by Lisa McKenzie, LSE Fellow
A spectre is haunting London and that spectre is the rumble of grass roots civil disobedience, activism and – dare I say – a people’s anarchism.
Karl Marx originally wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 as a pamphlet to be read and used by the masses in their class struggle. The Manifesto is a passionate and commanding piece of writing, which has inspired and captured the imaginations of academics, politicians, grass roots activists, and the everyday working class worker for almost 170 years. However since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, and the defeat of the Miners by the Thatcher government in 1985, 30 years ago, it has been argued by many that class struggle has finished, its has ended, and the need for class consciousness, class politics, and class war has been rendered obsolete through identity politics, individualism, and the ‘freedom’ that Neoliberalism brings.
However, over the last few months a militant and grass roots activism has been rumbling away in the heart of our capital city. A dis-organised and responsive activism, communities reacting to the growing inequality, unfairness, and injustice they experience from living in a city where in one square mile there are millionaires working in the financial district, while next door in Tower Hamlets, 50% of children live in poverty. Communities, groups and individuals are fighting back in London without any official or mainstream politics or political figures supporting them or even knowing that they exist.
As a working class woman, and an academic working at the London School of Economics, I also consider myself to be a community and political activist. Consequently over the years I have been involved in many community projects and campaigns. Not since the 1980’s, however, have I experienced the militancy and anxiety amongst working class people and communities which appears to be happening all over London. Maybe I am a naïve Northerner who hasn’t yet got to grips with the politics of London. I might disagree with that though, because in 1984 I was the 16-year-old daughter of a striking miner in North Nottinghamshire, and I have lived through and experienced strange and difficult political times, and during that intense year of 1984-85 I saw glimpses of political revolution. However the events over the last few months in our capital city have left me feeling terrified, exhausted and weak, while simultaneously inspiring me and giving me hope for a future that definitely could be different.
My previous life in Nottingham consisted of community work, and academic research predominantly with mothers who lived on an inner city council estate, I spent 8 years researching the neighbourhood I had lived in for 25 years. I have documented the narratives of those women, their lives and the problems that are faced by working class people living in council estates in Nottingham elsewhere. However in the last 13 months I have lived in east London, and worked at the London School of Economics continuing my academic research but have also become involved in activism and campaigns in London. The energy, and the fight back in the capital has overwhelmed me and inspired me to the point where even I, a cynical lefty academic, believe that change is coming, and it’s happening now. At the same time my research in East London has shown some of the worse examples of inequalities and injustice I have seen towards working class families.
The campaign and fight of the Focus E15 mothers have been one of those terrible examples of how working class families and young mothers in particular are being treated in austerity Britain. The young mothers with very young children were forcibly evicted from a homeless hostel in 2013 in Newham, East London; the hostel sits in the shadow of the billion pound developments of the Olympic Park and the Westfield Shopping Centre. The young mother’s evictions were treated with a severe lack of empathy and with no apparent care for their welfare by the Labour council and a Labour Mayor who seems to despise their existence. They were told that the only social housing available to them was in Hastings, Birmingham, or Wolverhampton. Places where they had no connections, or family. They have been fighting for affordable homes for themselves but also the wider community since September 2013.
Meanwhile devastated families are facing eviction after the inherited estate of Britain’s richest MP bought a stake in their homes on the New Era Estate in Hoxton, Hackney. Conservative Member of Parliament Richard Benyon’s £110million family firm is part of a consortium which bought the housing estate and announced plans for a massive rent hike. Up to 90 households fear the Benyons’ plan to charge “market rents” will treble their bills. Which will force the families who have lived there for generations to leave the neighbourhood, and the residents also know that if they lose this fight they will have to leave London as rents soar way above the affordability of any working class family.
At the same time, multimillion pound housing developments in London are segregating less well-off tenants from wealthy homebuyers by forcing them to use separate entrances. A Guardian investigation discovered a growing trend in the capital’s upmarket apartment blocks – which are required to include affordable homes in order to win planning permission. However poorer residents are forced to use alternative access, a phenomenon being dubbed “poor doors”. Even bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities and postal deliveries are being separated.
It seems that social cleansing, social apartheid and social inequality has been accepted as ‘common sense’ by the political elites of London. Through the narrative that London is a special place where the special people live, and if you cannot afford to live in London you need to leave, and leave quickly and quietly.
The unintended consequences of this hard line neo-liberal approach to the identity of Britain’s capital city is that some of the most dispossessed and powerless groups are forming their own political movements, growing in working class communities around a class consciousness centred around the precarity of low paid and insecure work, rising rents, and the onslaught of gentrification of their neighbourhoods which seldom includes them in its plans. This grass roots activism is thriving amongst those groups who are being treated harshly, and have very little or no power, they are fighting for their lives, their communities and for the future of their children as we did in 1984 against pit closures. This fight has become especially apparent amongst working class mothers, who until they faced eviction and homelessness they were not politically active, or interested. There are now campaigns all over London from Hendon to Lewisham fighting forced evictions, and the unfair inequality and struggles that Londoners are now experiencing in their everyday lives. I have met women with their children on recent protests at the TUC Austerity March ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’ who have never been on a political march before, and mothers with their babies are picketing outside the notorious ‘One Commercial Street’ that was investigated by the Guardian as a ‘Poor Door’ developer.
And if all of this grass roots activism hasn’t been strange enough in belly of the beast which is London, we have had an emergence in ‘celebrity’ activists bringing attention to the causes of the Focus E15 and the New Era Campaigns in the form of the self-styled messiah and agent provocateur Russell Brand, who I bump into almost daily at some community meeting, protest, or picket. The BBC3 programme ‘The Revolution will be Televised’ is also on site at most protests, filming and interviewing those who have a fight in London. The politicians of Westminster have no idea that this is happening; while celebrities are in awe of these strong and determined working class women, hanging on the their coat tails for legitimacy in their own political positions.
There is an energy in the Capital, and dare I say a class-consciousness is rising amongst people who even just 12 months ago had little interest in politics. Something is happening; a spectre? Or is Revolution in the air as Russell Brand’s new book ‘Revolution’ advocates? Perhaps, although I am doubtful Mr Brand’s book will have the impact that ‘The Communist Manifesto’ had as a call to arms to the working class to shake off their chains. Undoubtedly Mr Brand and other celebrities are adding and highlighting the rumble of discontent within the Nation that mainstream politics are failing to reach.
I am hopeful and inspired that the discontent and change in working class politics are coming from the grass roots, from mothers with babies on their hips shouting ‘shame on you’ as they march for the first time past parliament.
Broadly support the above central themes and especially celebrities smelling press attention. Yet the parochialism looms large as usual – oh something is happening in the capital where activism and just about everything else starts and ends
The bedroom tax is a classic example. London has 22% affected in the first figures and the North West 43% or double the London figure. The 32 LAs in London saw a whopping 50 appeals against this or 1.5 per LA while Liverpool had 131. Liverpool by FOI figures released August 2014 had 680 and still rising.
What characterised and epitomised these appeals was grassroots activists, many formerly apolitical yet despite verifiable success rates of over 70% these go unreported because they are not in the capital. The media and the celebrities who crave the media attention, as well as academia (?) only see an issue and get excited about it if it is London based.
One of the first tenants cases I won at appeal saw that tenant ‘pay it back’ by taking cases herself but of course that ‘energy and class consciousness’ is oop North and well away from the heady glare of media and academic attention. She like many others come to these new politics from not a right or left position but from a right or wrong position. Not class consciousness just good old-fashioned humanity.
Many of the dozens of grassroots groups in Merseyside were political at the outset but once it became clear that right or wrong and the tenant need was at the core and hence not a great opportunity to sign up new members or sell more newspapers, such groups withered away to preach their class consciousness elsewhere.
That same issue of right and wrong and not right and left remains to this day, is of far more academic interest than ‘class consciousness’ yet perhaps just that bit too far away from the superficial celebrity media academia that pervades in the capital once in a blue moon feeding such articles as this.
Thank you for your comment above, and I agree with you that there is a lot of London focused discussion that often excludes the rest of the UK. However that was not my intention most of my work has been about Nottingham where I lived until a year ago. And I have written about that in other places. This short blog was really a think piece about the way I have been feeling about London over the last few months and the protests I have been involved in which have been inspiring. I also wanted to write from a woman’s perspective about other working class women and their activism which has been remarkable in the face of the problems they have had to endure because of this governments harsh welfare cuts. I talk about class consciousness because I think its important and I know that is what happens to most people once they start to fight back and engage in activism. And in actual fact that is my back story of how I entered into higher education. I think right and wrong is far too simplistic as an argument, I have heard many ‘rational and liberal’ folks talk about right and wrong when it comes to claiming benefits and who can and should be living in specific areas and neighbourhoods. Especially about housing, however thank-you for your comments, I wrote this piece purposefully to start a discussion about grass roots activism.
Lisa’s story is clearly personal, and she made it crystal that she is from Nottingham and has been in London just a short while. She is just reporting from another front line – in this case London – and in this case housing. I live outside London but work there part of the week, and I go to the poor doors protest she writes about which is organised by Class War every Wednesday at 6pm. I have met people who are living in Glasgow and Leicester at that protest and I am from a town outside Norwich. And we are all taking back ideas from poor doors for our own actions. I too have seen the same rise in anger from my class – people like Lisa and many others. The system cant provide us with even the basics…food and a decent place to live. We want everything, we don’t want to just scrape by. And it is about class. We create the wealth that makes this the sixth richest country on earth. They use it to buy up estates in Hackney (Hoxton) hike the rents and force our people onto the streets. The City of London is a hateful sight from next door Tower Hamlets. The inequality between the suits that work there and the working class of next door Tower Hamlets – one of Europe’s poorest communities – is disgusting. If you are looking for right or wrong…its wrong for them to grow rich off our backs, and its right for us to do something about it, in whatever way we see fit. Bang on the borderline between us – as if to rub our noses in it, is a block of flats for the rich, with one entrance, and a few flats in the same building for the rest, with an entrance round the side next to the bins. We are not having it any more. When the Labour Mayor of Newham evicted the mums of E15, they said the same thing. We are not having it any more. They took over empty homes on an estate. London is not one big city….its a series of communities (not even boroughs). And housing is a big issue here. There are fights over housing breaking out in Barnet, Walthamstow, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham, in the working class areas of these communities and many many more. Too many to list. Meanwhile in Hampstead the rich are planning a protest against the mansion tax! Back in our areas, it is rent strikes, squats, eviction resistance, occupations, just to stay in our homes or find somewhere we can afford to live so we can afford to eat. Once you face that in your daily life it doesn’t take long before you lift your eyes from your shitty situation, see others in the same situation…. then look across at the glass towers of the City and ask ….why? When you see how the rich organise the system so they get richer and we lose time and time again, you know why….you understand class….and you know which side you are on. Then you join with others and act. Its kicking off everywhere, not just London. And just as Lisa says this is not being organised by political party paper sellers….her absolutely key point is this is us doing it for ourselves, and then banding together to make ourselves stronger. Lisa is currently in London and writing about it. I have written about the situation in Norfolk. My friend from Leicester the same. Joel has written about the situation in Liverpool and Merseyside. Its all good. One last thing. There’s no heady media glare and attention here – we are ignored. And as for celebrity endorsement…it makes no difference to what we’re doing. What we are doing will soon scare them away.