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.
The British left is once again ignoring those they claim to represent branding them ‘far-right conspiracy theorists’ for being worried about the erosion of their freedoms.
There has been deep civil unrest over the weekend as citizens refuse to accept the creeping authoritarianism eating into their freedom and civil rights. There have been street protests, and serious clashes against the police across the country, quite rightly challenging the state on legislation that is being pushed through which threatens people’s rights to walk around their communities safely.
These protests in France were in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed legislation making it unlawful to record and to video the French police. The protests were successful as well with the news today that part of the bill curbing the filming of police officers would be removed and rewritten. These new clashes between the people and the state in France come after years of working class protests from the Gilet Jaunes, who took to the streets every weekend to protest fuel price rises and a rising cost of living until Covid-19 restrictions made them impossible.
In the United Kingdom our government is equally guilty of pushing through legislation in the name of controlling Covid-19 that is really more about controlling the population and infringing our civil rights. Thanks to the tiers system, throughout the country there is a growing distrust of how and for whom these measures are being implemented. Questions are also arising over the real purpose behind handing over increased powers to the police and local councils to curb behaviour.
The government appears to be facing rumblings of an opposition and possible defeat over their plans amongst MPs, but this is coming from their own backbenchers rather than the official opposition. Sadly, in the UK this is not an uncommon experience. The Labour Party and the wider British left have no understanding or political will when it comes to the working classes, seeing them as either voting fodder or a scary mob one Facebook like away from joining a far-right group.
Throughout the lockdown the Labour Party and the British left have used the working class as pawns in their political point scoring games. The clarion call to feed ‘hungry children’ has been their favourite cry of late, but there has been little or no acknowledgement of their concerns over growing authoritarianism and policing in poorer communities.
Although scenes which occurred in France are very rare in the UK there have been some protests against the Covid-19 lockdown. Mostly this goes unreported but in cities like Manchester, Nottingham, Liverpool, and Bristol there have been weekly gatherings, protests and arrests in response to a number of issues that Covid-19 have thrown up mostly about the concept of ‘freedom’.
The press have lazily dismissed these protesters as “anti-maskers,” reducing their concerns to wearing a bit of cloth over their faces. This is a mistake – in London these protesters have gathered in their thousands since April in Trafalgar Square and in Hyde Park, and have engaged in clashes with the police. Sixty people were arrested on Saturday, many as they came off the train at Kings Cross station coming from other parts of the country. I have looked at the footage and the police tactics are brutal and aggressive, picking out someone to arrest and surrounding them obscuring the opportunity for them to be filmed – similar to the tactics being used and protested against in France.
So where is the outrage? Where are the radicals? Where are the left?
Mostly they are arguing amongst themselves on social media about a bloke from Islington, while the brother of that bloke, Piers Corbyn, has been arrested several times for protesting. That is how easy it is for the dismissal of the ‘anti-maskers’ as cranks and far-right nut jobs stirring up trouble. To some extent those concerns are valid. The far-right do have a tendency to try and capitalise on the fears of the working class around losing any power and control over their own lives – which is why migrant people are such an easy scapegoat for those on the far-right to use. And some of those right-wing recruiters have been mingling amongst these protests.
But there is also a genuine unease amongst people who have the least power and least control over their lives, conspiracy theories are being passed around through social media and through communities that appear to make sense to people. They are trying to understand their own oppression but without any political analysis why wouldn’t the most disenfranchised people see sense in a theory which says there are evil cabals of lying powerful people trying to kill you through any means necessary?
It is lazy and easy to ‘ignore the racist cranks’ and to discourage working class fears around authoritarianism ‘because it’s all/they are all racist’. There are thousands of communities all over the country and millions of people not involved in any protests but are seeing and experiencing increasing levels of policing and police presence. Many local councils are using the Covid rules to enforce policies that have not been fully and democratically agreed by their communities – closing off roads, changing traffic routes in cities, and dolling out penalty charge notices like flyers for offences – including gathering with your own family and driving down roads that just a few weeks ago had no restrictions.
There has been increased stop and search by the police in communities that are already vulnerable to state scrutiny – black communities, Roma communities and council estates – all in the name of ‘public safety’. My argument today is that there may be a vaccine on the horizon for Covid-19 but that vaccine will not eradicate the middle class fear of a united working class. Neither will it vaccinate the working class against middle class smothering and infiltration of our grassroots self-organised political movements. The government, the opposition and the British bourgeoisie left are all petrified of a united working class, and will always do all they can to stop it materialising.