Lisa McKenzie – Britain: Working-Class Anger, Brexit and the 2019 General Election

While mainstream media sees “Populism” as the threat to democracy in the Europe Union, it is actually the EU political elite. This article has less to do with Brexit, but a lot to do with who is destroying the values of European society.

Dr Lisa McKenzie is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Durham University, and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (Policy Press, 2015).

Cross-posted from The Full Brexit

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The making of the European Union referendum and now the 2019 general election has been a 40-year process. In a sense, I was writing about Brexit long before it happened. I had picked up in my life and my research a growing anger amongst working-class people, and out of that anger came a desperation for change – but also a growing mistrust towards politicians, the media, and anything connected to Westminster or the town hall. I am not a Brexiteer and never have been. I honestly don’t know whether leaving the European Union is a good or bad thing. But I do know that the idea of democracy – that we all get a say and we should all be represented somehow – is important in British society. What my experience, and my research, showed was that the idea that working-class people were being heard and represented had been steadily eroded.

Where Did it All Go Wrong, John?

“When John Prescott announced in 1997 that ‘we’re all middle class now’, he was greeted with derision; 13 years on, he has been proved to have demonstrated a rare prescience,” gushed Judith Woods in the Telegraph in January 2010.  

I remember reading this a few weeks after my PhD viva and actually laughing out loud. Firstly at John Prescott and how easily he had gone from working-class, trade unionist man-of-the-people to Tony Blair’s working class beard, and, secondly, at the author’s enthusiasm to talk about how everyone now shops at Boden and declare that class  politics no longer mattered as she looked forward to a progressive Conservative government led by David Cameron. When this article was written, Gordon Brown was still prime minister. How long and how far away does that seem now? Here we are in a new decade, the 2020s, and with a new government, and the British class system is still right at the top of our collective to do list, although we all have different stakes in how we manage that list.  

Those of us that understand and have been at the sharp end of the British class system know very well that you should never underestimate its resilience, and its power to shape British politics. I have been writing about this since 2001 when I entered higher education as a very “nontraditional” mature student – entering the grounds of the University of Nottingham in my home town for the first time at the age of 31 from an access course at a Further Education college. The only reason I went to the University of Nottingham was because I had read a book, Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen, by Ken Coates and Bill Silburn, researchers during the 1960s at the University of Nottingham. The book was based on research they had done with the Workers’ Education Authority in St Ann’s in Nottingham, where I lived. The book shows clearly that, despite all of the social goods that had been fought for and then introduced by the post-war political consensus, there was still deep poverty in Britain. Working-class people were living in slum housing without indoor bathrooms, suffering overcrowding, high levels of infant mortality, poor levels of education, and extremely low wages, insufficient to feed a family. I knew this poverty: I had grown up in it. The mould on the bedroom wall still sits on my lungs 50 years later. I had grown through and into Thatcher’s Britain but protected from the cruelty of neoliberalism by a close-knit mining community, until the vindictive politics of class hatred violently penetrated my world in the 1984 miners’ strike.  My community, my family and my class were no longer the backbone of the country; we were “the enemy within”. And that is where we have pretty much stayed ever since.  

Eventually, the Tory Party dumped Thatcher. The right-wing ideological Terminator with a handbag was replaced by a man who had run away from his music hall, working-class family to become a Tory. John Major: a man led not by ideology but by the pages of The Daily Mail, The Express and The Telegraph, the love of warm beer and leather on willow, and the middle-class hatred of the working class. His vision was “Back to basics”, which meant the purposeful division of the working class into rough and respectable. Class hatred for the former was narrated by headlines of working-class women getting pregnant to obtain council housing. Major pushed through some of the most harmful policies directed at working-class women, like the Child Support Act. His government has recently been re-narrated by the political classes as a time when Major was primarily occupied with fighting the “bastards” in his own party over Europe. The truth for working-class women at the time was that John Major had his sights on our bastards: the bastard children of those that would spoil his idealism of British respectability. During this time, Bev Skeggs produced one of the most important books ever written – Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable – which outlined perfectly how working-class women were judged mercilessly as rough until they proved otherwise.

New Labour and Gentrification      

Tony Blair, who followed Major in 1997, was marketed as a brand-new hope. We bought into this hope. We needed it. New Labour apparently had something for everyone. The sociologist Tony Giddens sold us the snake oil of the “Third way”. The middle class no longer needed to feel guilty about their unfair and unearned privileged class positions; they could send their children to private schools in the knowledge that “things could only get better” for the rest of us. And, indeed, money was spent on community centers, New Deals, Sure Starts: millions of pounds were poured into Labour cities. There were free cinema tickets for kids on council estates; everyone could do a course on being a DJ – no expense was spared. The Blair rhetoric was that the working class was finished, old fashioned. It had to move on into a new world where individuals would become mobile, civic beings, a Britpop world where Noel Gallagher and Tony Blair were the future.

And yet, like Coates and Silburn before me, I knew something was still very wrong. Undoubtedly money was being spent, but there were people and places that were not part of the New Labour future, either because they couldn’t be, or they didn’t want to be. The people on my estate in inner-city Nottingham still couldn’t find enough work that payed enough, and the people in my old mining town did not even exist in this time of new hope and New Labour. They were being run-down through policy and on purpose. Working-class women were even more pressured as New Labour sought to change “the culture of working-class families” through their social exclusion policies, which were sodden with disrespect and contempt for working-class people. John Prescott’s voice chided working mothers to do better – to be better – because we were all middle-class now. But, of course, we could not, and did not; we were not middle class. We were deemed failures for refusing to change, despite all the money that was being pumped in.

Working-class people do not like to be disrespected and they know when it’s happening. They live with it daily. They also do not like charity – and when I talk about charity I mean where you are given something very small, like a food parcel, but the price you have to pay is massive: the ultimate shame that you are a failure as a mother because you cannot feed your children. The way that social goods like council housing, pensions, and education are now narrated is linked and connected to failure and charity. You want to live in a council house on an estate near your family where you feel supported? The price you pay is that you are an utter failure, at the bottom, immobile, residuum.

One of the most widely recognised legacies of New Labour has been gentrification. This is largely understood in the way Ruth Glass intended the term: to mean an urban process concerning property, community and people – the replacement of one group of people – working class – from an area by “better” people – more affluent and middle class. However, another process of gentrification has been happening simultaneously in our politics, our culture, and our media. The very few spaces where working-class people could exist in these areas –the Labour Party, the trade unions, and popular culture – have been steady closed off. Even the term “working class” has been stripped from our language: the mainstream media avoided it, the Labour Party and the trade unions abolished it. Instead, they preferred “working people”, while the Tories preferred “hard-working people”. The term “working class” became more offensive than the word “cunt” in polite society. I know when I tell people that I am a working-class academic I hear their gasps, and when I talk about working-class people I feel the unease of the middle-class people around me that would rather that I would not mention it, and instead talk on safer ground, using words “social mobility” or “inequality”.  

Which brings us to 2020, where Boris Johnson, an Etonian toff, has been put into power not only by his traditional Tory voters but also traditional Labour voters. “How could this happen?!” The panic across the faces of Guardian readers. The dismay of the new Corbyn demographic of “young people” (whoever they are), who have not yet had the experience of living a life, and having a community and family over generations that, whoever has been prime minister, have still not been represented at Westminster. The cries of those Labour supporters of “how could they do it? The Tories have been in power for a decade and caused so much pain!” This is true, but there is another statement missing. In working-class communities, Labour has been in power forever: in the town halls, and with parachuted-in Members of Parliament, whose constituents had never heard of before they were elected and then rarely saw afterwards. Labour’s second referendum policy simply pushed working-class people over the edge.

The idea that this vote, or the Brexit vote before it, was about white men nostalgic for empire, is nonsense. The anger underpinning both votes has been boiling up for decades, and nor is it limited to men; indeed, working-class women have special reason to be angry. As a little girl, growing up in a poor working-class community in the late 1960s and 1970s, expectations of me were very limited. I would become a factory worker, then a mother, and I would raise the next generation of factory workers and miners. But for my generation, leaving school at 16 in 1984, these limited routes to respect and dignity closed along with the factories and the mines. Instead of producing the next generation of workers, our reproduction became a threat. We were producing a generation of working-class people that was surplus to requirements – hence the specific policies targeting working-class women under both Conservative and Labour governments. Working-class women and families have been under pressure for generations; the political earthquake of the last four years is intimately related to a dramatic loss of dignity and respect at the hands of policymakers.

So, like Brexit, the 2019 General election was about the British class system. The British working class know the Conservative Party, and they also know the Labour Party. They are not fools. They are not turkeys voting for Christmas. They are still with us, working in the new workhouses, like Amazon and Sports Direct. They are cleaning your offices and your homes. They are visiting food banks and still trying to hold on to all they have left – their dignity. They are mothers and children being forced into homelessness or banished to the north by Labour councils in London. And they are angry. They need and want change, and if the political class, the media or academia think the working class can be fooled by “We are all middle-class now” or “We are all in it together” or “For the many not the few”, or even “Get Brexit done”, then they are making a big mistake.

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  1. A good rant, because almost all of it is true, yet it is also an almost atavistic take on society in Britain in this century. Very understandable, but it indicates by the same token the reason why the left-behind, who do the complaining, in a way, but mostly have others do the complaining for them, are in the position they are in, and, again, mostly, without a fault of their own.
    Many working class in Britain have done very well for themselves during the last fifty years, thank you very much. Their offspring, if they have any, would, again, mostly not see themselves as working class. They have bought into the neo-con, neoliberal Postmodern consumerist multinational corporate-led and run wheeze. Pity the (ex-)working class who missed the boat or could not keep up. Now, the general consensus, handed down by corporate cheerleaders and the army of hired pens insinuating the proper narrative into young minds, and not-so-young minds. The working class of old, betrayed by its own, betrayed by they who paraded themselves as the working class champions, is now either ex-working class, the dregs and also-ran, and the woking class.
    The notion that “if you’re not for us, you are against us” has been well-internalised by the young and youngish. Join the mood or pretend for survival’s sake. So what is the lesson the left-behind may learn here? This is the way of the world. The working class wanted democracy, sort of. They wanted the Welfare State and all the trappings that go with it. With the Welfare State went not only the trappings, but also a number of traps. Benign paternalism was not to be, or not for long anyway. Getting wise to the ways of the world was, and is, the price people have to pay, willy-nilly. There is no escape from the real world, not in this day and age, if ever was. The poor in spirit will always be with us. The poor are, apparently, also destined to be always with us, except in strictly egalitarian societies, which are few and far between, and never last long unless by some benign confluence of many different influences they remain unmolested and untouched by foreign invaders, because such societies are ever not able to defend themselves. For the British, Brexit is an inexorable and also fortuitous development. Now the British people and Anglophiles at home and abroad can fashion a new society with a new social contract, and show the rest of Europe, and the world, how it is done.
    However, it will take some time. The people, the sheeple, need to be disabused of a whole raft of notions, many trotted out again and again for the lies that they are not. First axiom, “Know thyself”. There is a lot to learn.

  2. I hear this all the time, from people who let their faculties be ruled by mawkishness.

    The idea that using the safety net is something shameful is simply outrageous. In every society someone will lose out. Its a fact of life. There has been and there never will be any society that can prevent it.

    In a well ordered, compassionate humane society, we make sure that those who do lose out, whether because its their own fault, or because of unlucky circumstances get looked after via the social safety net.

    The tories think that people like this should be homeless beggars and die a quick death. They don’t say it, but they think it. They think its a waste of time and money bothering with them and society is better off with them.

    If the working class people you are talking about think their dignity is insulted by society making sure they are looked after, then the tories are right. They should be homeless and die off.

    What is shameful is people who accept this help and resent it, instead of being grateful for it.

    Working class people are doing pretty well in this country in general. A relatively small chunk of the british working class is not doing well, but its small compared to many other countries. They are the reason why we have a safety net, to make sure they have something to help them get back on their feet.

    But its not just the working class who are facing hardship that are angry. The real reason the working class is angry, is because they feel they don’t get as much as they deserve. Well no one does.

    In their anger they hurt their middle class allies with brexit. Then they voted for the tories, who hold nothing but contempt for them and want to take the safety net that they rely on away.

    You might not think that that is the turkeys voting for christmas but in reality it is exactly the turkeys voting for christmas.

    Your ridiculous claim that the middle class hates them is absurd. The tories do, not the middle class in general. Well these angry working class people, have empowered the people that hate them and stabbed the people that fought for them in the back.

    Perhaps you might think that this will induce the tories who think the working class is scum who should be thrown out to improve the soup, to help them instead. Perhaps you might think that the people who fought for a more egalitarian society will take being stabbed in the back kindly and understand. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    What is going to happen is that the people who fought for a safety net and who care about the working class, will simply start looking after themselves instead and the people who hate them will no longer face any opposition, when they set out to crush the working class.

    You know what I think they richly deserve whatever fate has in store for them, just like anyone who backstabs their allies and reward their enemies.

    Next election the middle class will find that no matter who gets into power, no one will care any longer what happens to them. Then it will be too late, because the turkeys have voted for christmas and christmas is now coming.

    You say these people know labour and they know the tories. In reality they know nothing and they are their own worse enemy.

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