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The pitchforks are coming

Red Pepper speaks to Lisa McKenzie, the candidate taking Class War to Tory Essex

April 21, 2015
8 min read

mckenzieWith previous MPs including Winston Churchill, who sent in troops to deal with striking miners in South Wales, and ‘Margaret Thatcher’s bootboy’ Norman Tebbit, the kind of class war that usually goes down well in Chingford, Essex, is anti-organised working class Conservatism. It’s no surprise that the present incumbent is the Tory butcher-in-chief of the welfare system, Iain Duncan Smith, who enjoys a majority of nearly 13,000.

So Lisa McKenzie, contesting the rock-solid Tory seat of Chingford and Woodford Green under the anarchist Class War banner, is not, it’s fair to say, likely to top the polls on 7 May. ‘God, I’d be mortified,’ she confesses. ‘I mean, have you seen that Inside the Commons programme on the telly? I’d be gutted!’

For this candidate, standing for election has nothing to do with personal ambition. As we met in her office at the London School of Economics, where she is currently a sociology fellow, McKenzie was already being bombarded with media requests following the publication of her book, Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain. It is based on doctoral research she conducted in the council estate of St Ann’s in Nottingham, where she lived as a single mum for 15 years after leaving school at 16. The book, which carries an introduction by Danny Dorling and an afterword by Owen Jones, has won her a ‘respectable’ academic platform for her first-hand insights into the reality of life in this working-class community.

The residents of St Ann’s have been unusually well-served by ethnographic research into their lives. This was the community described in Ken Coates and Richard Silburn’s classic study of poverty in the 1960s, outlined in two books (one of them the Penguin special Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen), which inspired a film directed by the young Stephen Frears. By the time McKenzie encountered their work as a mature student, a decade and a half after leaving school to work in the same Pretty Polly tights factory as her mother, much had changed in the lives of residents, and in particular how they were perceived from the outside.

Growing up in the nearby mining community of Sutton-in-Ashfield, Lisa recalls how working-class identity was a source of collective pride and strength. She stresses how tight the bonds of community were in the days before the 1984-85 miners’ strike, when generations of male relatives, including her father, grandfather and great grandfather, worked down the pit and her whole family lived in the same small town. Lisa left school in 1984, shortly after her dad went on strike on her 16th birthday. Things were never the same again.

Five pits and 6,000 workers were lost locally, and young people had their aspirations and future job security ripped from under them. But – and this point has clearly stayed with Lisa in her academic studies – the damage was also cultural and symbolic. Suddenly, from being a source of pride, the working-class residents of the mining communities felt that their very identities were disparaged and ridiculed. They were told they were stuck in the past, old-fashioned vestiges of a dying manufacturing economy who lacked the capacity to re‑skill and adapt to the new era of globalisation.

Abundant stereotypes

Negative attitudes and stereotypes about residents of council estates are similarly abundant. Tory ministers, the tabloid press and sensationalist TV programmes paint a picture of feckless scroungers on benefits, feral scum whose violence threatens to disrupt public order, whose rampant breeding places an intolerable burden on ‘hard-working families’. This is no great revelation. What distinguishes McKenzie’s research is that she reports on how people interpret, evaluate and comprehend their experiences in their own terms.

Politicians, policymakers and commentators often define the lives of people on council estates with moral judgements about what they deem to be lacking in their lives. So there’s much talk of giving people more sense of aspiration, encouraging people to work (by stripping away welfare entitlements) and so on.

McKenzie reverses the terms of this debate. It’s true that there is something wrong, she says, but it’s not that working-class people are cultural and economic failures, rather that the social and economic structures of neoliberal capitalist societies have systematically failed our communities. So even the apparently well-intentioned New Labour-type interventions are essentially a further means of blaming people for their own ‘failure’ and reinforcing the stereotypes beneath a thick layer of patronising cant.

This framework of what’s ‘lacking’ in the lives of the ‘socially excluded’ imposes a helplessness and victim-status that belies the real sense of agency that working-class people show in contesting official narratives and producing alternative accounts of what they find valuable about their lives. In the St Ann’s study people find a sense of status and worth in terms that operate within the community – being known across the estate, accommodating the influence of an earlier generation of Jamaican migrants, having mixed-race friends – and help to produce a fierce sense of pride and belonging in being ‘St Ann’s’. In its own way it is a very political response, but light years away from the ‘politics’ peddled by mainstream politicians.

That isn’t to deny the material violence that society continues to inflict on these communities, whether through heavy-handed and discriminatory police tactics or the slow collapse of local infastructure. But while the ‘broken Britain’ narrative stresses the breakdown of community, McKenzie argues that ‘robbings, shootings and stabbings’ are still normally isolated flashpoints. ‘Anger is a natural response to being fucked over,’ she observes tartly. But it’s the suppressed anger of life in claustrophobic situations. It fizzes beneath the surface all the time, and can erupt in unpredictable ways.

McKenzie is contemptuous of UKIP, but criticises those who would simply dismiss the residents of council estates for being ‘racist’ without ever having to deal with the economic realities of working-class life themselves. She describes how the local council housed around 40 Kurdish asylum seekers in a single block, without any consultation with the community, and without any jobs or facilities for them. Unable to speak English, they were left to hang about on the streets all day, with no work and no prospects. ‘Great idea that was,’ she says.

But it’s the authorities she blames, not the people, who have demonstrated a remarkable degree of resourcefulness and adaptability despite the obstacles thrown in their way. She points out that the community was riven by racial tensions between the white host community and Caribbean immigrants in the late 1950s and 1960s. But people had to find a way to get on, and the black community has now become an integral part of part of life on the estate.

Community appeal

These are the sorts of communities that McKenzie will be appealing to in the election. ‘People are scathing, they have had enough. Working-class Londoners – they’re talking about anarchy,’ she says. ‘It’s just so bloody wrong. I look at it and think, “Is this really happening?” The other week I stood outside of Finchley Town Hall. They’ve given a whole council estate [in West Hendon] to Barratt homes. They’ve got this great big development planned for rich people to live in, and the council estate’s being demolished. Barratts will build them a new estate – housing association though – yet people that live there now have already bought their homes. They’ve got no choice but to sell, but there’s no way they can buy again in Hendon.’

‘Women, with children, are on the frontline of this,’ McKenzie continues. ‘People are being shipped out of London. They don’t want to go – this is where they’re from, where their friends are. When everything else has gone, all you’re left with is each other, the community. It becomes more and more important as society gets made more unequal. It’s the cruellest thing – they’re taking the very last thing people have.

‘I want to put class back into politics. No one’s offering what the people of Britain want. No one. So we’ll be disappointed whatever happens. And we’ll get angry. Politics has no relationship to people any more. You ask what people want locally, and then tell people they can’t have that, we can’t afford it.

‘I’ve got a little catchphrase: the pitchforks are coming. You can only take so much.’

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