Is it time to retire the term ‘left behind’?
How do people from post-industrial areas – and other economically disadvantaged communities – feel about being labelled ‘left behind’? What could a more inclusive, representative vocabulary look like? James Morrison shares his take on why the language of inequality matters.
It is a thread that runs through successive political upheavals from the 2016 EU referendum to the 2019 general election, with the ‘left behind problem’ frequently debated by the press, parliament and public. Invariably, the ‘left behind’ have been simplistically defined and treated with pity and contempt more often than genuine empathy.
Who are the ‘left behind’?
Painted as predominantly (if not uniformly) white and homogeneous, working-class identity has been stripped of its real-life complexity. In turn, ‘left behind’ discourse has come to both privilege and stigmatise those to whom it is applied.
Surely someone or something must have done the leaving behind – but, in the absence of specifics, the inescapable suggestion is that they’ve left themselves behind, by failing to keep up with the forward march of progress.
On the one hand, it elevates the problems faced by deindustrialised communities (primarily in northern England and the Midlands) over equally deprived areas of the South-East, Wales or Scotland. That is to say nothing of more geographically dispersed groups experiencing poverty and inequality, from precarious workers and exploited migrants to unemployed and disabled benefit recipients.
On the other hand, the ‘left behind’ label has been used in ways that implicitly blame people for their own situations: either they’ve passively ‘allowed’ themselves to be neglected or they’ve fallen behind because of their own idleness, ignorance or refusal to adapt.
Viewed another way, the ‘left behind’ tag obscures agency altogether – letting off the true culprits for the deindustrialisation, austerity and underinvestment that disproportionately scar certain communities. Surely someone or something must have done the leaving behind – but, in the absence of specifics, the inescapable suggestion is that they’ve left themselves behind, by failing to keep up with the forward march of progress.
What do people from ‘left behind’ communities make of this language?
In researching my new book, The Left Behind: Reimagining Britain’s Socially Excluded, I interviewed 40 people from areas consistently labelled ‘left-behind’ – from Doncaster to Great Yarmouth to the Rhondda valley – along with a handful of others from more geographically dispersed groups affected by economic disadvantage. I also spoke to people from Scotland and Wales – countries often left out of the national conversation around ‘the left behind’.
“Left behind by whom? There hasn’t been the investment in the area…so I do recognise that term…but it’s not a thing the people here have done willingly…”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the label ‘left behind’ generated mixed feelings. Some felt that it related to their own lives, but others strongly dismissed it. This tension was starkly illustrated in interviews with two pensioners from Stoke-on-Trent.
A retired manager’s secretary said the term made her ‘cross’, because it was used as ‘an excuse’ for failing to reinvest in the area. ‘It’s saying, “well, it’s hard luck for them – that’s your lot”’, adding that she did not ‘want our place to be thought of like that’, as it tarnished the memory of its proud industrial heyday.
Meanwhile a retired schoolteacher was even more offended, arguing that it belittled local people by insinuating that the decades of deindustrialisation and underinvestment blighting the city was their fault: ‘Left behind by whom? There hasn’t been the investment in the area…so I do recognise that term…but it’s not a thing the people here have done willingly…’
Others felt the term (though imperfect) described the combination of economic, political and cultural upheavals experienced by their community as well as any.
A retired coalminer from Leigh, Greater Manchester, told how there were ‘a couple of council estates in former mining areas’ that had clearly ‘been left behind’ – because ‘they haven’t got the means to better themselves’.
And a town councillor, Jude Gubb, representing the deprived East-the-Water ward in Bideford, north Devon, said ‘left behind’ was ‘a common term’ residents used to describe their neighbourhood. Reflecting on Bideford as a whole, she said it was ‘just about hanging on’ – though others saw it as ‘a dying town’.
…it is time to move on from this lazy, hazy language – and, ideally, from our obsession with labelling communities experiencing complex inequalities full-stop.
A means to an end?
Perhaps most intriguing (and encouraging) was the way in which some of those directly involved in lobbying local, regional and national government for investment in their areas engaged with the ‘left-behind’ label. Recalling the ‘absolute bollocking’ Boris Johnson had received for labelling Doncaster ‘left behind’ before the 2019 election by locals who ‘don’t want to be left behind’, Daniel Fell, CEO of the city’s chamber of commerce, nonetheless admitted it was ‘one of those phrases I want to reserve the right to use myself if that’s going to help leverage £25 million’ for the area.
This demonstrates the potential for labels to be (re)defined – and exploited – for benign purposes, not just cynical ones. For all the problems with the term ‘left behind’ – perhaps some good has come of it after all?
For all these silver linings, however, I’m left with an abiding feeling that it is time to move on from this lazy, hazy language – and, ideally, from our obsession with labelling communities experiencing complex inequalities full-stop. While people I spoke to offered many other suggestions for preferable terms, if we insist on continuing to use blanket labels to describe them – from ‘left out’ to ‘seldom heard’ or even simply ‘post-industrial’ – I’m inclined to agree with a recent paper by UK in a Changing Europe: ‘it is time that the term is retired from use’.
Dr James Morrison is a Reader in Journalism at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. His research focuses on the relationships between media-political narratives, social attitudes and government policy around disadvantaged groups. Before becoming an academic, he was a full-time journalist, working for a succession of local and national newspapers, including The Independent on Sunday. His books include The Left Behind (Pluto Press), Scroungers: Moral Panics and Media Myths (Zed Books, 2019), Familiar Strangers, Juvenile Panic and the British Press (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and a set politics textbook for journalism students: Essential Public Affairs for Journalists (Oxford University Press).
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