‘On Burnley Road’ Launch Event
Posted on 30/06/2021
This is an edited transcript of the online launch event of On Burnley Road: Class, race and politics in a northern English town, which took place on 26 May 2021.
Jumanah Younis: Mike, for all the people who haven’t read your book yet, can you tell us briefly what it’s about?
Mike Makin-Waite: The book begins with an account of the serious rioting that took place in Burnley back in 2001. Across that summer there was rioting across a number of northern towns, Oldham, Burnley, Bradford, and smaller scale in some other places. The media called these events ‘the most serious race riots in a generation.’ In the town of Burnley itself, the racialised divisions that lay behind the riots fed into controversial politics. In 2002, Burnley was the first place to see a group of British National Party councillors elected. The far-right carried on growing, and in 2003 they became the second biggest group on the council.
One of the aims of the book is to give the background and the context to those controversial events, and to look at their impact. It looks at what mainstream political parties, particularly the Labour Party, did. It tracks the different stages in the anti-racist campaigning which people organised in response to these far-right successes. It also talks about some of the innovative approaches that people in Burnley took to handling race relations and managing issues about the distances and distrust that had grown up between people. The book reacts against the way that events in Burnley were described by the national media and politicians. There was quite a condescending, dismissive tone to a lot of the coverage. They were explained away as an exception, weird things that were happening in this distant, northern place.
My argument is that what happened in Burnley twenty years ago was a sign of things to come. Those themes have become much more important in national politics (racism, opposition to immigration and particularly to Europe). Although it’s the case that the BNP’s successes were relatively limited and short-lived – they only got seats on a few councils, in Burnley they shrank in numbers after a few years – the themes that they highlighted were promoted more widely in British politics. They were picked and adopted by UKIP, they fed into Brexit, and now Johnson’s Tories have reshaped themselves around some of them. My argument, essentially, is that if we’re going to achieve racial equality, and if Labour are going to win back red wall seats like Burnley, we need to understand what’s been going on in places like this over the last twenty to thirty years, and address the underlying issues.
I tell this story in the first person. I lived in Burnley for twenty years, I worked as a local government officer. After the BNP won their first seats, I got a post leading the work of the council on community cohesion. That was New Labour’s policy in response to the riots, and that work involved contributing to the promotion of good race relations in the town. In that way, the book is kind of an inside story. It includes a lot of anecdotes and insights into some of the things that happened in the town and behind closed doors in the Town Hall itself.
JY: I think you’re right to point out the enduring significance of those events. Anitha, I was wondering how you found reading the book, given your specialism in the South Asian diaspora in Britain, specifically thinking about work and industrial movements. So much of this book seems to be about the fallout after deindustrialisation.
Sundari Anitha: Yes, that’s the theme that runs through the book, and the racialised impact of that. Another key theme is the notion of identity and particularly the focus on the identity of ‘white working class’. You problematise that term in the book; you question the construction of ‘white working class’ in homogeneous terms. Some of those issues can be similarly applied to the construction of South Asian diaspora as a homogeneous category. We see a lot of that in terms of thinking through the effects of deindustrialisation on the South Asian diaspora. We were engaged with very similar issues in our work as well, so I found it interesting to get that close insight from your book in terms of disentangling a very simple narrative.
MMW: The concept of the ‘white working class’ has been constructed and used divisively to promote reactionary politics.
I think your point about the way in which deindustrialisation affected the South Asian community is important. My book’s about the way in which racist politics were mobilized, but there are passing references to the way that the closure of the mills and some of the big workplaces in Burnley in the 1970s and 1980s led to a change in Asian heritage people’s place within the workforce. There’s a great study of this in Oldham by Virinder Kalra, From Textile Mills to Taxi Ranks: Experiences of Migration, Labour and Social Change. There was a time in the 1980s when the fact that Asian heritage workers and white people were mixing in big work places was building up some connections. All possibility of that was removed as these big workplaces were closed, and people were pushed into more separated working environments.
JY: Anitha, Striking Women raises important points about the failure of the trade union movement to support Asian women workers in particular, but migrant women in general. What do you think the relevance is of new unions like the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain in bringing together, as Mike’s saying, the heterogeneous working class, in the context of the gig economy especially?
SA: Trade union history has been long and not always glorious in terms of how they’ve represented Asian workers. You touch upon it, Mike, in Chapter Two, when you talk about this person who was applying for a job and didn’t get it. They realised it was actually the trade union that had created this race bar that resulted in them not getting the job. Our research on the Grunwick dispute captures a particular moment when it seemed as if something had shifted. That moment is often celebrated as this turning point in trade union history. Things are never as simple as that. There’s still that struggle for unions to recognise the rights of migrant workers.
In terms of the changes that have happened to the world of work, I think the need for trade unions is greater than ever, but we mustn’t think that these casualised forms of work are an aberration. The idea that there was a standard contract at work and that was a dominant form of employment – that was never the case. Large sections of the workplace were always casualised and had less secure forms of work. What we are seeing that is different now is that this casualisation is at the very heart of the economy, with big players like the NHS, for instance. On the one hand, it makes trade unions all the more important, but on the other hand it makes them much harder to organise because workers are fractured across different workplaces, or they work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
I think what some of these newer unions are better at doing is responding to the shift in the nature of the workforce and thinking about new forms of organising. Those large workplaces that you talk about in your book, Mike, where workers mixed together at the canteen are declining. Some of these newer unions have been better at bringing together diverse interests. With the cleaners, for examples, in the strikes at the universities, they managed to bring together students and staff at those universities with the workers and their communities.
MMW: One of the things I’m always wary of is the tendency we have on the left to tell very simple stories about proud moments. That’s really the case with the 1970s when some of the big trade unions were supporting strikers at Grunwick. There was certainly anti-racism and solidarity, but also you had this group of Asian women in the position where they were needing to defend or push for rights that the main trade unions were also wanting to defend. Was it that convergence that explained the solidarity?
SA: South Asian women had been organising and going on strike for a long time without the support of trade unions. In the previous strikes at Leicester the fight was over differential rates of pay where women workers were paid less than male workers, or Asian workers were paid less than white workers, and there the trade union did not support their demand for equal pay. What was different in the Grunwick dispute was partly, I think, because whole sections of the workforce had changed so that there wasn’t an issue of differential pay, so race didn’t become an issue like it did in other workplaces. Because of that, it was possible for trade unions to cast it as a demand for the right to join trade union. There was often paternalism in that. There are several things that made it possible for Grunwick to happen; I suspect if it had been about equal pay and the workforce had been racially segregated in different departments, you probably wouldn’t have seen the level of support that you did see.
Ultimately, the Grunwick dispute failed to meet its aim. The trade union movement abandoned the workers. We mustn’t forget that. Today, the movement likes to look back at it as this turning point and celebrate that, based on the mass pickets and the thousands of people who turned up. It made for good imagery but, ultimately, they were abandoned.
JY: One of the interesting things to look at is the representation of fights for equal pay (I’m thinking about Made in Dagenham (2010) here). Faryal, as a screenwriter, how did you feel about the issues that Mike brings up in his book and the way that it interacts with the work that you’ve been doing on Ackley Bridge and beyond?
Faryal Velmi: I actually met Jayaben Desai on the thirtieth anniversary of the Grunwick Strike, which was a really special moment. It’s true, the complexities of that struggle are sometimes brushed over.
In terms of Ackley Bridge, when I was reading Mike’s book there’s a really insightful and interesting section when he talked about schools which really resonated with me. I suppose it was this idea of how TV and film can actually project what is possible. In the book, he talks about the attempts made in Burnley and in other places to have schools that bring together Asian and white kids, and it’s been such a challenge for a myriad of different reasons. In Ackley Bridge, what the creators and writers wanted to do was project a vision of what could be possible – still rooted in the problems and issues – but also the fault lines that exist in our communities, and celebrating those communities as well.
For me as a writer and a screenwriter, especially considering the times we are living in at the moment, it’s so crucial to be challenging, provoking and asking difficult questions. I’m interested in creating work that can ask difficult questions but also put forward alternatives. I think that’s really important.
JY: I know that Mike’s become a fan of Ackley Bridge recently, thanks to me…
MMW: That’s right, I’ve watched several episodes. What I like about this portrayal of northern mill towns in Yorkshire is the way that it punctures the stereotypes but also explores the kind of misunderstandings that happen between people. There’s a great scene where a white British teacher in this secondary school is teaching the class to make some kind of Polish food and she gets the word wrong, which is a misstep in relation to the Polish kids in the class, but some of the Pakistani heritage kids take it as a racial slur and it all gets out of control. You just see the misunderstanding unfolding, it’s so well-handled.
On Made in Dagenham, that strike by women workers at Ford’s plants in Dagenham was a very important victory for the trade union movement. Dagenham itself is one of these parts of London where there’s been this proud history of working class organisation. It was the deindustrialisation that affected the car industry which meant that Barking and Dagenham became the place in London with the highest levels of BNP support. Made in Dagenham was about a proud achievement of women trade unionists, but the removal of those large workplaces and the demoralisation and the decline of organised labour politics created a vacuum that the far-right could, temporarily in the mid-2000s, exploit there. There are parallels, although big differences of course, between Dagenham and Burnley.
FV: I love that film, and it strikes me that there needs to be more TV and film that reflects the labour movement’s history. Where is the film about the Grunwick strikes? Or even about the Chartists? I’m not the only screenwriter that would love to be writing these type of shows. We’ve had many remakes of Rebecca and Emma, so let’s get some other stories out there. As you said, people watching films can be so important for talking about contemporary issues, but also learning about history.
JY: Faryal, have you seen the new show We Are Lady Parts?
FV: Yes, Nida Manzoor is actually a friend of mine. I’m really emotional about it, it’s important on so many levels – the representation of Muslim women and different types of Muslim women, we’re just starved of that. I think it’s really groundbreaking in many ways. We’re all gunning for series two! Just to have that representation – it looks amazing as well – and obviously there’s so much packed into those episodes. Everybody should watch it, it’s a great show.
JY: Ackley Bridge is a TV show about a very segregated community having lots of misgivings about one another and coming together through the moments where their lives overlap or are forced to overlap, often through young people. In the first series, two characters fall in love who are from these very different backgrounds, one’s Pakistani, one’s from a white family that’s very racist, and they have to navigate this. That’s part of the way that this kind of misunderstanding, racism and stereotyping is broken down. It feels like there’s an increasing polarisation in politics today. What do you think about how we address that politically?
FV: You referenced one of the relationships that the main character has. That was really exciting to write, mainly because you don’t see a lot of queer, multiracial relationships on TV. It’s quite transgressive in many ways, two young, working-class women who really hate each other at first but secretly fancy each other and realise that those differences can be breached. I think the thing which was really interesting to explore – myself and another writer, Natalie Mitchell, wrote that episode – was confronting Sam, who’s one of the characters, and calling her out as a racist but the conversation not ending there. In some circumstances, calling out someone racist and walking away is the right thing to do. But in this scenario, it’s about really looking into and trying to unpick those racist views and stereotypes. We thought it was really crucial to be able to do that, and there should be more moments like that on TV.
MMW: One of the things I’m trying to do in On Burnley Road is sustain some curiosity about why it is that right-wing politics have developed and become so strong in this country. A lot of the things that the BNP and some independent councillors in Burnley in the mid-1990s were doing – promoting myths and divisive resentments – have been increasingly mainstreamed in a way that wasn’t the case in the early 2000s. I’m no fan of Michael Howard, but when he came to Burnley in 2004 he was clear he was condemning the BNP as racists and extremists. Now his party is promoting some of the things that were popularised back in the early 2000s on the extreme right.
There are many committed activists working for racial equality and lots of organisations continually bringing out evidence of racial inequality. Yet, we’ve got to be self-critical – we’re losing. We’ve got to be really curious about why it is that far-right, or nationalist, anti-immigrants themes have appeared in British politics. You’ve got to be clear to call it out, but you’ve also got to enter into dialogue and engage with people so as to understand what lies behind it. What are the angers, the fears, the anxieties, the frustrations and the resentments that have led you to be drawn to these politics that cynical, powerful people – like the current Conservative leadership – are promoting.
In Burnley we were holding difficult conversations across communities, taking the risk to talk to people who you didn’t agree with but who you wanted to understand. I think that is an important step in addressing the tendency towards polarisation. We need to build up cultures in our towns and cities where racialised issues can be considered and explored in ways that mean you’re trying to understand each other. There’s some efforts being made in that direction, but it’s not sufficiently sustained in terms of the funding. That’s one of the things I make a case for in the book. In Burnley and in Oldham, work was done with people guided by mediators from Belfast called civic mediation. It’s a very promising tradition.
JY: That slow, unglamorous political work is interesting because it’s often feminised; it is about sitting and having uncomfortable conversations that nobody wants to have. It’s not glorious, it’s not public-facing. I know civic mediation can be seen by some people as quite liberal. Anita, what’s your view?
SA: This isn’t new, Brexit didn’t come from nowhere. In the context of our research, the Grunwick Strike also took place after a period of increasing mobilisation against immigrants a decade after Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. You had similar sentiments that led to Brexit in terms of mobilising this idea of the immigrant as a threat to the working class, who is presented as white. The Grunwick Strike happened a decade after the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. When that ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech happened, the dockworkers’ union marched to parliament and demanded immigration control, and this was in the context of South Asian and East African Asian migrants coming to the UK in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When the Grunwick Strike happened, that same union came out in support of the Grunwick strikers.
There’s definitely all those local dialogues you’re talking about, those changing of minds, but there’s also a place for a class politics that builds upon an idea of class that incorporates racial difference. And in the context of Brexit, it has never felt more important. Again, I think there is a gap that’s opening up, what I mentioned earlier, in new forms of work and the inability, it seems, of trade unions to mobilise workers in this new world of work. I really see a way forward through class politics.
JY: We’re not really dealing with heavy industry anymore, we’re in the era of the gig economy. That is in large part due to the impact of neoliberalism. One of the things that Mike points to in the book is how a cross-party consensus on the neoliberal agenda in mainstream politics has, certainly in the case of Burnley, facilitated the growth of the far right. Mike talks about people in the town voting for a far-right party as an alternative to a consensus across political groups on deindustrialisation, and generally not addressing on the local government level the kinds of problems people were facing on a day-to-day. Thinking about the fact that we’re still in that neoliberal trend, what might be some of the ways we can be organising more effectively?
MMW: Debates in towns like Burnley – you saw it in the recent Hartlepool by-election – are being posed in terms of how the Labour Party can win back support from traditional voters. This is a totally different question to the one that Anitha’s been signalling, which is, ‘How can the Labour Party, the trade unions and progressive organisations connect more richly with the lived diversity of the working-class communities in these towns, as they are now? That’s the real job. Of course, within that you’ve got to connect to all the different people, not just the traditional voters that you’ve lost. That involves connecting to people’s emotions and aspirations and, through dialogue, developing a set of short-term, immediate and local but also large-scale, longer-term and more strategic political programmatic ambitions.
FV: You mentioned the gig economy, one of the most inspiring struggles that I’ve come across are the strikes of delivery drivers and riders, and also Uber drivers winning workers’ rights. In the US, Amazon workers have been trying to organise a union. So despite the traditional workplaces changing or transforming, people are still coming together and fighting for their rights. That has definitely been inspiring.
JY: One of the things that Mike highlights in the book is the fact that independents in Burnley had a run of success at a certain point in the council. I think it’s interesting to think about what the possibilities are for other types of mobilising outside of mainstream parties, if it’s the case that mainstream parties are not appealing to people in towns where they were in power for a very long time.
One of the more contentious points you make towards the end of the book is about reclaiming a positive nationalism, uncoupled from racist sentiment. You point to the example of Scotland, and obviously there has been mobilisation against immigration raids in Glasgow recently. Can you talk a little bit more about how you see this working in the UK?
MMW: Mobilisation and progressive activity that wasn’t party political was extremely valuable in Burnley. There were lots of positive youth-work initiatives that were pursued both by paid youth workers and volunteers; the work of The Interfaith Network that brought together people from the mosques, people from the churches and from other faiths, was really important in building up a culture; initiatives taken by trade unions that were simply about making links and connection. I think an important point was taking time to understand what the emotions were as a basis for connections that could lead to solidarity. You don’t achieve solidarity just by calling for it, you’ve got to work for it, and some of that work is best done when it’s not explicitly political, interestingly.
In terms of the arguments in the book about nationalism, they are intended as an intervention within arguments that are currently going on amongst anti-racists and on the left. Johnson and the Conservative Party are promoting this shallow, flag-waving nationalism. Keir Starmer is using the pounds and pennies that are raised by his party members to pay consultants to come up with the idea that he too needs to speak the language of patriotism and get his own Union Jacks, as they did in Hartlepool recently. Many on the left react against that, and I understand why, but I think to go to a point of saying that any form of what you might call nationalist discourse – discourse that speaks of how the country should be and how the nation might develop – is necessarily reactionary and exclusionary, and we shouldn’t have any attempt to integrate a national sense into progressive and left politics, strikes me as simply not true in principle.
I make points about Scottish nationalism as a way of illustrating the fact that there can be forms of national politics which are civic, generous and inclusive in character. Of course, that’s partly shaped by the grassroots mobilisations that you were talking about; there’s a culture being built up in Scottish civil society that is supportive of the rights of migrants and people of colour who are living in Scotland. That’s articulated together with Scottish nationalism, not against it. We can’t take the tones and arguments from Scotland and apply them in England – they’re different places with different histories and nationalism works differently, it has been determined over many years. But I don’t think that we should give up on the idea of recasting the politics of the English nation.
JY: I think among people of colour there’s a sense that there has to be a recognition of Britain’s imperial past and the legacy of that in the present in order to be able to build what you’re talking about: a positive sense of being in the here and now together. I think that’s crucially missing from the way in which nationalism is being regurgitated at the moment in the Labour Party.
SA: Yes, in an ideal world. I’m not sure the idea of patriotism and nationalism can be redeemed. It’s interesting what’s happening in Scotland, but that’s because it’s been positioned against what the rest of the UK stands for. In the context of Brexit, it’s possible for this sentiment to find a space within the idea of Scottish nationalism because Scotland voted very differently on Brexit. I don’t think you can separate their stance on non-white migrants from what’s happening with their independence vote, and if that hadn’t been the case I’m not sure whether we’d be here.
In India it’s now Muslims who are the Others of patriotism. The new citizenship act is redefining what it means to be Indian in terms of religion. Othering is a key part of the construction of national identity, it always has been, and I’m not sure that can be redeemed. Like Jumanah said, what the British flag represents is a very violent history. I don’t think, as someone who’s not white, that can mean anything different until we reckon with that history. We’re very far from doing that. Even in schools now I hear about how Britishness has been constructed, and how cultural difference is constructed as essentially un-British. I don’t know if we can move beyond that.
JY: We’re seeing that with Prevent and the criminalisation of young Muslim people in particular, and through Palestine solidarity actions at the moment, with young people being policed in schools because of expressing solidarity with Palestine.
FV: Yes, it’s really alarming. I also, though, feel hopeful. Whether it’s climate justice, the Black Lives Matter movement or the recent mobilisations in solidarity with Palestinians, young people are using social media to get other young people out. It’s fantastic. I read those accounts with kids being sent home because they were flying Palestinian flags. I think that’s really disgusting, but on the flip-side of that we are seeing unprecedented numbers of young people engaging with politics and making it their own, Coming out on the streets and going on school strikes, I’ve absolutely been moved by that.
Mike Makin-Waite is an author, activist and former council worker for Burnley Council. He was responsible for community cohesion in the years following the 2001 northern riots, which are the basis of the book that he’s written.
Sundari Anitha is professor of Gender, Violence and Work at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln. Her research interests include the problem of violence against women and girls, and gender, race and ethnicity in employment relations. She is the co-author of Striking Women: Struggles and Strategies of South Asian Women Workers from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet, which is also published by Lawrence Wishart.
Faryal Velmi ran a disability rights charity in Brixton for a decade, and her stories are inspired by campaigns for social justice and multicultural city life. She wrote on series two and three of Channel 4’s ground-breaking Ackley Bridge, and she’s currently developing a number of TV and film projects with BBC studios, Babel Pictures and Doug Rose Productions. This includes Take Me Home, a drama about the political awakening of a young homeless mum.
Jumanah Younis is LW books editor.