by Lisa McKenzie
Solidarity is needed on our streets more than ever – so why has so much political activity on the left disappeared into the old structures of party politics, instead of supporting community and grass-roots campaigns?
During 2013, I wrote an article for the London School of Economics that was full of hope. I had recently moved to London and become engaged in the housing movement. The article began: “A spectre is haunting London and that spectre is the rumble of grass roots civil disobedience, activism and – dare I say – a people’s anarchism”. I believed this at the time.
London can be an oppressive and aggressive place, that was, and still is, getting harder and harder to survive in. The global elite set up camp in London and see it as their permanent playground. Rents are sky-high, wages are being pushed down by austerity measures and global competition, and the actual incomes of working class people are still falling because of changes to social support systems.
Yet there was a sense of hope, and a real resistance coming from the grass roots – often led by young, working class women. I believe the sense of solidarity and hope during 2013 was connected to being a full 2 years away from a general election. Different communities and organisations were forming as part of a genuine struggle for social justice, rather than being divided on party and political lines.
Grass-roots campaigns have always been the foundation of social change. They are the holy grail for any organised political activist group or professional political campaign to reach down to and connect with. Genuine, on-the-ground campaigns always spring up out of desperation, and often out of feelings of embattlement and powerlessness, usually as a last resort when other forms of complaint have come to a dead-end. These bottom-up campaigns mostly comprise people that have little to no individual personal power, and are not practised in pushing back against institutional power. They come together as a collective in order to make their voices heard.
The fightback was best exemplified by a group of young working class mothers in East London, who had not been politically active previously but, when collectively faced with eviction from their estate, formed the Focus E15 Campaign. By forming a group they became active and visible on the streets of Newham – and, more importantly, visible to those with power, who were hoping they would go away quietly. These young women did not go away quietly, and with the support of other more politically active and seasoned activists their campaign grew and became unavoidable, especially in left leaning media circles. Existing housing campaigns all over London, and beyond, saw these young women, and their genuine grass roots campaign, and cross-campaign support sprang up. Between 2013-2015 I marched and supported housing campaigns from Barnet to Lewisham. The everyday struggles of working class families were beginning to be seen, because they had a street presence.
I prefer to do my politics on the street. My argument relating to street politics is that working class people are being purposefully and systematically excluded from public life, the media, parliamentary and local politics, academia, and the arts – so having a presence on the streets makes us visible again. If we are not visible and present on the streets we are totally forgotten, and that allows those in power to create their own narratives about us.
Local campaigns in the UK are regularly set up and organised to resist the pressure that all neo-liberal democracies put upon their most vulnerable communities. These types of campaigns are not rare at all. The strength and the skills needed to fight such campaigns are always present within local communities and especially poor and otherwise powerless communities that have histories of mutual aid, family-ties, and community identities (even though they are seldom recognised by professional and party political activists, who constantly bemoan the fact they cannot reach ‘ordinary people’). Grass roots groups emerge organically out of anger, frustration and often a realisation that organised institutional power, like political parties, NGO’s and charities, sometimes work against poor communities and people. It is all too often the professional political activist or campaign group that ultimately extinguishes the passion, anger, and confidence that comes from the sense of ‘fighting back’.
Between 2013-2015, there was a vibrant and exciting working class housing movement gaining a great deal of traction in London. This particular housing activism was mostly led by working class women in their own communities, and had emerged because of the aggressive turn capitalism had taken, especially in global cities, leading to social cleansing of working class families – with mothers and children being on the front line. Social cleansing – or as I prefer to call it class cleansing – was not new to 2013, but has been enabled by all the main political parties over 30 years of aggressive policy regimes aimed at deregulation of financial and housing markets, at the same time as cutting funding for, and eventually privatising, social goods.
It’s led to what we might call a political perfect storm. It has seen aggressive and state-funded gentrification of our major cities across the UK, increased homelessness (both visible and invisible), and an acceptance that those who cannot afford to live in cities of wealth must be moved out either by coercion or force. Social cleansing, social apartheid and social inequality have been internalised as common sense, especially within global cities, and particularly in London. The political and economic elite see London as a special place, where the special people live – if you can no longer afford to live in London, you ought to leave.
Most of the grass roots campaigns I have been involved in, especially within the housing movement, were not connected or affiliated to any official political group or party. None of the campaigns were being directly or indirectly managed, they were community-led and -organised. In fact, most of these community-led campaigns were tackling decisions that were being forced upon them by local government – and in many working class areas in London it is the Labour Party that are in power. In Newham, where the young mothers from Focus E15 were campaigning, it was the Labour Party that were in control, from councillors, to MPs, to the Mayor of Newham. These young women only knew life directly under a Labour controlled system, a system that has not only failed to support them, but has, if anything, been the bane of their lives.
Between 2013 and 2015 the grass roots housing movement in London was attracting a broad range of support – from student movements, to trade unions, and even local Labour party members. When the election was called in 2015, housing campaigns all across London were finding it increasingly difficult to garner support beyond their community. The Labour Party and the Trade Unions were in election mode, and the housing campaigns that had direct battles with Labour councils became inconvenient. Since 2015, many of the grass roots campaigns, especially those focused on social cleansing and anti-gentrification, have been asked to wait by Labour Party supporters, because a Labour government is supposedly their best chance of being heard.
Political time moves slowly, it moves in parliaments and elections; time on the streets moves very differently. The people who are fighting for their communities – who have little or no resources – can become exhausted after a few months of campaigning. They do not have two years, or five years, of fight in them. The campaigns fold: either the residents are moved out or make concessions that are not in their best interests, because they simply cannot wait.
The poorest people often have no choice but to resist, the very structure of a neo-liberal society pushes them towards resistance – success or annihilation is the capitalist model. The restructuring of urban space that the Marxist geographer David Harvey identifies as accumulation by dispossession is producing increasingly antagonistic class relations. That in turn is making those relations and their accompanying social injustices more apparent to the people whose right to the city is being threatened. It leads to greater class resentment that, in some cases, can turn into anger against “them” – those with economic and political wealth and power.
It’s a resentment and anger whose political consequences are as yet unknown, but which will inevitably be played out on the streets and estates of our towns and cities. Class struggle in itself is resistance, and campaigns that start from local communities and build on a sense of solidarity will always be our best chance of success.
Lisa Mckenzie is an LSE sociology fellow and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.
Photography: Tom Medwell.
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