Experiences of suffering, disadvantage, and real hardships have always been a significant part of the story for the British working class. However, over the last thirty years in Britain there has been a sharp movement towards neo-liberal politics and social policy, with damaging and unjust consequences.
The poorest and most disadvantaged people in Britain, the families who rely upon public services, welfare benefits and social housing, are now being subject to harsh cuts in their benefits and services. They are also the most vulnerable to the unemployment caused by a shrinking public sector, just as they were also the most vulnerable to the loss of manufacturing industries in the early 1980s under the Thatcher Government.
We have a situation where there are families living on council estates who have not known regular and stable paid work since the loss of security that the manufacturing industries provided. Consequently, there has been a significant change in the representation of Britain’s working class. Council estates and working class people who live in them have been negatively re-branded and stigmatised over the last 30 years under successive Conservative and New Labour Governments.
In this article I will present a community in Nottingham – St Ann’s, a council estate housing 15,000 people, who rely upon social housing and public services to, as they say, ‘keep their heads above water’. The residents are living through a time of adversity, when working class people are suffering from the consequences of increasing class inequality, class prejudice, and the harshest of austerity measures. Viewing inequality and class prejudice through the lens of a local community shows distinctly the effects of the neo-liberal project. Those on the left of politics often lose themselves in political dogma and theory, and need to do much more to speak to those that inequality disables. Class inequality is a personal and private matter affecting the lives of the working class in extraordinary ways that are far more complex than many policy initiatives take account of, often missed in the political arguments held in powerful places.
The St Ann’s estate is one of the poorest 10% of neighbourhoods in the UK today. The hardships in this neighbourhood have been well documented. Ken Coates and Bill Silburn first brought to light the poor conditions in which the people of St Ann’s were living, raising their children and working in their study Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen, undertaken during the early 1960’s. Over the following decades the neighbourhood has been subject to a number of harsh social realities: the loss of manufacturing jobs in the city leading to unemployment and insecure low paid work, and the lack of social goods such as decent housing and education for a changing workforce. Locally it has become stigmatised with a reputation as a place to avoid, supposedly full of crime and drugs, single mums, and benefit claimants. There has also been a rise nationally in voyeuristic ‘reality’ television programmes, which are particularly cruel and harsh relating to working class neighbourhoods. The 2013 summer schedule saw programmes such as ‘Skint’, ‘We Pay your Benefits’, ‘How to get a Council House’ and ‘Benefits Britain’, adding to the perception nationally that council estates have become holding pens for the undeserving poor.
I have lived in this neighbourhood for over 20 years with my family and have undertaken ethnographic research for the past 8 years. Working closely with the community, I have ethnographically mapped the lives of men, women and children living on the estate, focusing on inequality and the stigmatisation that those who live on council estates now experience. In the first four years of research I focused on women and mothers; the later research has focused on men. In this first article I look at how the de-valuing and stigmatization of the working class affects the daily lives and identities of the residents of St Ann’s. In the second article I will examine the consequences of inequality and stigmatization of the working class for wider society.
Being Valued and Being St Ann’s
Being a resident of a council estate in the UK in this century has a different meaning from being a resident of a council estate in the last century. Social housing was then connected to the employed working class, keeping extended families close together, and allowing communities to grow around work and local services. The working class residents who live on council estates today, by contrast, are not a homogenous group as they are often portrayed, and they are also no longer employed within similar and traditional occupations. The residents of council estates in the UK are partly made up of those who work in what is left of the traditional working class industries, such as factory work, warehouses, and low level engineering. However, there are also new service industries which have provided employment, albeit low paid and often part-time, within the large chain operated supermarkets or in local authorities, such as teaching assistants, youth workers, and childcare assistants. Because of changes in social housing policy there is also a large and significant group who are not employed, either through sickness, disability or unemployment.
There is also a cultural element to being working class in the UK, which is as significant to class inequality as the economic material forces which produce it. The severe consequences of the stigmatisation and re-branding of the working class as valueless, have been central in producing new ways of exploitation through the fields of culture and media, inventing new forms of class differentiation which are being produced through processes of symbolic violence.
In the early years of my research I discovered that the women on the estate had an acute understanding of how they were known and ‘looked down on’ because they lived on a council estate, or were single parents, often living on welfare benefits. The women in St Ann’s never denied where they thought they were positioned, often saying we are ‘at the bottom’ or ‘lower class’. They recognised their de-valued position because of where they lived, and from their constant interactions and associations with the welfare system and statutory services. Consequently the women in Nottingham found value for themselves and their children from within the community, and through engaging in a local culture they described as ‘being St Anns’. This was a local identity which was valued and had meaning for the women within the estate, but was often ridiculed, demeaned and feared by those outside.
The women in particular knew that they were ridiculed, and ‘looked down on’, and ‘made to feel small’ because of those representations. The women were used to ‘the looks’, and the ‘snide comments’, particularly when they came into contact with what they knew as ‘official services’. Gina, who was 21, was pregnant and lived alone with her six month and two years old sons, who she described as ‘quarter caste’. Their father, Jordan, was mixed-race and lived between the homes of his mum and Gina on the estate. Gina told me how she felt an acute stigma particularly whenever she went to any of the benefit agencies. Although she was studying at a local college she claimed income support and housing benefit, and therefore was in constant contact with ‘officials’. She told me that every time she gave her address to any of the ‘officials’ there was often a silence as they mentally processed her single parent status, the ethnicity of her children, and then her address in St Ann’s: ‘I know what they’re thinking you can see it ticking over in their brain as you wait for them to think «oh its one of them from there».’
Being a person of value is as important here as it is in any group within society, and there was an overall consensus throughout the estate, and particularly within those families who had lived on council estates for several generations, that they were ‘looked down on’, and should feel ashamed of their council estate resident status, or, worse, laughed at and ridiculed. One woman told me:
‘when you tell people where you come from yeah you feel like you know that they class you like rough and ready’
She expanded on what this meant: that not only were you ‘rough’ because of the notoriety of the estate, you were also ‘ready’ as a woman living on a council estate, meaning sexually available, or as this woman described being called, ‘a council estate slag’. This stigmatisation based upon local predjudice, but also wider assumptions about council estates in the UK, was recounted particularly by the women as the most distressing parts of their lives. They talked about ‘never being good enough’, ‘being looked down on’ and ‘made to feel ashamed’.
This lead to an anger and a defensiveness throughout the estate, and the residents rejected these de-valued terms, stating they were proud of ‘being St Anns’. They understood this identity as being ‘able to tough it out’. They understood ‘being St Anns’ as having qualities that had worth and meaning on the estate, and to them as a group. They thus compensated for the exclusion and disadvantage on offer to them on the outside of the estate, by relying upon what is local, available within this neighbourhood. Local practices formed an autonomous entity, which was defined by a negative polarisation to the norms of wider society, creating an alternative value system. By creating an alternative value system, those who are marginalised can create feelings of worth, power and status on the inside of their neighbourhood and amongst those who recognise and take part in that system.
Due to the complex nature of the estate, the alternative value system, and the elements which make it up, is difficult to pin down, as the system takes different forms for different groups within it. For women, a high value is placed on motherhood and therefore being a mother ranks highly on the estate. Indeed, being a mother and coping with the difficulties of living on the estate, being a ‘sufferer’, are often the only things the women cite as being proud of in their lives.‘Sufferer’ is a Jamaican term, which is widely used on the estate to describe endured hardships, even though being a ‘sufferer’ and enduring those hardships are always listed as personal achievements. Indeed, the women’s lives were full of risk management. This was in part due to the fact that the men on the estate appeared to be ‘missing’; they had little involvement in the community activities and daily lives of the women I was engaged with. There were many reasons for their absence, some of which I knew at the time. Mostly the men did not live with the women they had relationships with on a full time basis because it made no economic sense to the family to have a man ‘officially’ living at the address who was unemployed, or employed in very low paid work. Sometimes the men were involved in the underground criminal economy which thrives in this neighbourhood, handling stolen goods, and drug dealing at various levels, therefore having a man full time in your home often carried too much risk; the women told me they did not want the police ‘kicking down the door’ looking for whoever, or whatever, with the added risk of losing their tenancy. In addition these men had an occupational hazard of going to jail and were unreliable as full time partners.
During a discussion about drug dealing with some of the men involved in the research, talk turned to how difficult life was for those who are part of the drug and street culture on the estate. The following is from a discussion between ‘Della’, a white single mum of five children; her partner ‘Dread’, a black African-Caribbean man in his 40’s, who spent his time between Della’s council house and a flat he rented in the neighbourhood; and ‘Raphel’, ‘Della’s’ eldest son who was mixed-race and 18 years old, who lived between his mum’s house and his grandma’s house, both on the estate.
Raphel: ‘buoy its tough out there mans killing man, you have to be ready, its not easy to live in Notts especially when you are Stannz (St Anns) dem man out there wouldn’t survive in here’
Dread: ‘yeah but..if you’re gonna die for Nottingham die for Nottingham not just NG3 die for NG that would make life a lot easier if that’s what you want just be NG there’s enough crackheads here for all of you to sell drugs to them let’s be honest about it here… there’s enough crackheads for all of you to make money rather than dying let’s be honest..killing each other doesn’t make sense life’s hard enough here, just do your business and done’
Della: ‘Well I try not to beat myself up about it anymore I’m proud that my son breathes today that’s it the way he is he does things which aren’t legal but he makes money and he’s still alive for now’.
This discussion went on to describe the difficulties that Della, Dread, and Raphel had in maintaining a family relationship amidst the problems on the estate. Della could not afford Dread to live with her full time, but they wanted to maintain a relationship, and Raphel struggled with his mum’s relationship with Dread. There were also four other children living at home and Della could not risk Raphel permanently living at the address because of his involvement with gang related drug dealing on the estate. However she was proud of her son: he was independent, he made money and helped her out sometimes, and importantly he was valued and respected on the estate.
Although the importance of ‘being St Anns’ came out of the initial research with women, a far more comprehensive understanding of what ‘being St Anns’ meant, in relation to ‘being a person of value’ in the neighbourhood, was reached when focusing solely upon the men who live on the estate. During the year prior to August 2011 – a significant period in the research, and also in the UK because of the civil unrest and rioting during this month in many English cities, including Nottingham – I was engaged with a group of men all living on the estate. It is hard to say how many because of the transient and fragmented nature of their relationships to the neighbourhood, and to the women they are involved and have family relationships with. There was a core group of 15 men, and conversations and informal meetings with many more as they ‘passed by’. All of the men were black African-Caribbean, born in the UK or in Jamaica, and mixed-race born in the UK, many of whom were the sons, partners, and brothers of the white women I had previously been involved with.
The men on the estate appeared to be less aware of others’ opinions of them than the women. They talked openly about how they made money, their time spent in jail, the problems they had with the police in the neighbourhood and their relationships with their girlfriends and ‘baby-mothers’. This frankness was surprising in contrast to the guardedness of the women, particularly when the men talked about drug dealing, and receiving and selling stolen goods. The women were constantly involved with local schools, Sure Start centres, community projects, housing officers and benefit agencies, and so knew they were scrutinised and ‘looked down on’. In contrast, the men had very little engagement with anyone from outside of the neighbourhood, and particularly with statutory services or projects unless it was through the police and judicial system. They had minimum interaction with benefit agencies and housing departments, which amounted to signing on every two weeks in order to claim job seekers allowance. Some of the men did not do this, simply because they did not want to be connected to any address. They told me about the cat-and-mouse games they played with the police, and how they knew ‘how to get around things’: if you have no address the police can’t find you, and they need substantial evidence to search an address you do not live at. The men spent most of their time with each other and had strong friendship and family bonds, often introducing new friends to me as their ‘cus’ or their ‘fam’. Sometimes they were blood relatives, but mostly the family relationships were more complicated and interwoven within the estate; it was one of those things where if you had to ask how people were related, you are definitely an outsider. The networks, family ties, and one’s relationship to the estate was very important for both men and women. ‘Being St Anns’ was the most likely way women would describe themselves and their families, whilst the men subscribed to the idea that ‘Stannz’ was territory and belonged to them.
Employment and work featured little in the men’s lives. However, making and having money was all-encompassing in their practices and discussions with each other. Premiership footballers and what they owned, for instance, were a constant source of discussion, especially those players who had come from Nottingham and had similar backgrounds to the men. The men on the estate were highly interested in conspiracy theories relating to the relationship between the Freemasons, the Illuminatti, racism, and rap music. They watched films on YouTube which they believed explained their situation of ‘being kept down’ and not allowed to prosper. The discussion was usually around the right to carry weapons and protect their territory, grow weed in their ‘yards’ and not pay taxes to a corrupt and racist elite. Some of these ideas had come from a movement called ‘Freeman’ which appears to be in line with American survivalist ways of thinking. There was also a strong anti-Semitic thread to these discussions, whereby the men believed that it was predominantly the Jews who were to blame for their powerlessness as black men; some of this belief had come through their time spent in jail, but mostly from the internet. This belief in conspiracy theories demonstrates how disconnected these men were, and their inability to situate themselves in society in both real and conceptual terms. They were frustrated, angry, and were desperate to have an answer as to why they felt this way.
Dr Lisa Mckenzie is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham in the School of Education on a project relating to life long learning. She is currently writing a monograph for Policy Press about ‘Getting By in Broken Britain’ published in January 2014.
 Inequalities and social class disadvantage are embedded in the political and social history of Britain as demonstrated in the works of Friedrich Engels, E. P Thomson, George Orwell, Richard Hoggart, Richard Titmuss, and Peter Townsend to name only a few of the social historians, political commentators and sociologists who have been concerned about the condition of the British working class over many generations.
 Skeggs B. (2005) ‘The Re-branding of class: Propertising culture’ in Devine F., Savage M., Scott J., Crompton R. (2005)Rethinking class, cultures, identities and lifestyle, Hampshire: Palgrave; Skeggs B. (2004) Class self and culture, London: Routledge; Haylett (2003) Culture, class and Urban Policy: Reconsidering Inequality, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing; Haylett C. (2001) ‘Illegitimate Subjects? Abject Whites, Neo-Liberal Modernisation and Middle Class Multiculturalism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 19 (3) pp.351-370; Haylett C. (2000) ‘Modernisation, Welfare and ‘Third Way’ Politics: limits to theorising in ‘thirds’?’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 26: (1) p.43-56; Lawler S. (2008) Identity; Sociological Perspectives, Cambridge: Polity
 Office for National Statistics (2010) The English Indices of Deprivation 2010, London: HMSO Communities and Local Government Publication
 Coates, K. and Silburn, R. (1970) Poverty the Forgotten Englishmen, London: Penguin Books
 Rogaly, B. And Taylor, B. (2009) Moving Histories, of Class and Community, London: Palgrave Macmillan
 Welshman J. (2006) Underclass: A history of the excluded 1880-2000, London: Hambledon Continuum
 Malpass P. And Murie, A. Pp. 82-86 (1999) Housing Policy and Practice, Hampshire: Palgrave
 Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice, p.192 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
 Gillies V. (2007) Marginalised Mothers: Exploring working class experiences of parenting, London: Routledge; Welshman J. (2006) Underclass: a history of the excluded 1880-2000, London: Hambledon Continuum
 Cohen, S. (2002) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: 30th Anniversary Edition: Creation of Mods and Rockers ,London: Routledge