Living and working together in the shadow of Brexit

Stories from a migrant city argues that a rethink of how the terms ‘immigration’, ‘migration’, ‘immigrant’ and ‘migrant’ are imagined and conceptualised is long overdue. It shows how moving away from a racialised local/migrant dichotomy can help to unite people on the basis of common humanity. The book also takes to task the idea that cosmopolitanism is necessarily an elite worldview: on the contrary, not only are axes of racialised difference often reinforced by the actions of economic and political elites, but, in certain spaces and at particular times, non-elite people of all backgrounds show themselves to be at ease with such difference, albeit that this is interwoven with ongoing racisms and the legacies of colonialism. Using a biographical approach and drawing on over one hundred stories and eight years of research by the author in the English city of Peterborough, Stories from a migrant city addresses the question of what Peterborough (and indeed England) stands for in the Brexit era, and to whom it belongs. Taken as a whole, the book’s tales from the city’s homes and streets, its 1970s and 1980s satellite New Towns, its older central neighbourhoods and its warehouse and food factory workplaces, together with its engagement with the cultural productions of residents, challenge middle-class condescension towards working-class cultures. They also reveal how the often-ignored stories from this and other provincial cities can be seen as gifts to richer, metropolitan places.

Following Britain’s referendum over continued membership of the European Union (EU) in June 2016, the future status in the UK of nationals of other EU countries has become the subject of intensified political debate. Meanwhile, EU nationals from central and eastern Europe have been subject to xenophobic attacks as part of a wider post-referendum spike in racist abuse. This chapter is concerned with local-level struggles by nationals of central and eastern European EU countries for a ‘right to the city’. It uses the case study of Peterborough, where relatively large numbers of migrants have travelled to settle and work. The demands made by international migrants for voice and representation in city governance and for housing and workplace justice can be seen as struggles over the nature of citizenship at the scales of the factory, the warehouse, and the neighbourhood, as well as the city. In the context of ongoing, multi-scalar, quasi-colonial governance of ‘difference’ in Britain, this chapter argues that such citizenship struggles need to be understood alongside (and in relation to) those of other working-class people. These include long-term residents, migrants from elsewhere in the UK, and both ethnic minorities and the white British ethnic majority.

in Sanctuary cities and urban struggles
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The immigration debate and common anger in dangerous times

Ironically the framing of society as divided between a disaffected working-class (implicitly ‘white’) and a ‘cosmopolitan elite’ is a narrative constructed by writers who are often themselves elite. Chapter 6 challenges the premise of the divisions that they claim to be reporting but in fact frequently promote. It brings together shared histories of mobility and fixity; workplace experiences that produce solidarity across boundaries of ethnic, national, linguistic and faith identities; and struggles for urban citizenship for all residents of a particular place. Being forced to move or stay put is in both cases structured by class inequalities and racisms. As Doreen Massey has argued, this can provide the seeds of ‘common anger’. Moreover, migration is within the experience of people defined as ‘locals’ or ’us’ rather than an action undertaken by a separate category of ‘them’. Yet racisms continue, rooted in colonial history, and promulgated, individually and collectively, by middle-class people and rich elites as well as by some working-class people. Alongside and entangled with such politics, the stories drawn on in this book also collectively portray universal elements of human experience, and thus enable a vision of common humanity that can be a resource for future struggles for equality and justice.

in Stories from a migrant city
Racial capitalism and workplace resistance

Opening with the extended story of one former Amazon worker, Chapter 3 focuses on continuity and change in capitalist work, noting an increase in employment through agencies, zero-hours appointments, ‘agile’ management and supervision regimes, digital recording of productivity and the use of algorithms for allocating labour. In and around Peterborough the growing, packing and processing of food has a long history of relying on seasonal, temporary and/or migrant workforces. The recent growth in warehouse employment on the edge of the city builds on a similar model of recruitment and management of workers for the tasks of picking, packing and despatching goods. Using oral history, this chapter explores the organisation of work and the way workers’ experiences in these sectors are shaped by the specificities of their workplaces. Taken together, the sites of housing, recruitment, transport and work are sites of discipline and control, in spite or because of which the often non-unionised, multi-ethnic, multi-national and multi-lingual workforces occasionally find means to resist, assert their dignity and experience solidarity and conviviality. This chapter shows that addressing racial injustice is essential to fighting the inequalities and injustices of capitalist workplaces.

in Stories from a migrant city
Histories of mobility and fixity

Opening with an extended story of remembered cosmopolitanism and racism in a Peterborough childhood, the chapter then draws on biographical oral history interviews with three other men resident in Peterborough, all of whom were born outside the UK and have South Asian heritage. All of them moved to England as children or teenagers, and all at some point in their lives worked in factories. The analysis of these three narratives uses concepts developed in the field of critical mobilities studies to challenge the way in which migration is often discussed. It shows first how biographies of spatial mobility – people’s life geographies – cannot be understood separately from racisms and from class and gendered inequalities. Secondly, it insists on undoing the taken-for-granted hierarchy in understandings of migration that often automatically gives greater importance to international moves than to shorter-distance ones. Thirdly, the chapter shows how fixity – not moving residence – exists in relation to mobility, a conceptual development which opens new possibilities for political alliance between people who are displaced by moving residence and those who are displaced because the place around them has become unrecognisable.

in Stories from a migrant city
Urban citizenship struggles and the racialised outsider

Opening with the story of a long-term resident who remembered once being a newcomer, the fourth chapter moves from the workplace to the neighbourhood. Contestations over place are central. Class, ‘race’ and the right to the city are all at stake. The chapter focuses on the life histories of people who either moved to or grew up in parts of Peterborough that have housed new international migrant arrivals since at least the 1940s. Stories of working-class lives in these neighbourhoods include inter-ethnic mixing, conviviality and racisms. Stereotypes have emerged about ‘eastern Europeans’ that ignore the diversity of subjectivities and identities among the more recent migrants. Demands made by recently arrived international migrants for a voice in city governance and for housing and workplace justice can be seen as struggles over the nature of citizenship. In the context of the ongoing multi-scale quasi-colonial governance of ‘difference’ in Britain, the chapter argues that such citizenship struggles need to be understood alongside (and in relation to) those of other working-class people, including long-term residents and migrants from elsewhere in the UK, and both ethnic minorities and the white British ethnic majority.

in Stories from a migrant city
Cultural production in a provincial city

Beginning with oral history extracts from a white former factory worker, resident by choice in multi-ethnic central Peterborough, Chapter 5 turns to a different source of stories: four books published in 2016 and all based on the lives of Peterborough residents. The books vary from the part-fictionalised biography of a Holocaust survivor as narrated by an EU national and former food factory worker currently resident in the city, through a South Asian cookery book that links Peterborough, Bradford and Pakistan, to the product of a year-long artist’s residency at Peterborough’s Green Backyard and a book of reunion photographs taken across a gap of thirty years that has received worldwide media coverage. Taken together, the four books evoke city residents’ connections across space and time. They show how the ever-shifting present in the city is made, at least in part, by the geographically wide-ranging pasts of its people. They also hint at the opposite: how the work, actions and objects produced by and with Peterborough residents affect, influence and shape other places. While the books are produced by professionals, each of them contains elements of ‘professional amateur’ creativity and the non-elite cosmopolitanism that sits alongside racism and xenophobia in the city.

in Stories from a migrant city
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Non-elite cosmopolitanism in the Brexit era

Chapter 1 of Stories from a migrant city explains how the Brexit era has been produced through a combination of the legacies of colonialism, de-industrialisation and a decade of austerity, declining real wages and worsening employment conditions. It briefly describes the research on which the book is based and locates the book’s claims within wider scholarly literature on conviviality, non-elite cosmopolitanisms and racisms. The chapter also provides some background on the author and summarises the remaining chapters of the book.

in Stories from a migrant city