Dr Lisa McKenzie
Dr Lisa McKenzie is a working-class academic. She grew up in a coal-mining town in Nottinghamshire and became politicized through the 1984 miners’ strike with her family. At 31, she went to the University of Nottingham and did an undergraduate degree in sociology. Dr McKenzie lectures in sociology at the University of Durham and is the author of ‘Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.’ She’s a political activist, writer and thinker. Follow her on Twitter @redrumlisa.
Boris Johnson’s ‘Build Build Build’ plan won’t help the UK’s working class survive the impending financial Armageddon. A revolutionary New Deal is required to help right the wrongs of 40 years of failed policies.
This week, the Bank of England published the first real data on how the Covid-19 lockdown has impacted working-class people’s lives. And it came as no surprise to many of us who study inequality that those with the most wealth have fared well under lockdown, while those with the least have become poorer.
Throughout July, as businesses evaluate their futures, hundreds of thousands of furloughed workers are about to become welfare-benefit claimants.
I remember the last time this happened, during the 1980s, when millions of working-class jobs were lost due to the de-industrialisation of Britain’s economy, leaving millions of working-class families on the scrapheap for two generations. At the time, little thought was given and no resources were provided to reskilling or retraining those whose livelihoods had been destroyed.
Men like my dad never worked again, after they were made redundant from their jobs, and young people had to leave their communities in their thousands searching for work.
The consequences of the short-sighted politics and policies of the Thatcher era have been profound in those communities that suffered, and have shaped the narrative of the working class over the past 40 years, as people who are slow to change and are left behind.
Even former chancellors are warning of a return to a 1980s level of unemployment and recession – although none of them accepts responsibility for the structures they defended that caused that unemployment. Nor do they take responsibility for their inability to think honestly or even creatively about the failure of capitalism.
I also have a warning for the government: do not push the 1980s solution of getting ‘on your bike’ and looking for non- existent work, as Norman Tebbit cruelly suggested to the British working class when there were three million unemployed.
Similarly, do not allow the market to recalibrate and decide who eats and who does not, as both Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson suggested, when British manufacturing went to the wall.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is suggesting a national programme of ‘Build Build Build’, hoping that big infrastructure projects will provide what the market can’t: a decent life lived with dignity. In truth, this is another mere sticking plaster.
Over the past 40 years, working-class people have watched their jobs, their communities and their way of life be destroyed by unemployment. They have seen the fetishisation of cities as playgrounds for the rich, and the pushing of the idea that your own chance of ‘success’ is measured through a £50,000 debt paid for a university degree.
The consequence of this has been that the social, political and cultural life of the working class has also diminished. Working-class people are now barely represented outside of low-paid, low-skilled work centred in the limited space of the service sector, healthcare, retail and distribution centres.
Even the government’s own appointed Social Mobility Commission acknowledges that class inequality and class prejudice is entrenched in our society. But it has no real solutions, and simply trots out the usual unimaginative tropes of raising aspiration for young working-class people.
So I’ll help it out. Working-class people need their own ‘New Deal’, which not only recognises the even greater inequalities caused by Covid-19 and the economic disaster that is on its way, but acknowledges the economic, social, political and cultural attack they have sustained for over 40 years.
The New Deal for working-class people would recognise that access to good, safe and affordable housing is needed immediately.
It would recognise that the welfare-benefits system that’s supposed to catch those who need support is cruel, humiliating and keeps people in poverty, rather than lifting them out.
And it would recognise that our education system, from primary school to university, has become a freeway for the middle class to use to maintain their own positions. This, of course, prevents the sort of real social mobility that means working-class people can be lawyers, academics or writers, but it also allows the middle class’s untalented children to fail.
Only when these points are addressed can Britain’s working class look forward with any sense of optimism.