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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Lisa Mckenzie

“Stories of England”

28 March 2018

University of Winchester

Lisa McKenzie, London School of Economics


This is an uncorrected transcript of talks given at the ‘Stories of England’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 28 March 2018.  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.

My work has always focused on this concept of exclusion and really the struggle for the recognition of value.  So that means that the people who are excluded in society, I'm always interested in how they struggle to be recognised and valued.  And so, the work that I've been doing and how this relates I suppose to the debate today, it's not something that I've been doing over the last year or two years, it's actually a process of 50 years.  I'm an ethnographer, which basically that means that it's a research method which means I'm embedded into a community.  

So, I spend a lot of time actually embedded in communities.  My first research for my PhD was in a council estate in Nottingham called the St Anne's council estate, where I also lived for 20 years, and it was about white mothers who had got mixed race children.  And the way that they identified, both with their local community, their position of struggle, not that they talked about class, but they did talk about struggle and being at the bottom, but also their connections to the West Indian, the Jamaican community, that they shared a space with, and how they described themselves as mixed families and white but not all white, because their children were not white. 

And the way that they used their family photographs to show me that actually being English and being British had changed for them, because their family photographs were a mixture of black, brown, white people.  And so that was my first research, and that was about the way that identity and belonging worked in a local excluded community. 

The St Anne's community in Nottingham, a council estate that is one of those council estates, and we all know what they are, or we think we know what they are, is when you go to any city you go, well, there's this place and you don't go there, because this is the place where the drugs are, this is the place where the single mums live, this is a problem place.  So, St Anne's in Nottingham was a problem place and I've lived there for 20 years. 

And so, I was interested in how this problem place and these problem people actually found value for themselves, and they found value from family, community, all the things that actually that Aneep and Katherine have said.   So, I want to move on from that, because I think where that has led me actually was in sort of 2016, was it, the Brexit vote?  Yeah.  And so, what happened, I was always interested in excluded communities, so I went to London, because I got a job at the LSE, and again I was interested in excluded communities. 

So, my research for the last four years has been in London, and it's been around community, working-class community, working-class communities in London that have been devalued and actually are not worth the land that they live on.  And I say this, these are not my words, these are actually the words of many different politicians, and I'm sad to say mostly Labour politicians who say if you can't afford to live in London, you can't afford to live in London, you need to get out.  And so, over the last five or six years there's been this process that I call class cleansing. 

Savills, the estate agent, who at the moment are advising Sadiq Khan's office in Housing, is pumping out thousands of pieces of research about how the housing crisis can be solved.  And one of the ways that they think it can be solved, and the Mayor's Office has actually taken advice on this, is if you live in London and you personally, not your wife, not your kids, not your dog, not your cat, not anyone else, if you are not worth £70,000, which is the amount of space that Savills says that you need to live and work in, the minimum amount of space, you are taking up space and you need to get out, because you're not worth the land that you live on. 

This is a report that Savills did in 2017, January, so this is not my words.  And so, what I've been doing in London for the last five years really is just sort of campaigning with working-class communities who are about to lose their homes, because their homes are being knocked down.  Their communities are being gentrified and they don't feel like they belong in these communities that they've lived for many years.  But like I said, I've always done work on those that feel excluded and not included with the rest of society. 

And so, what I often do is – this is – I take lots of photographs when I do my research and ethnography – so I do ethnographic walks, so these are walks that I do.  And I've done the same walk every week for four years and I take photographs of this walk.  And this is part of the walk, and what I've been doing is sort of taking photographs of these big glass and chrome towers that are going up into the sky and actually are excluding everybody because they start at £700,000, which is not affordable for anybody. 

And the idea that London is this special place for special people and the rest are to get out, and so it's sold with billboards like (Spectaculars) use, and concierges and all the rest of it, and as I looked at this photograph when I got home, I saw this person there.  And he is one of the excluded of London, he's invisible; people don't see him.  And there he is. 

And I looked back at the photographs that I'd taken over the years and he's there all the time, until… and actually I suppose symbolically what I'm trying to say is you see him, you see him, there's the camera, and do you see him, and he's gone.  And he's excluded from London.  Well, this exclusion of people in London is not just about the homeless. 

The homeless is an example.  But actually, it's about many different communities that live across London that don't have this £70,000 per person and are excluded by capital, by private property, but also the politics of middleclass elite that don't see him.  And actually, they see very few other people as well. 

So, it's this idea that the new developers are placemaking, so they're removing the stories and the histories of the working-class people that have been there for generations and they're placemaking.  They're doing this new thing called placemaking and they're creating their own histories, their own narratives.  And the narratives of the people – I call it the new eugenics – and the narratives of the people that have been there that are now no longer welcome are being dismissed and washed over. 

I call it the new eugenics because this is the sort of advertising billboards that are all over London, and as you can see, it's about the young, the white, the middleclass, the transient community, no disabled people there, there's no black people there, there's no children there.  There are no elderly people there.  There are no working-class people there.  Interestingly enough on this board, about six months ago I went back – and I haven't put the photographs up – but literally they'd photoshopped two black people in.  So, somebody has actually said to them, oh, you've got no black… and they've literally photoshopped just there two black people.

So, this idea – I haven't got time to talk about this – that there are these excluded people in London that are not welcome has always been a part of my research and interesting.  So, this some graffiti on the wall, and actually it's in Newham.  And Newham in East London, you'll know it from the Olympics, but Westfield and all the new developments are there.  I know it from amount of social cleansing of working-class women and their children that has happened over the last five years. 

And I have come across women that have lived in Newham, that have now been spread out all over the country and being forced out, because they are not welcome, and they don't earn this £70,000 per person.  And so, on the wall it's Labour Mayor, Labour Council, Labour MPs, still they build homes for the rich.  And this is the narrative that is London, that the Labour Party now represents not them.  So that's the research that I was doing for four years.  And then since the Brexit vote, and actually I did research…

When I was researching and working with groups of women that actually were being moved out of London, it's very interesting.  Because in 2015 when we had an election, they had no interest whatsoever, not interested, not talking about it, we don't care.  2016 when we had the referendum, very interested, how do I sign up, how do I register, how do I vote, I want to be heard, I've had enough. 

And these are women actually from London.  And what they said to me, and I remember the day before the referendum, I said to them, do you think if we leave the EU, do you think things are going to change for you.  And they said no, and I said, well, what do you think is going to happen.  And they said well, it's not that I think things are going to change, it's just that I cannot stand them being the same. 

And so, I then got a… and actually I wrote this article in The Guardian and people became really interested in it, because kind of a week before the referendum in London I said we're probably going to vote out, people in London went, oh, oh gosh.  But actually, there was groups of people in London who actually couldn't wait to vote out because of the exclusion that they felt.  On the back of that, the LSE said to me, oh, you know, you sound like you know something about working-class people, would you like to go and do some more research on this working-class Brexit vote. 

So, I went to the East Midlands.  Unlike Newcastle, it doesn't have a strong identity of this place, because the East Midlands is Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and bits of Leicestershire as well.  And so, I went up there, I was talking to mainly WC leaders, people who had worked down the pits and worked in factories.  And what they told me, they talked about this narrative of exclusion as well, not being part of something. 

This is an area that actually the area that I was doing research in, within 20 miles there was 20 pits.  There was a pit every mile.  The mines made up so much of the landscape, and now the landscapes are empty, apart from these sort of memorials that are dotted all over the place. 

And what had happened is, in this community, in these communities, is where once there was organised labour, there was strong unions, there were good rates of pay for working-class people and the dignity, a sense of dignity, what was left – I mean this rhetoric that they are the left-behind, which I will argue to the death, because these are not people that have been left behind.  Because left behind suggests that they couldn't keep up.  This is not the case.  These are people that were purposely declined, they were purposely left out, excluded. 

These communities, for the ten years not much happened; in the last five years what has happened is because it's in the East Midlands - I don't know if I've got a map on the next one, no – what has happened is massive warehouses have moved in.  So, we've got Sports Direct, we've got Amazon up there as well, these massive warehouses that are… Sports Direct is four miles long, and it's sits where Shirebrook pit used to sit. 

This is Dennis Skinner's, the great Dennis Skinner, Left-Wing politician, this is his constituency, Labour MP, Labour Councils, and we've got a Sports Direct where actually last year three women were so afraid to have time off from work because they were pregnant gave birth in the toilets.  This is a place where people have to walk three miles to clock in to work, you know, and actually the miners, the old miners that live in these communities, because these are their communities that used to be theirs, they've told me of a time when their dads and their grandads would have to walk four miles down the pit to start work before they even got paid.  And here we are back again with these systems - I haven't got the picture of that – with these systems of exploitation. 

And so therefore, when I was talking to people about their identities and how they feel, it was very much excluded and not included in this sort of South East sort of fest of wealth and culture.  Interestingly enough, and this is where I thought I'd bring it back to the English thing, is for the first time, and this happened with the people in London, with the women in London as well, for the first time in 15 years of my research, I started to hear people talking about being English. 

And this was in… and I think this is because it's in the East Midlands where there's not this other strong identity, but also in London, because of the proximity to… You know, I'm ashamed to admit this, but, you know, there are working-class people in London who still love the Royal Family.

I'm talking about excluded people, and the way that over the last, for 15 years, I've not heard this language of Englishness, but actually think Brexit in these people who have been excluded are now talking about Englishness as a way to be included.  So, I'll leave it there.




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