if the Church fails to invest more resources in urban ministry and the most deprived populations therein.

And yet — in the recent American election, in the Brexit referendum and even in the UK general election in 2015, it wasn’t overwhelmingly the urban poor who voted for Brexit or the right. Rather, the suburbs and rural areas carried the vote.

I think it’s worth examining what is usually meant by “working class” and what the reality of the working class actually is. In the UK we tend to think of the working class as factory workers and builders, mostly British, mostly white. But it’s a bit more complicated than that: the person who sweeps the factory floor is paid less and has less training than the machine operators; a chartered engineer with a postgraduate degree and a professional certification is still, by some, considered a “factory worker”. The employments considered working class now vary so widely in compensation that it is not really accurate to say that the working class are always poor. Furthermore, post-WW2 socialism ensured that many people from working class backgrounds were able to enjoy middle class levels of economic security.

But the working class also includes some people you might not think of straight away.

The working class includes migrants, most of whom don’t get to vote, and who won’t feel welcome in a church which puts too much emphasis on place and patriotism at the expense of being kind to the alien in the land.

The working class includes people of colour, who face systemic and systematic discrimination in both the UK and the US, and who in the US especially are more likely to be disenfranchised.

The working class includes many people with disabilities, industrial injuries or chronic health problems which may prevent them from working regularly: those “perceived to be taking unfair advantage of the benefits system”, according to Bishop Philip, and who are not helped by the idea of the “dignity of work” at all costs. And the working class includes their unpaid carers, whose work to bring dignity to others is not given the dignity of a living wage.

The working class includes single mothers, trans people, queer people, those married to someone of the same gender, those estranged from abusive parents, and people in their 30s or even 40s who still live in shared accommodation — all people who may well be left out of Philip North’s desire for emphasis, from the Church, on the “sanctity of the family”.

I know that before he was the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North served in a deprived parish in north London for a number of years, and I am certain that he has listened to people from a wide range of economic circumstances, as he advocates. I can only conclude that if he doesn’t think of the working, urban poor as including people who would have voted against Brexit (had they been permitted to vote), his experience must be incomplete — as is mine.

So let’s take another angle and look at the statistics. The biggest predictors of voting patterns in Brexit were income and higher education; but these are two factors which are closely related to age, as university education was not as available, or as necessary, for people who are now retired. Other factors include living in England, and owning one’s home outright — that last, again, is related to age. And of course, people who live in areas with lower visible diversity were more likely to vote Leave. Looking at this, and at how high the average income is in some Brexit-voting areas, and another picture begins to emerge: it isn’t the poorest, most desperate people who voted for Brexit. Instead, the group of people feeling angry and betrayed includes large numbers of people who, though not rich, were actually getting by quite well for a while, and are now finding it much harder to do that.

The poorest of the poor, the most oppressed people in the UK, almost certainly didn’t vote for Brexit: they won’t have been allowed to vote at all. But even if they had, the voice of the likes of Nigel Farage is not the “preferential option for the poor” that has rightly been the aim of many involved in social justice in the church. Instead, it is the very short term preferential option for the straight white male homeowner who neither has any interest in holidays abroad nor believes he should have to share what he has with anyone else. That isn’t what I’d recognise as the working class.

The one area where I agree with the Bishop of Burnley, then, is that the Church of England has been listening far too much to the middle class.

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