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Who are “the left behind”?

15046817_530594107135295_8872084179223838720_nFollowing the Brexit vote here and the victory of Trump in the US Presidential election there has been much ill-informed discussion of the ‘left behind’, sometimes spuriously described as the white working class who have not benefitted from rising living standards, or even globalisation in general.

It is not the purpose of this article to untangle the web of half-truths, distortions and falsehoods that comprise those statements. To take one example, the first great political and social exposition of the effects of ‘globalisation’ can be found in the Communist Manifesto. This sets out the enormous capacity of capitalism to dominate the globe by raising production up to a new, much higher level and so increase the exploitation of both natural resources and labour. It has nothing in common with radical ‘anti-globalisation’, that is protectionist and increasingly anti-immigrant movements in the Western countries.

Instead the focus here is narrowly on who are the ‘left behind’ in the UK. They are not the old white workers of the former industrial north, as is commonly portrayed. They are youth, dsiproportionately Asian and black youth. These are the very people who oppose Trump and who largely voted to Remain (71% of them).

Table 1 below is taken from a House of Commons Briefing paper ‘Unemployment by ethnic background’ from April 2016. A section of the briefing’s explanatory text is also included. The Table shows that the unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24 is 14.4%, which compares to an unemployment rate of 3.3% for all those aged over 50 years. But in every age category Asian people are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed and in every age category black people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed. Put another way, if you are young and black you are more than nine times as likely to be unemployed as if you are old and white.

Table 1. Unemployment by ethnic background. Source: House of Commons

There is a gender element too to who is in fact left behind. Table 2 below is taken from the same briefing. In aggregate the unemployment rate for women is lower than for men. But this is somewhat misleading, as the sample size is lower, 610,000 for women versus 750,000 for men. This reflects the fact that women are more likely to be discouraged from the workforce, or are obliged to be carers within the family. So the lower unemployment rate for women shown here needs to be seen in that context.

On this basis, the unemployment rate for women is lower than for men. However, contrary to the general trend the position for Asian women is worse. For them, unemployment is even higher than it is for Asian men. Yet again, the highest rates for unemployment among both women and men is to be found among black women and men.

Table 2. Unemployment by ethnic background and gender. Source: House of Commons

On pay, it is also the case that workers who are not white are paid less than their white counterparts and colleagues, and that this pay discrimination increases with qualifications. Table 3 is taken from a TUC report into black workers’ pay gap. There is a considerable pay gap for workers from all non-white ethnic groups, on average 75 pence an hour. But this rises to a pay gap £1.72 an hour for black workers on average. This pay gap also increases up the qualifications’ scale, so that black workers with a degree earn nearly a quarter less than their white counterparts, £4.30 less an hour.

Table 3. Average earnings by ethnic background and qualifications. Source: TUC

It is a fiction to suggest that the votes for Brexit and for Trump are the ‘left behind’ votes, the victims of deindustrialisation or even its opposite, globalisation. In Britain, the real left behind, much more likely to be unemployed and low paid are youth and especially black and Asian youth. Black people and Asian people in general are also more likely to be unemployed and, if in work, face pay discrimination. Women are also more likely to be discouraged from the workforce, yet Asian women are the sole category of women whose unemployment rate is higher than their male counterparts, even after taking this obstacle into account.
These are the primary victims of the third great capitalist slump and they are the ones bearing the main brunt of its effects. Of course, the overwhelming majority of workers and the poor are all worse off because of the crisis. But the by far the biggest victims are youth, especially Asian and black youth, as well as women. They are the real left behind.
This article first appeared at Socialist Economic Bulletin.


  1. John Penney says:

    The utter fiction that ” The Youth” voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, is based on a very low overall youth turnout. So middle class youth voted , largely to stay in the EU, but the disconnected , precariat, working class mass of youth simply couldn’t be bothered to vote, so disenchanted with the political process as they are.

    The rest of O’Leary’s Guardianista narrative is aimed at utterly ignoring the very real loss of skilled, high paid, jobs by workers in all the Brexit vote hotspots over generations of deindustrialisation. For why ? So, per the Guardianista narrative, the neoliberal EU and the impoverishment of major sections of the UK working class over the last 30 years of neoliberalism and the EU neoliberal policy framework, can be ignored – and the impact of unlimited labour supply on wages and conditions in lower paid jobs, – and the Brexit result explained away as entirely due to the rabid irrationality of the petty bourgeois Poujadist and racists generally.

    How long is Left Futures going to provide a platform for O’Leary’s uncritical pro neoliberal EU nonsense ?

    1. John Walsh says:

      Well said John Penney – perhaps the value of O’Leary’s piece is in underlining the weaknesses of his neoliberal position:

      1. narrow perspective – the widely held view that Brexit and Trump signal an epochal shift against decades of increasing inequality and even a correction from identity politics to class politics is reduced to an argument about youth unemployment since 2008.

      2. post-truth language and tactics – while counter-arguments are swept aside and reduced to a “web of half-truths, distortions and falsehood”, O’Leary’s sole focus is unemployment data he knows is highly questionable after decades of manipulation by successive Governments.

      3. class-blind analysis – this is the worst of it and why it’s questionable to publish O’Leary’s piece here given that the left’s future is surely going to depend on a thorough re-thinking of how socialism responds to the new class politics.

  2. Richard MacKinnon says:

    Tom O’Leary asks, “Who are “the left behind”?”
    The US media speak these days of Nigel Farage as ‘The Opposition’ to Theresa May’s government. Funny that.

  3. C MacMackin says:

    I don’t doubt that women and people of colour are the worst off in our society. However, that does not change the fact that there is a significant proportion of white workers who are also no doing well. You’d have to break down employment figures by region and/or industry to see it, of course. Even in cases where these people are still doing objectively better than people of colour, that doesn’t change the fact that they have been locked out of growth, forced into more precarious jobs, etc. All of this will make them feel “left behind”, especially since, unlike many black and asian workers, they were used to having more secure jobs. We are pretty useless socialists if our message to them is “Don’t worry about your crappy life–other people have it worse”. By this standard, just about anyone in Britain should be happy with what they’ve got because at least they’re better off than North Koreans.

    The author comments that

    To take one example, the first great political and social exposition of the effects of ‘globalisation’ can be found in the Communist Manifesto. This sets out the enormous capacity of capitalism to dominate the globe by raising production up to a new, much higher level and so increase the exploitation of both natural resources and labour. It has nothing in common with radical ‘anti-globalisation’, that is protectionist and increasingly anti-immigrant movements in the Western countries.

    This is misleading. While its politics left much to be desired, what came to be though of as the anti-globalisation movement in the 2000s was never about slamming shut the doors. It was about restraining the power of corporations, as codified in free trade agreements and the WTO, which often had more to do with entrenching the rights of capital than with tariffs. Leaders of that movement, such as Naomi Klein, have said that “anti-globalisation” is something of a misnomer, as they are all for cooperation across borders. They were simple opposed to a certain type of globalisation. Given the results of capitalism globalisation, it is unsurprising that many people begin to think that protectionism might be a better policy.

  4. Eleanor Firman says:

    Disaggregated data is getting harder and harder to find. For example, white and black are not ethnicities, as such. Black British and Black African and Afro-Carribean stats are often very different. You also have to be careful that Asian can lump together Chinese ( who sometimes exceed white employment/income rates) and Pakistani, who do not – whilst Bangladeshi women are often right at the bottom of all groups. It’s also interesting to factor disabled unemployment rates – its generally 50% for all disabled people seeking work! Even the govt acknowledges this. But there are odd factors here too, because at certain levels of qualification, disabled men outperform non-disabled women, not just disabled women. What I think is really important is look at incomes and employment rates for ‘low’ or unskilled labour. The pay gap between women and men is largest, and serves as a deterrent for women to become primary earners any family would lose £30 -50 pw. If they seek p/t work as second earners, the effective tax rate from benefits means what is left, barely covers a few hours childcare. This becomes a vicious circle preventing women from develop their skills and capabilities through work.

  5. Tim Bernards says:

    You want to pit race against race in the oppression olympiad?

    Very well. The populations of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and Newcastle are 85% white. We *ahem* “don’t have it as bad” as our minority melanin mates… but more of us, statistically speaking, are slaves.

    You ignore us, and put us down, and tell us “shut up you have it great”.

    Then you ask yourself “Why? Why the hell did we lose the vote?” and the conclusion, the great magnificent conclusion you settle upon is “Because whitey must all be a racist”.

    Another four years of not voting for your lot, then.

  6. David Pavett says:

    This article is wrong in many different ways but it has a central non sequitur. That a social group may have faired badly and feel left behind is not disproved by showing that there is another group that is even more disadvantaged. Not only that but the statistics used would have to be disaggregated, as Eleanor Firman says, to make any sort of case since “White workers” covers most of the working population encompassing both the left behind and those doing rather better.

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