I am the daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of Nottinghamshire miners. My mother worked at the Pretty Polly hosiery factory her whole life and I followed her at the age of 16 after leaving school in 1984 during the miners strike. We were a striking family and, to be honest, apart from following in the footsteps of my mother and aunties I hadn’t thought much further about what life might have to offer me. We needed the income that I would bring in as the strike hit my family hard and devastated my community forever.
I left Sutton-In Ashfield, the mining town where I grew up in 1988, as many young people started to do. As the mines, the factories, and hope left – so did we. I moved into the St Ann’s estate in the inner city of Nottingham and I had my son when I was 19.
Returning to Nottingham last week to launch my book Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, has been difficult. Although I have been happy to see my friends and family, returning as a local woman made good has been unsettling. Being held up as “beating the odds”, “done good”, or “escaped” does not make me happy. It only compounds what I know about the brutal stigmatisation, and the devaluing process of working class people.
Unfortunately, offhand and casual comments relating to class prejudice and snobbery are very common. Now “I have made it”, I am not supposed to react angrily to it, I am supposed to know my place, and be grateful for getting out. However, I am angry and so are other working-class people when we have to deal with and hear these simplistic and stigmatising views of our lives. I have written about how working class life is misunderstood, and reduced to simplistic one-dimensional narratives from both the prurient poverty porn, but also the middle class do-gooders. We are not expected to attempt to defend our choices, become angry, or resist. Getting By was written to tackle this type of prejudice, and stereotype, and to explain the complexity of working-class life, and life on council estates.
The Sutton-in-Ashfield estate I grew up in, a mining town a few miles from Nottingham city centre, was a tight-knit community where almost everyone on the estate worked and lived in close proximity. I didn’t know that we were no good; I didn’t know that living on a council estate devalued you as a person. I understood my position in society as working class but I thought that was the best class to be. The middle class were boring, and the upper class were cruel – they hurt animals and sent their children away. This is how I thought about my family and my community during the 1970s. I was really thankful to be a working-class child.
During the late 1980s I felt very differently – almost ashamed of who we were. We were ridiculed, we were old-fashioned, poor, and didn’t know what was happening in the cool world of the “yuppie” and “loadsamoney” – a catchphrase made up by a middle-class comedian about working class people made good. I managed to get a council flat in St Ann’s because I had a baby and was homeless. Around the same time, John Major decided that young, working-class mothers were having babies purposefully to get a council house – this didn’t make me feel any better.
After my mother’s death in 1999, I knew that I wanted to do more with my life, perhaps be able to work in my community and give something back. Like many working-class women my community was important to me. I knew the difficulties of getting somewhere to live, negotiating the housing system, the benefits system, and the prejudices you can face. Especially from sometimes well-meaning authority figures working in these structures who can hold deep prejudices about working-class women. I remember meeting housing officers when my son was a baby and I needed somewhere to live and being told I should have thought about that before having sex. A midwife asking me what I had ready for the baby seeing as he didn’t have a father.
Eventually, aged 30, I enrolled on an Access to Social Work course. It was free because I wasn’t earning much money (now it would be £3,000). After a few months, I realised that I loved the learning. Instead of sitting at the back of the classroom messing about, which I had done at school, I was on the front row putting my hand up every five minutes. I went to the University of Nottingham because of a book I had found in the library: Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman, by Ken Coates and Bill Silburn – a community study carried out by the University of Nottingham’s adult education department with students in the mid 1960s. I didn’t know you could go to university to study the place where you lived, especially the places where I lived. To cut a long story short, exactly 10 years later, after an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, and a doctoral thesis, I had told the story of working class families in St Ann’s from a working-class perspective and in our own words.
Getting By is the outcome of eight years’ ethnographic study, based on both theory and practice. Working-class people, and the communities where they live have been devalued to such an extent that they are known simply as “problematic” and in need of making better. It is the deficit model that working class people have something wrong with them, which needs putting right by intervention, by carrots and sticks. They are misrepresented and devalued. This is damaging and painful at best, and dangerous and vicious at worst.
I have seen, experienced and written about how thought becomes action. How the Thatcher government’s rhetoric of “underclass” and “the enemy within” became an attack on working-class communities, despising them, destroying families and identities. New Labour did little better with its social exclusion model, where it took the concept of social justice from France that tried to explain how groups of poorer, working-class people were becoming excluded from society. New Labour subverted it into something about how poorer families were excluding themselves with their “wrongness”, their bad culture and bad practices. This led to almost 13 years of top-down middle-class philanthropic social work culture.
The consequence was an open door for the Centre for Social Justice thinktank and my nemesis, its founder and now work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan-Smith, to walk through and justify cruel austerity measures that are devastating and hurting poorer families. I see the Tories laughing as they argue in Westminster that “the free ride” is over for the “shirkers”. I am now a 46-year-old working class woman with a PhD. Although I have lived in council housing for all of my life and I have relied upon welfare benefits at many points in my life, and probably will again, I have never had a free ride.
My estate in Nottingham is in decline. The one Co-op supermarket has gone and in its place are corner shops that sell no food – only cheap alcohol, electric cards, and lottery tickets. There isn’t one single pub left on the estate, and local people sit on the walls where they once were with cans of cheap cider. This is perhaps one of the saddest things I have seen.
My estate in the mining village where I grew up is devastated; no work, no hope, pound shops and charity shops have replaced the local bakers, butchers and toy shop I remember as a child, although there is an enormous Asda superstore. And London, where I have lived for the last 18 months, is truly terrifying because of the callous ways working class people are treated, at any time you could become street homeless.
Even now when I have supposedly made it, I know that even a small rent rise on my privately rented ex-council flat in Tower Hamlets will see me out of the capital, where the super-rich and the politicians who bow to them are not even aware that we are here. A Labour council and a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government all seem to have the same opinion – that the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society are worthless.
However, my research, my book, and my own journey as a working-class woman who has earned a career at the London School of Economics, shows how wrong the mainstream politicians have got this. I have fought hard to get to a place with the networks that will allow me to have a platform to speak and to be heard. And I will continue to fight.