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Lisa McKenzie on Class and Culture in St. Ann's

27 September 16 words: Robin Lewis
"I want to be a working class academic, one who brings in their personal experience of that world, and tell other academics that they were not the sole interpreters of working class life"
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photo: Stephen Wright

You’ve lived in St Ann’s for more than twenty years, but you were born in Sutton-in-Ashfield…
It was a very homogenous place, bound by tradition. Whenever you get those white, working class communities, on one level it’s an amazing place to live with a big family, but it can be quite claustrophobic, and if you have different ideas of how to do things you can be ostracised. Those places are built on shared culture, past narratives. It was always ‘we’, never ‘I’. Then, growing up in the eighties, working class people were hammered by the Thatcher government. Everything about us – our culture, our values, our identities – was under pressure, and that ‘we’ was being smashed by Thatcher and her idea of a free market society.

Did your family involve themselves in the politics of the day?
My dad was a striking miner in 1984, but my mum was more political. We were a strongly matriarchal family, like most working class families. Some of the stories about women in the miners’ strike are told from a very middle class view, the idea that these women were getting involved in politics for the first time in their lives during the strike is absolute balls. My mum was involved in trade unionism when she was sixteen.

You worked in the Pretty Polly factory for many years. What was your job there?
I worked on the Takatori machine, sewing gussets. By the time I went to work you didn’t make a pair of tights, you just loaded a machine. My mum was a toe-seamer in the next room. You didn’t care about the job itself like the miners did, but we did have a sense of community. I was sixteen when I started but some there were in their sixties; it was a huge cross-section of working class women. My mum and all my aunties were there. The job was boring – I remember talking to a friend of my mum’s and asking her, “Sue, can you die of boredom?”

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photo: Stephen Wright

What led to you taking the access course, which led to a master’s degree, a doctorate and now a research fellowship at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)?
My mum died, and that changes everything. I felt like I lost my connection to who I was and ended up quite ill with depression. It really made me think about what I was doing. I was seeing a mental health nurse and felt I couldn’t go back to work, so she asked me what I wanted to do when I was younger. I wanted to be involved in social work, so she said why not try it?

I went to the job shop in Hockley and they told me I could start an Access to Social Work course the next week. I did it, and thought every day I’d leave, but stuck it out. I loved the the education, but realised I didn’t want to be a social worker. Halfway through, I came across Ken Coates’ book, Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman, and knew that was what I wanted to do. From the point of view of someone who’s lived through it.

You stood to be an MP in 2015 against Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green. What was that like?
A nightmare, to be honest. Never again. I stood against him because he’s such a hateful character. I was meeting with people who were suffering the consequences of his crusade against the poor: disabled people, mothers going to food banks. I wanted a platform to show what his ideology was causing in working class communities. It was clear that money is being taken from the poor and given to the rich in all sorts of ways.

I never got to debate with him in public. For the whole election results night he had two police bodyguards sit with me. They followed me to the loo, and the only time they weren’t next to me was the end of the night when we were on stage for the result. When he tried to give his speech, after increasing his majority, I stood next to him and shouted “Murderer”.

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photo: Stephen Wright

What was your aim with Getting By, your book about working class culture in St Ann’s?Like Ken Coates’ book, I wanted to speak to those above – local councillors and local politicians – but also to working class people themselves. I also wanted to change the way academic research is done. Too often it’s done by people who come in from above the community who then write an academic book and tell other academics what they’ve found. I want to be a working class academic, one who brings in their personal experience of that world, and tell other academics that they were not the sole interpreters of working class life. That the working class could look at themselves.

What feedback have you had?
Very positive. I’ve given copies to the St Ann’s libraries, and everyone who’s in it knows they’re in it. I was worried about negative consequences coming from outside the community, with people using bits of it as weapons against the community, but that hasn’t happened in the way I’d feared.

In your book you talk about how the area is isolated from the rest of the city in many ways...
The negative way people think of St Ann’s causes the isolation, and allows it to be used as a political football. Sometimes it gets money, but a lot of it got wasted, and in 2010 the new government came in and things went downhill very quickly. Unemployment among young black people in St Ann’s is ridiculous.

It’s officially at 11%, but that misses a lot of people – men on the estate who stay off the system and aren’t counted towards official figures. They want you to believe unemployment has never been lower and that’s a good thing, but lots of people are on incomes that have never been lower.

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photo: Stephen Wright

What do you see happening in St Ann’s over the next few years?
The political rhetoric about council estates like St Ann’s has moved into a new place. They now say that council estates cause crime, poverty and unemployment. What I fear is that St Ann’s itself might be blamed, knocked down, and the community broken up and moved elsewhere.

The estate has problems. It needs better infrastructure, it needs better services, but these things cost money and I fear the estate will be run down to the point that people won’t want to live there anymore. What they’ve done in London is offer people money to move once the estate has been run down, then sell the estate to a developer. And council house stock will disappear even more. Since they started selling it off it’s never been replaced, and working class families have to move into privately rented accommodation at triple the rent.

Has the EU referendum had much of an impact on the people you’ve spoken to?
The vote to leave, from what people there have told me, wasn’t about leaving the EU. It was about whether people had had enough of how things are. The working class looked at the referendum as the question “Is your life any good at the moment?” and they voted no, it’s not.

What are you working on now?
A book about gentrification in London, social cleansing and social apartheid. But in September I’m going to come back to Sutton-in-Ashfield to do some work on the women I used to work with in the factory and tell their story. I’m coming back home.

Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, is out now through Policy Press.

Lisa McKenzie on Twitter

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