Once upon a time of austerity in the Midlands

Stories of inequality and declining urban areas often focus on larger cities. They speak vaguely about ‘the North’. They bypass smaller towns in the Midlands. They bypass Northampton.

Most people can’t tell you where it is on a map: rarely does anyone visit. Yet Northampton is one of the largest towns in the UK. And just like ‘the North’ it is being hammered by austerity and neo-liberal economics, political collapse and a smashed local government system. Inequality is a living, breathing force that traps many thousands of people, and our town, in a spiral of decline that is unrelenting.

Yet on paper, it’s not poor; it does not trouble complex indices of deprivation; most people work; educational standards are not the worst. But it is collapsing. That collapse is measurable in a range of indicators that are less obvious.

For some two years it has had no elections. No viable system of local government. Trapped by Brexit and fears of electoral loss, its citizens have been denied democracy, since its county council was made bankrupt, taken into special measures, and is allegedly planned for abolition, absorbed into a new unitary also containing two areas to the west.

Some say that this happened because of a tragic combination of officer and councillor incompetence; people who really had no idea how to run anything, working with people with destructive and untested political ideologies, who ran the budget through the ground and headed for Hell.

The local borough council, also due to be abolished, seems to have been mired in corruption and financial mismanagement allegations, and suffered a crippling lack of trust amongst voters and the wider community.

The voluntary sector and community sector is likewise in freefall, destroyed by grant cuts from the statutory sector and ideological drivers of the allocation of what remains.

There is a talent shortage too. A significant percentage of pupils with ambition and good A levels leave the town, largely to London or abroad. This is because there are no suitable jobs for them here.

There are jobs: in warehouses, earning the minimum wage, working anti-social hours on zero-hours contracts. Jobs for young people are especially challenging, with the low wages they supply trapping young people in sofa surfing or staying later than they want with mum and possibly dad.

One of the results of that is homelessness: 120 people attend the Hope Centre’s daily drop in for the homeless and disadvantaged; 100+ people sleep rough every night in tent cities surrounding the town non-centre.

Another is the upsurge of local crime. The grandad told by his 13 yr old grandson that every classmate carries a knife; the local newspaper reporter who bemoans that they no longer have the capacity to cover every stabbing; the TV blue light show that told victims and criminals alike that there was only 1 police officer available at some times of day for over 200,000 people. 

It’s a sad story, much sadder if you live here. For many, there is profound apathy about achieving change. There is a very small middle class; this is not Bristol, Brighton, Oxford or Cambridge. There is no thriving green movement or visible LGBT energy at scale. Advertising of an event is often greeted by stony silence on social media. This is a seriously depressed town with few moments of energy and respite from the harshness of hardscabble existence. And this has led down some very dark paths indeed: nationalism and hostility to those communities who share the same inequalities – eastern Europeans most particularly.

There is a weary sense that solutions are not going to come out of traditional sources: local authorities, political parties, middle class activism. Solutions, if any, will come from the very communities and services working at ground level that are most aware of, and most victims of the problems described.

In the next submission to #everydayinequality we will look at some emerging responses to austerity in Northampton.

By Robin Burgess, Chief Executive of Northampton Hope Centre

This article represents the personal views of Robin Burgess not those of the Northampton Hope Centre or The Equality Trust.

Hope is a progressive anti-poverty charity that works to improve the lives of anyone affected by poverty, especially homelessness, through services, training, campaigning and advocacy.

You can follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Find out more about the brilliant work they do via their website.


Home

“It’s hard to think of anything better calculated to exacerbate all your insecurities about whether you appear as successful or as a failure, interesting or dull, clever or stupid, well-educated or ignorant, than being ranked by class”—The Inner Level.

Home is a fiction I manufacture, a question I sidestep, a place in my heart that I can only see when I sleep. I am a social migrant, born to a place where the dilapidation screams of a dearth of opportunities, even as ideas on the periphery of the mind. I resettled in a ‘better’ place where jobs are abundant, but only to those for whom prior knowledge and social conditioning have prepared them to enter, and my now Oxbridge-educated, but inherently proletarian, brain inculcates how much I will never truly belong here. I am stuck in the chasm between a culture I never truly fit into and one I cannot hope to reach.

The books that I collected from 10p boxes outside second-hand shops and angled between myself and the incessant glare of the talking screen, that shielded me from my mother’s admonition of what they represented, are not even worth noting, don’t qualify as real books, compared to the volumes your parents put into your hands, the works they taught you had meaning and value and discussed over dinner. I defer to you to tell me what inequality means from things you read in books because your roots, your middle class ones, gave you the confidence to speak them and mine, mired in the lessons of an entrenched class system, taught me that my thoughts are not as good as yours, that I am not as good as you. You speak over me because you know this inherent class truth and the power of hegemony.

I still have my childhood copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which gave me a language with which to translate my thoughts and values into a tangible expression. I left university and I learned that all of the words in the English lexicon couldn’t teach me to speak the same language as you; that culture, confidence, and business-savvy say far more than the most articulate discourse; that, at best, the things your parents taught you in conversation (and mannerisms), would take me years of immersion in a plethora of books and articles to uncover.

We are taught that working class is a lack. It is a lack of middle classness, a lack of opportunity to be better educated, to have better employment. But really, just to be better. All of the hours I spent teaching myself out of a world in which learning is rejected while caring for someone who couldn’t care for themselves are a blight on what matters and, moreover, a lack of just being in an environment of relative ease and privilege of opportunity. Denial of the past, a total obliteration of one’s own history, is the best step to forgiveness of this flaw.

My arms are still soft from where other children hit me to get here. My neck still aches from dodging their attempts to trip me by staring at my shoes. My lungs still expire their cigarette smoke from venturing into the school toilets. My stomach still churns from years of bad food. My struggle to be your shadow, to sink into inferior jobs, to fit around your superiority, burnt into my memory, is nothing, has no value, is merely a lack of what I could have been if I had not endured this.

School taught patience and endurance, to learn despite unremitting interruption and a lack of teachers and resources. As one of only a few pupils who cared to pick up a book, it did not teach me to be creative, innovative, collaborative, confident, or at ease. My education, fought against the tide, offered a lack of what is necessary to succeed in the modern world.

And home. Home is a place where my life, thoughts, and values matter, a milieu I slip into rather than jar against. Home is where I belong.

I want to go home. But it isn’t a real place.

Jo – Cambridge

Fighting inequality in the UK

Fighting inequality in the UK follows the stories of three activists:

Hannah, an 18-year-old Muslim woman from Acton, West London;

Aisling, a Brighton-based activist organising around the housing and homelessness crisis in the city;

Tracey, a community worker supporting local people in Teesside to take local action and campaign for economic and social justice.

The UK is the world’s 5th richest country, and 14 million people are living in poverty – including one in five British children. Meanwhile, the wealth of the UK’s richest continues to grow by billions year on year. The ever-increasing divide between the rich and poor is destroying British society.

But inequality is not inevitable; it is a result of deliberate, political decisions. 

Fighting inequality in the UK shows us that by coming together and acting with haste and urgency, a different future is already being built from the grassroots up.

A special thanks to the inspiring activists featured in the film for providing an insight into their daily lives, offering their solutions for a fairer society, and for doing the fantastic work they do every single day. Thanks also to Bollo Brook Youth Centre, ACORN Brighton – Community & Renters’ Union and Thrive Teesside.

Produced, filmed and directed by Ben Crowe, ERA Films.

This film was produced by The Equality Trust and generously funded by the Fight Inequality Alliance and Trust for London.

Inequality is racism

“You’re living in a block, but down there you can see nice houses … when you peep outside your window you just see people living lavish, living better than you.”

Hannah Haji, a young Muslim woman in London talks about the impact of gentrification and “regeneration” in London, and how London’s current housing crisis is linked to racism and class segregation.

Watch Hannah’s full story.

Balance #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek

For the last day of #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, we’re sharing this powerful animation in which Katherine, Simon, Martin and Muna explore what a fair and equal world would look like to them, and what it would mean for health and happiness.

Accompanied by beautiful animation from Yujie Xu.

A massive thank you to Yujie Xu, Cate Latto and the service users at St Charles Hospital in Kensington & Chelsea for contributing both their time and their stories to this project.

This animation short was originally created for The Equality Trust’s ‘Speaking to Power’ festival, part of the Fight Inequality Alliance’s Week of Action in January 2019.

“Did your parents buy your house off Mrs Thatcher?” and other degrading comments

A long read exploring the differences between material poverty and perceived cultural inequalities, and how the author began to recognise the impact of inequality on her self-esteem whilst at university.

I grew up in Tottenham, North London for the first 18 years of my life as a very conscious and progressive child and teen. I cared deeply about equality from a young age, despite being raised by parents who were ‘apolitical’ and who allowed me my say over their votes by the age of 12. This blog serves as my way of understanding how I came to recognise inequality in my own life and the ways it has impacted on me.

Material wealth

Mine and my sister’s upbringing was in many ways so incredibly different to the struggles of economic deprivation that our parents had been through. Our parents had both grown up in relative poverty and had both left school early with very few academic qualifications between them. Whereas for us – materially – we wanted for nothing. My dad owned our house, we could go on every school trip, we always had enough food to eat, got new clothes when we needed them and usually got a fairly decent haul at Christmas and our birthdays.

I went to an all girls’ secondary school in Hackney, East London. It wasn’t fantastic but it certainly wasn’t a “bad” school by London standards. I worked incredibly hard to be one of the top students, and I regularly felt satisfied that meritocracy had truly prevailed. That said, we all knew somehow that we could never go to Oxbridge (regardless of how many As we got in our A-Levels), but other than that me and my friends felt like we were all doing well and that nothing could really stop us or get in our way.

My sister was the first person in our family to go to university in 2008. I followed suit three years in later in 2011. It was this experience that truly thrusted me into experiencing inequality and in uncovering my sense of self formed through living in the most unequal place in the UK.

Horses, holidays and skiing trips

I was the first person to arrive in my new flat in halls. When my first flatmate walked in, my fear and class self-consciousness emerged immediately. This person, now a very good friend of mine, reminded me recently that the second thing I said to her after “hi, nice to meet you”, “what’s your name?” was “are you posh?”. Within the first week, I had also freaked out when someone had mentioned a horse in a story and another had mentioned skiing.

I was exposed to people who made me realise that – comparatively – I was working class and I was poor.

Looking back, this seems like such an odd way to behave, but I can understand now why I reacted like this. On arriving at university, I left the bubble of those who had experienced a similar upbringing to me and was exposed to people who made me realise that – comparatively – I was working class and I was poor. I felt out of place and I was terrified that I’d be rumbled; I obviously didn’t really deserve my place there.

These experiences continued as I discovered more about the gulf between my own experiences and those of my peers. When people spoke about their extravagant holidays, I was forced to confront the fact that me and my family had been abroad only twice (to stay with family in Italy) and the rest of our very infrequent holidays had been to Pontins or Butlins. Everyone seemed to somehow be proficient in a musical instrument and good at cross-country. They seemed shocked to find out that my music lessons at school had consisted of us writing pop songs with a 90s Yamaha keyboard shared between 10 of us, and that our entire outside area was a concrete playground no bigger than the car parking space outside our uni halls.

Books, newspapers and debates

Within the first few weeks, I was paired up with a classmate for a group presentation. He told me that his dad has just written a book on a related issue to whatever it was we had been asked to present on. My class-conscious self clearly affronted by this, I quipped “I don’t think my dad’s ever read a book.”

He looked at me with a look of disgust that I honestly was not expecting.

We were more the type who ate dinner on the sofa watching Eastenders every night. The only adult books in our house were my dad’s car manuals and a 1970s encyclopaedia.

As my first year went on I realised that yes I was smart, but I still felt like I didn’t really deserve to be there. The people I was studying alongside had grown up in the sorts of houses that had huge bookcases, with families that had dinner around the table and debated whatever world issue was topical on that day. Their parents had been to university and were in highly-skilled, academic jobs. On the other hand, we were more the type who ate dinner on the sofa watching Eastenders every night. The only adult books in our house were my dad’s car manuals and a 1970s encyclopaedia. Newspapers, if any, were whatever free London paper my dad had found on the tube and brought home for the cats’ litter tray. I realised that my comment about the books had not really been joke, it was true. No one in my house read and we had never been encouraged to discuss anything critically. I was severely lacking the wide perspective and understanding of the world and its history that seemed to come so naturally to everyone else.

You sound like you’re from Tottenham

Through taking on this self-deprecating persona, I inadvertently started to embolden others to speak to me with the same level of disdain as I spoke about myself. The guy whose dad had written a book once asked me in front of our entire group if “my parents had bought their house off Thatcher” (in an effort to humiliate me in front of our wealthy classmates), and my home of Tottenham and my accent were regularly mocked. Another classmate told me that I didn’t deserve the grades I got because I clearly didn’t know anything. One housemate regularly ‘joked’ in menial conversations that I couldn’t have a say over household decisions because I was from Tottenham.

Recognising inequality

I worked in supermarkets and restaurants throughout my degree and in every summer holiday, while many of my friends went on long holidays with their families or undertook amazing volunteering opportunities and unpaid internships that I’d have never even had the family connections to get, let alone the months of unpaid work my parents could never have afforded to subsidise. I slowly found out that a few of my friends didn’t even have student loans, their parents had paid their fees upfront and had given them enough money to live on for the full three years.

Imposter syndrome

As I got older, more and more people told me they thought I had “imposter syndrome”. That’s the fairly common feeling that you are a fraud who has only got to where you are by chance or luck, accompanied by the constant feeling that you’re going to get ‘found out’. A real life example: I was awarded a prize for the best dissertation in my cohort at my graduation. What I took from this was that I’d somehow tricked the person who had graded it, or that they must have not known anything about the topic. Anyone who has ever felt this way will have a host of stories like this they can think of.

While mental health is of course incredibly complex, I do believe that the extreme social and economic inequality that is rife in our society (and intensely amplified at elite institutions) is somewhat responsible for my mental health problems.

I was annoyed that my parents hadn’t taken me to conferences, or on holidays around the world, or encouraged me to read more, take the “right” subjects at school or watch the “right” documentaries.

Inequality has been so damaging to my self-esteem, my self-confidence and my ability to feel happy about my life. Until I was placed face-to-face with those who had much more than me, I was content with what I had and what I thought I could do. But after beginning uni, instead of appreciating the very comfortable and safe life I had and the opportunities I had access to, I was angry that my friends had more time to write their essays while I had to work, and they were already set up to get good jobs from their parents’ connections after we graduated. I was annoyed that my parents hadn’t taken me to conferences, or on holidays around the world, or encouraged me to read more, take the “right” subjects at school or watch the “right” documentaries. I was annoyed that I couldn’t lose the ever-present hints of my mum’s cockney accent. I struggled to be happy while I constantly compared myself to people who had completely different upbringings, opportunities, incomes and lifestyles to me.

My advice for working class folks at university

Knowing that many people reading this might have had similar experiences or be going through this exact problem right now, I thought it might be worthwhile giving some tips on how I personally came to understanding and dealing with these experiences.*

  • Acknowledge how deeply unequal our society is and the impact that this can have on our mental health. It is easier to understand why it is so natural to feel like this once you understand more about inequality.
  • Realise that you can’t change your family and you shouldn’t want to. Our parents have done their very best to give us the things their parents couldn’t give them, and we should be grateful for everything they’ve done. Most of all, we certainly shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of our culture, accents, experiences or upbringings. Be proud of working class culture!
  • Don’t self-deprecate or put yourself forward for ridicule as a way to cope with those feelings of fraudulence – it only makes other people think they have the right to speak to you in that way too.
  • Remember that you deserve your place and your success as much, if not more, than many of your peers.
  • If anyone decides to make a comment (like some of the anecdotes I’ve relayed above), simply remind them that you’re both at the same institution despite you not having benefited from the privilege of a private education or any other benefits of a middle or upper class upbringing.
  • At the same time, try not to compare yourself to others. I recognise that our current obsession with social media platforms like Instagram (not really a thing during my days at uni fortunately), can make it really difficult not to. But do your best to focus on what actually makes you happy and the things you are grateful for.
  • Realise that you’re not alone. I shared the title of this article on my social media and got so many responses from people saying “I have a story just like this” – there will certainly be other people at your institution just like you who will understand.
  • Take action to campaign against inequality. While it’s not “our” responsibility to resolve these problems, I have found that being a part of fighting against inequality does help to give your own experiences more clarity and purpose. Most importantly, a world with less inequality will be a world in which we’re all much happier, so it makes sense to get started.

Rianna – Tottenham, North London.

Photo: Rianna at her Master’s graduation in 2018.

* A note that none of these suggestions preclude also seeking professional support for your mental health, by going to see your GP and being referred to whatever psychological services or medication you may require. For many people, including myself, this has also been a necessary part of un-learning the behaviours that can make you feel like this.