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Guess what, liberal thinkers? The working class doesn’t need your condescending op-eds

Dr Lisa McKenzie
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.

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.

Guess what, liberal thinkers? The working class doesn’t need your condescending op-eds
The plight of the working class is real, and – it would seem – much talked-about in liberal media. But how often are its heroes allowed to have their say without being spun into a narrative, observed through a lens of superiority?

The liberal center-leftists love a good working-class hero, don’t they? They love us to be good and pure and fighting bravely against adversity. But that love only lasts as long as they stay working class and remain the victim. The working class struggling at the bottom of society is needed for the middle-class left – how else would they make a living writing about us, talking about us in political panel shows, and using us as an example of what they are not – and what they fear the most?

Over the last 20 years I have researched working-class communities. Most of my research and work has been undertaken with working-class women. Who doesn’t love a great story about a working-class mother holding her children protectively against some sort of accidental poverty – or who doesn’t love to hate the working-class mother, a threat to society, with her vast abilities to reproduce, barely raising her gang of ne’er-do-well kids as they go forth into the world and rob, and mug, and stab each other.

This sounds harsh but this is the cruel truth of what life is like for the working-class woman in Britain – today, in the Covid-19 crisis, she is both the woman standing at the tills earning minimum wage scanning through your bread and milk, and she is also the woman allowing her yob kids out at night to terrorize the police.

The center-left media have always played this game with working-class women – I remember my brief day in the sun, when my book ‘Getting By’ was published and I had an article in the Guardian – the narrative about me at that time was that of a working-class hero, a woman off council estate done good. That narrative quickly changed when I used my working-class gobbyness to take aim at that same media that had only allowed me to be a narrow version of what they could handle – hero or villain.

Nothing speaks to this louder than the story of a woman I met during the Brexit years (remember those?). I had been meeting weekly with a group of working-class women in East London for three years. My research was about housing and class in London, and we talked about many things over those years: family, schools, local gossip, celebrities and, when Brexit appeared, we talked about that.

One of the women had two children and had been really struggling with making her benefits last. She went to the job centre and asked them for yet another emergency loan to help pay the ever-mounting bills. They refused her – she had taken out the maximum – but they did give her a leaflet on budgeting. She then told me with pride that she was finally making her money last – she was eating every two days instead of everyday so she could buy her daughters school shoes.

When I recounted this story amongst academics at the University at conferences, or when I wrote about this in articles, there was always a great sympathy for the mother – genuine tears sometimes – until I hit them with the finale: In the Brexit referendum she had registered to vote for the first time in her life, and she voted to leave the EU because she said she wanted “something, anything to change.” I watched as the middle class, mostly Remainer center-left recoiled – how could she, they asked, why would she be so stupid?

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And this is the narrative we the working-class people have to read about ourselves, and listen-to on panel shows – these narratives of stupidity, ignorance, and failure by those who can only imagine what our lives are actually lived like. And that is exactly what they have done – imagine Charles Dickens’ constant fears about being thrown into the working class exampled in most of his novels. The middle-class anxiety of having to really live amongst us, the middle-class anxiety about social mobility, school choices and private tuition – this is not about education, it’s about the fear of the working class.

Polly Toynbee summed this up recently quite nicely in her recent article in the Guardian: “The middle class are about to discover the cruelty of Britain's benefits system”. It’s filled with good intentions but written in the language of “the working class as other,” as those with the best intentions – whether Dickens, Toynbee, or Owen Jones – always do. During this crisis – when undoubtedly it will be the working class that suffers the most during and after the isolation period – please allow us to tell our own stories.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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