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‘North of the Watford Gap’: Resistance beyond Central London

‘North of the Watford Gap’: Resistance beyond Central London

You are holding a black-and-white photograph. It shows a woman holding a union placard. It shows a picket line, scab vans, Labour politicos, a man dirty and tired from his work. You are holding the narrative of industrial working-class struggle. You put down the photograph and pick another history.

The struggles of non-London working-class communities are condemned to history. We are all miners still on strike. Even when mothballed, the steelworks are used by “community leaders” to produce nostalgia for labour. The Left venerates the worker – noble in lost production – and spends its budgets on university recruitment and placards for central London protests.

In Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, public order is religion. Accepted protest is tolerated only between lines of riot cops who know the space and its potential for control. Militants shake gates they know will not open. Pigs allow the second rattle and baton those who dare a third. In a shot, cameras pick the faces of comrades and SWP placards. The pictures are in present-tense colour and tell us the present is colourless there.

The frontlines of class conflict exist beyond Whitehall. Political rage has found itself and it is wilfully unacceptable: the shoplifter, the tenant-cum-squatter or the rave-rioters at Scumoween in Lambeth. At Fuck Parade 3, a rabble smashed upmarket estate agents in Shoreditch. Several riots have sprung from free parties and raves. In Hackney, Shoreditch, Camden and Lambeth, unacceptability in action and identity is power. Temporary communities of resistance are formed in active defence of underground culture. Culture becomes the defence of itself.

Just as raves produce resistance in the boroughs, in Sheffield, Redcar, Scunthorpe and elsewhere, steelworkers are fighting for basic conditions of living. Anna Turley, Labour MP, calls the mothballing of the final Redcar steelworks “devastating news”. You see the photographs in black-and-white but the plant closed in September this year.

Happy demonstration over austerity that is killing people. (Peter Damien, CC BY-SA 3.0
Happy demonstration over austerity that is killing people. (Peter Damien, CC BY-SA 3.0)

This generation’s precarious youth are created as failed workers. The jobs and skills they need are as historical as their fathers’ politics. There was no picket line when the SSI Redcar plant shut down. Working-class youth grow up in this geography of failure: of fake shop facades, the wisest people addicted, and thirty-something applications to invisible employers.

Wherever there is failure there is rage. Think of Northern working-class power as purely historical and you erase the expressions of political rage that are ongoing there. They are the Scunthorpe strikes in December 2013, a consistent increase in levels of shoplifting in Middlesbrough and the violence turned within the poorest and most precarious communities.

If the Redcar or Scunthorpe steelworkers had occupied their plants, just under eight-hundred Territorial Support Group officers would not have been on their way. Police response time has dragged on as shoplifting and public sector cuts increase. In many places, response itself becomes scattered at best.

Many of the poorest communities outside London, having relatable experiences with the police as in Tottenham or Edmonton, have not had the social release and repression of the 2011 riots. They have not had their feelings of class contradiction relieved by rioting or subdued by the 24-hour courts that followed it.

In areas where failure means having nothing to lose, class antagonism is ready to break. Although slower than in London, regeneration and economic exclusion rear their heads. In the Northern Quarter in Manchester or Salford Quays nearby, community is replaced with trendy bars and upturned noses. Benefit cuts in largely benefit-dependent communities slash standards of living. People are angrier than a ride to London on a People’s Assembly bus.

For years, the political young have drifted towards London. The areas they leave are often rife with informal anti-capitalist feeling. Expressions of political rage there are not accessible through nostalgia or solidarity demonstrations in the centre of an invisible capital city. They are accessible through acknowledging the changing permanence of these conflicts outside central London and moving towards their escalation.

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