By Janet Batsleer, MCYS.
I woke up on Friday morning to Brexit and, as soon as I heard the news, I felt very afraid. The sense of loss and shock was enormous. Later I recognised this was something like the feelings I had in the 1980’s when the miners were defeated. Once I started to make sense of what had happened – I had said to my son that there might be a big anti-establishment revolt from the North – I could leave the house. But the feelings of fear persisted as the only outright winner seemed to be Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, the far right anti-immigrant party. A wave of anti-immigrant feeling had been unleashed in the campaign: the genie of British racism now out of the bottle, some-one said. But also, in some ways, a continuity from last summer’s vote for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. The cat out of the bag about the class contempt that had been poured in plenty on some of the poorest parts of the country. Now people were kicking back, or just kicking. Manchester itself, almost alone in the North West, voted REMAIN. (I can’t claim to understand BREXIT from the point of view of the Conservative voting parts of the country but that seems to be a kind of taken for granted story that no-one can be troubled to tell.)
Oddly, on the day of the Referendum, I had been in Brussels with Andreas and Anais and Patricia at the European Research Centre. It was OK; it was great to be with colleagues and feel European! It was strange and worrying too. Maybe it gave me reasons, if I didn’t have them already, to think that change badly needs to happen in the EU.
My work – including the Partispace project – is listening and connecting.
Friday afternoon I went out to an event organised by young people at the Art Gallery. I found it hard to concentrate that day. It was a fine and interesting event that I have written field notes about and one aspect was an intergenerational event. At the end of the first section a man (maybe my age in fact but I like to think that he was much older) used the open mic session to read a Victory poem printed out on the back of a large voting paper inscribed LEAVE. It was about the country being free at last. First we were colonised by the Romans; then the Normans took out our King’s eye; then the Europeans came…..but we’ve finally got rid of the sods! I was so angry I couldn’t stay.
On Sunday I was at the North West Youth Council, Youthforia, It had been organised by the Manchester Youth Council and Alexandre and I were both there. The team from Manchester Youth Council is brilliantly odd and diverse: a young person who looks like a boy with long hair but is called Ashley; two young men, Matthew and Sam (one tall and serious, one small and bouncy) from the Nigerian community now strong in North Manchester; a boy doing politics A level from a leafy suburb and his friend who, when I asked him where he was from (meaning, what part of Manchester?) answered Afghanistan; an enormously competent young woman from the Reclaim project who seemed to be organising the whole lot. After a few minutes of welcomes and ‘warm ups’, they announced that they still intended to bid for Manchester to be European City of Youth: because we are Manchester and we are differently diverse!
During one of the breaks I sat down with a young man, Jack, from Wigan, one of the Boroughs where a significant majority that had supported the Leave campaign. He was a lovely young man and he said his family had been for Leave and that he would have voted Leave if he could have: he is 17 and is planning to do a degree in Cybersecurity at a local University. I asked him why. He explained that people in Wigan felt the EU had done nothing for them; ‘We don’t have a University in Wigan’ he said. The big firm was an American one, and the small businesses were hampered by EU regulation. ‘Was immigration a big issue in the Leave vote?’ For about 50% of the people, yes. I’m very much for Jeremy Corbyn as well, he said. I told him that when I had arrived at the event I had met a youth worker close to tears because three Czech young people who were part of his project had arrived at the project on Friday to ask ‘Do we have to go home today?’ ‘That’s bad’ Jack said looking really sick.
There was an escalation in racialized and xenophobic abuse and assault over the weekend. It seems to be calming a little now. There were also various attempts to get the vote declared invalid by middle class educated people who only support democracy when it goes the right way!
The worker for Wigan Youth Council is a man from Wigan called Ahmed who has been a Youth Worker with the Authority for 20 years. He set up the first anti-racist project in Wigan called Rafiki and more recently Kamosi, which works with Eastern European communities. Under New Labour, his work became framed as part of the Anti-Social Behaviour project and then the work moved into the Youth Offending Team. More contempt for working class estates. Now he is turning back to the anti-racist framing of the work. Now is the moment. Because of DevoManc, now is also the moment for Manchester and Wigan working-class anti-racist projects to reconnect….’it’s a very insular place’ he said. Islands tend to be it seems. But so are cities; too easily cut off by their glamorous centres from the pain of being poor and rubbished.
The following day I was in North Manchester where, it was suspected, many people voted LEAVE. It would fit with the demographic and the difficulty of knowing whether the flags were for the Referendum or the Football. I drank tea with the youth workers who told me about the Bulgarian boy who comes to the club and is a leading table tennis player. His fears that he won’t be able to play for the UK now. That he will have to leave. And about the people who have been coming in saying ‘They’ll all have to go now won’t they.’ In turn I hear the youth worker (a man of 28, one of my former students) flip the contempt: ‘The immigrants are the ones with good values, good attitudes: they work hard, they have ambition. The people on the estate: it’s just like Shameless. Drinking Skol in the street in the middle of the day…..hardly any clothes on…..playing hoola hoop while their kids are at school…..they are parents for good ness sake….)
Wednesday I am back in Hulme and working on the Community Learning Festival we are organising for the first week of the school holidays when I am co-ordinating a day on democracy and politics. The neighbourhood we are linking with is the historic centre of Manchester multi-culture and the local community activists I am working with on this project are so glad we are doing this as we all see the tension and chaos escalating. We are hearing stories every day of attacks on minority people on public transport in the City. The anger that has been palpable for weeks seems to be taking a new and nastier turn. We are all happy we are doing this Festival: a place where people can come together. We will invite the people from Europia, the project working to support East European migrants who are facing hate crime, to be involved.
And I am writing a paper on ‘agonistic democracy’ for ECER: is this what it feels like? I suppose so.
I believe that a small but not at all insignificant element in the situation we are in has been the abandonment of community education, adult education and open youth work, in favour of schemes which target and shame people alongside the offer of meagre and insufficient resources in projects.
I also think the reduction of people’s lives to being an economic cipher; the denial of a cultural, political life, a life of generous imagination and political memory, as well as the denial of justice and equality…. is a further dimension. Projects which link Trade Union education with cultural resources and resources of popular memory – such as our colleague Geoff Bright’s Ghost Labs conducted in former mining communities – are essential as are many comings together of people who have been denied justice and recognition. Projects which cross national boundaries to do this need to be part of our future as well as our past and they need to include people from all areas not just the ones where people have been to University.
We are all too familiar with the neo-liberal way. We still need to come together to imagine, propose and work otherwise; despite the false binaries and above all against the racism and away from the anti-working class contempt, both so powerfully emergent now.
Janet Batsleer is Principal Lecturer Youth and Community Work at MMU