Over the years, I have been involved in many community projects and campaigns, but not since the 1980s have I experienced the militancy and anxiety among working-class people that I see today. At first glance, you may miss it, or misinterpret their anger and rising class-consciousness as the way members of an underclass exclude themselves from British society. But these are the simplistic, stigmatizing, and cruel critiques that the mainstream media, and mainstream politicians, choose to deliver about the poorest members of our society.
In Getting By, my book about the council estate in Nottingham where I lived and raised my family for more than 20 years, I map my life from very poor housing close to the mines where my family worked, to the city centre of Nottingham, where I lived in public housing as a single mother with my mixed-race son, to finding myself at the University of Nottingham as a thirty-something working-class, mature student. I spent eight years researching the neighborhood where I lived for 25 years and writing about the consequences of de-valuing people and communities. I map how working-class people in the United Kingdom have become de-valued by successive governments and policies in the last thirty years. I show and explain how people who live in social housing have become problematized in the public psyche, stigmatized, and reduced to figures of ridicule, and hate. In particular I examine what it means to be a working-class woman, and how you learn at a very young age that shame will be part of your life – and that your respectability has to be sacrificed in order to ‘get by.’ The book is set within one neighborhood within the United Kingdom, although stigmatization and the de-valuing of working-class people is embedded throughout the country. For the last 18 months, I have lived in east London, continuing my academic research and also becoming involved in campaigns in London, where the de-valuing process of working-class people is stark, particularly around issues of housing. Rents within the capital are so high it is becoming impossible for poor families to stay in London.
We can see one vivid example in the Focus E15 mothers, a group of young women with small children who, in 2013, were forcibly evicted from a homeless hostel that sits in the shadow of the billion pound developments of the Olympic Park and the Westfield Shopping Centre. Their evictions were treated with a complete lack of empathy for their welfare by the local authority and Mayor (both Labour Party). They were told that the only social housing available was in other cities around the UK where they have no connections or family — a crude form of class cleansing.
The Focus E15 mothers have gone on to support other families being made homeless in their neighborhood, leading to the group being labelled ‘agitators’ and ‘band wagon jumpers.’ This is what happens when powerless and de-valued women fight back — refuse to ‘know their place’ — without deference to an organized top-down political party.
Meanwhile, multi-million pound housing developments in London are segregating less well-off tenants from wealthy home-buyers by forcing them to use separate entrances. A Guardian newspaper investigation discovered that in upmarket apartment blocks, which are required to include affordable homes in order to win planning permission, poorer residents are increasingly being forced to use alternative access, which some have dubbed “poor doors.” Even bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities, and postal deliveries are being separated to avoid class mixing. When I first read about one of these buildings, ‘One Commercial Street,’ I immediately knew that this was wrong. I didn’t need to consider whether de-valuing a person and making them walk round the back was better than providing no home at all, an argument levelled at those of us who spent 20 weeks protesting outside this symbolic monument to capitalism. But this sort of social Apartheid is wrong and needs to be called out for what it is.
It seems that social cleansing, social apartheid, and social inequality have been accepted as ‘common sense’ by the political elites, whether that means social cleansing the poor out of London altogether, providing different entrances to buildings to ensure that the rich don’t need to meet the poor, or de-humanizing people through ridiculing the places where they live, their culture, and their lives.
Perhaps ironically, this kind of hard-line neo-liberal thinking can generate class consciousness born out of a sense of unfairness . Grass-roots activism is thriving among groups united in their experience of being treated harshly and having very little or no power. They are fighting for their lives and the futures of their children as we fought in 1984 against pit closures. Many think the fight in 1984/5 was about coal and the closure of mines, and to some extent it was. In truth, our struggle as a striking family was much greater than coal and mines. It was about safeguarding our community, our way of life, and our culture — everything that made us proud working-class men, women, and children. We lost that fight, the mines were closed, 193,000 miners lost their livelihoods, and thousands more local jobs connected to the industry also disappeared. We lost our communities, we lost our families as each generation had to move out of the mining towns to find work elsewhere, and we lost our collective politics and our strong proud culture. This is what happens when thriving and tight knit communities are destroyed and de-valued.
The fight in London is also about saving working-class communities, and this fight has become especially apparent among mothers in the UK who were not politically active, perhaps, until they faced eviction, like the Focus E15 women. Recently, I have met women with their children on protests who have never been involved in politics before, who are now organizing solely by their class and their experiences.
Getting By shows how important community, family, and neighborhood still are to working-class people. Although there is an absence- a void left by professional politicians in how working class people ‘do politics,’ the book shows that there is a collective and a political identity emerging out of the concept of ‘belonging and community’. I feel confident that energy and class consciousness are rising among people who even a year ago had little interest in politics. Working-class people are becoming angry at the levels of inequality they see and the unfairness and injustice they are experiencing. I am hopeful because the discontent and change in working-class politics are coming from the grass roots, from mothers with babies on their hips, connected to no organized political party, shouting ‘shame on you’ at the police protecting the buildings and the power of the elites. The energy and the fight-back in the capital has both overwhelmed and inspired me to the point where even I — a very cynical working-class academic — believe that change is not only coming, but is happening.
Lisa Mckenzie is a research fellow in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, working on issues of social inequality and class stratification through ethnographic research.