The North East already has already some of the worse of the cuts and a huge lack of investment. Working class communities such as Sunderland, Hartlepool, Northumberland, and Co. Durham have suffered hugely over the decades with loss of industry and lack of real investment – Under Thatcher, New Labour and now the Tory government. Some of these communities are considered the poorest in the Country and this has been highlighted during the CV-19 pandemic. So, in an area that already had next to nothing the last 10 years of Austerity have really had a huge impact.
- The closure of local services such as libraries, children’s centres, and youth clubs. Though the Sure Start concept can be criticised, it was nonetheless funding and childcare provision that has now been taken away from many North East communities. Local libraries that provided networking opportunities, groups, and internet access have now been closed.
- The introduction of Universal Credit has seen the number of food banks increase dramatically with many during the pandemic running out of food on a regular basis. Charity ‘Changing Lives’ reported that since the change to the benefit system, there was an increase in Tyneside women turning to ‘survival sex’ (prostitution) to feed their children.
- The lack of worthwhile employment opportunity is a great concern, but on top of this the new Universal Credit system has literally pushed so many working class women out of the Higher Education system due to the unfair calculations of Student Finance. People are being forced to abandon degrees because they can not pay bills or feed their kids.
- The North East has some of the highest recorded rates of domestic violence in the country, with an average of 253 incidents per day. We are at risk of a domestic violence pandemic during lockdown. On top of this, the funding for women’s refuges has been massively cut.
Women in the North East are resilient, but we will not engage working class women in the struggle if we refuse to listen to them, belittle them and their decisions/thoughts or demonise them. I have recently had the opportunity to spend some time at a grassroots organisation on what I would call a ‘left-behind’ estate in Newcastle. The women involved in this are amazingly determined and, as far as they are concerned, are out to look after their own interests and their own communities — that is the way is has become in for so many communities around here. They do not feel represented by parliamentary politics; they feel cast out on their own and silenced. Women in the North East have been let down by all the political parties, so we must offer something other than parliamentary politics.
What the women of the North East want and deserve is the right to help and support their own communities. They want direct funding to communities, not a bunch of ‘do gooders’ coming in and telling them what to do, how to parent, how to cook, what to spend their money on. This is exactly what New Labour did with Sure Start and, in so many communities in the North East, it failed to engage local working class women due to the nature of its structure. There is a clear issue of trust. We need to earn it.
The system created by New Labour only served to tick a box, to ‘educate’ working class communities on ‘how to behave’. It did little to consider needs of individual communities, what those communities need and how they differ from one another. The people in those communities were not listened to.
The areas where initiatives such as Sure Start succeeded already had tight-knit communities and the people (mainly women) in the area took on the roles within the programme. They integrated already successful programmes and made it a success. Women in small working class communities are some of the most determined, resourceful and organised women I have ever met — which explains why some of those centres are still running now despite the funding cuts.
There are so many assumptions and prejudices against working class women, especially in the North. These perceptions have been made far worse by ‘poverty porn’ such as benefits street and benefits Britain. We must challenge this portrayal.
We urgently need to spend more time addressing the problems that women are facing — not just under austerity and Covid-19 — but the issues that are there all of the time. Although conditions have worsened, women in the North East have always had it hard. We need to start engaging women through real grassroots movements. We need to talk to local women in their communities about their concerns and make use of the already very capable skills that women already have.
We have the tools to do this in local People’s Assembly groups and local Trades Councils. We need to engage working class women on their own concerns and start building something from the ground up — in our own communities. If we don’t, I can guarantee that the far right will, and we must not let that happen.