Worldmaking in Peterborough: How Battles Over England Are Rooted in Place

'Non-elite cosmopolitanism' is alive and kicking.

by Ben Rogaly

6 October 2021

Design: Pietro Garrone and Max Ryan (Novara Media). Original photograph: David Iliff

In a Twitter post following the torrent of racist abuse after England’s defeat in the European Championships final this summer, footballer Marcus Rashford made a powerful reference to place. “I’m Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else I have that.”

As with his successful campaign last year for food vouchers to be provided during the summer holidays to children eligible for free school meals, Rashford’s post contributes to a national-level battle over what England stands for and to whom it belongs. Once again, the Johnson government is found wanting. As another England footballer, Tyrone Mings, tweeted on the same day, the statements and lack thereof from ministers, including the home secretary, have made booing and mockery of anti-racist acts an officially-authorised pastime.

Yet we live in times of planetary and existential crises, and, as Gargi Bhattacharyya recently put it, “none of us can survive this” without coming together. “The only political question”, she adds, “is what are the things that are stopping us being together”. A central part of the answer to this problem lies in fighting all forms of racism.

This is a particular challenge in the UK where structural racisms are rooted in colonial history and racist discourses are often government-sanctioned. Meanwhile, rather than fighting racism as a whole, the UK’s spineless official opposition has attempted to define itself through prioritising action against one particular form of racism. In such circumstances, all anti-racism resources need to be drawn upon.

‘Non-elite cosmopolitanism’ in Peterborough.

At first glance, the small cathedral city of Peterborough might be thought to have little to offer in this regard. After all, this is a place where in June 2016 60% voted to leave the EU. Popular stereotypes about places where a majority voted leave have conjured up images of a ‘left behind white working class’, alienated by immigration and multiculturalism. Such thinking also tends to blur with generalisations about so-called ‘red wall’ seats. Yet this is not an accurate portrayal of Peterborough, and the city’s recent record in parliamentary elections (not to mention its location) mean it cannot be considered part of any red wall.

It is crucial to distinguish between the racist slogans and images deployed by the national referendum campaign and the multiple motivations of people who voted leave. As alluded to in a recent documentary by Steve McQueen, the leave campaign had strong echoes of the politics of the National Front in the 1970s. As one of the leave campaign’s figureheads, radical rightwing politician Nigel Farage, had put it on Radio Four’s Today programme fourteen months earlier, Peterborough was deployed as an example of why a leave vote was needed:

“Well, go to Peterborough, you know […] go and see the fact that we don’t have integration […] and what’s happened, unsurprising in some ways, what’s happened with very large numbers of people coming, is you get quarters and districts of towns and cities that get taken over by one particular group”.

Farage subsequently continued to use Peterborough to fuel anti-immigrant and anti-immigration politics, as well as attack Muslims and multi-racial Britain. It is a place that, for him, has justified constant attacks on a group referred to as the ‘metropolitan’ or ‘cosmopolitan elite’. The latter is portrayed by the nationalist right, including mainstream political leaders in the UK, as a key source of succour for what they refer to – deploying an old antisemitic trope – as ‘cultural Marxism’.

In common with other places in England, Peterborough is the site of violent as well as everyday forms of racism – racism located in institutions of the national and local state as well as in society at large. At the same time, if you are tempted to dismiss Peterborough’s potential contribution to anti-racist struggle, you need to look again. 

As elsewhere in England, large numbers of people in Peterborough took part in multi-racial Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020. But Peterborough also has something that neither capitalist corporations nor our current national political leadership want to see: what I call a “non-elite cosmopolitanism” – and that too in a non-metropolitan place.

Cosmopolitanism itself can be a problematical idea for internationalist and anti-racist progressives. It has, for example, been part of the self-image of European states in denial of the colonial projects that produced their wealth, and even used as justification for armed interventions in places where the lives of racialised others are considered expendable. Paul Gilroy has urged the renewal of “critical theories of cosmopolitanism” that explicitly engage with histories of colonisation and decolonisation. 

Paying attention to non-elite cosmopolitanism – to bottom-up cosmopolitan world-views and actions – is one response to Gilroy’s call. It is a listening approach, which understands non-elite cosmopolitanism not as something separate and pristine, but as grounded, emerging alongside and in relation to divisive, nationalist and racist discourses and practices. The existence of non-elite cosmopolitanism is itself evidence of a progressive politics of solidarity.

This politics can be part of the answer to Bhattacharrya’s question. As the late geographer Doreen Massey argued, there is a potential for displaced people to come together through “common anger”. Massey identified the potential for this among people displaced by moving from place to place – those seeking asylum, or employed in working-class occupations, rather than elite, wealthy migrants – and people who have been displaced because the area around them has become unrecognisable and they would be unable to move even if they wanted to.

Peterborough’s industrial history. 

To understand non-elite cosmopolitanism in the context of Peterborough, it helps to know something of the city’s recent history. Situated about 90 miles due north of London and with a population of around 200,000 people, the city had a strong manufacturing sector until the 1980s. It was known in particular for the manufacture of industrial and agricultural machinery – the latter not unrelated to its historical role as a market town serving a large productive farming hinterland including the Fens to the east. It has also been a centre for railway work, being a major junction and stop on the London-Edinburgh east coast mainline.

Deindustrialisation from the 1980s didn’t mean the devastating closure of a single large plant as might have been the case in, say, a steel town. Instead, it meant a switch from manufacturing towards services, including commercial office-based enterprises, such as insurance and publishing companies. Peterborough also became the headquarters for the travel company Thomas Cook, and was badly affected when the company went into liquidation in 2019 with over 1,000 job losses.

Employment services have long been important in the city. Local gangmasters – or labour contractors – would recruit and transport seasonal and other temporary workers for agricultural work in the Fens. They gave way to larger employment agencies that continue to connect people seeking work with short term jobs, not only in food production but also in the packing, processing and distribution of food. Beyond food, the logistics and distribution industry became an increasingly important source of temporary agency work in the 2010s following decisions by the city council to allow the development of large warehouse distribution centres on the outskirts of the city. This played to Peterborough’s locational advantages and its excellent road and rail links.

Like other places, Peterborough has suffered from the effects of the pandemic on the retail economy. In 2021, the closure was announced of the city’s John Lewis store, opened in 1982 as part of Queensgate shopping centre which had been constructed in the 1970s as a flagship for Peterborough’s new town developments.

As part of the national government’s new and extended towns programme, Peterborough was one of a number of places that received large-scale state investment from the late 1960s until the Peterborough Development Corporation was closed down by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. During its lifetime, the Development Corporation was a massive source of dynamism in the city, such that in spite of the decline in manufacturing, overall output and employment growth were high in the 1970s and 1980s. After it closed in 1988, Peterborough’s economic output slowed considerably.

Racism at work. 

Three older south Asian heritage men, all Peterborough residents, told Kaveri Qureshi and I about their experience of racism at work in factories in the 1960s and 1970s. One, Sotindra Singh Panchi, remembered a promotion being blocked, his protest and subsequent dismissal from the job:

“I was one of the top workers at Towgood and Beckwith, ‘cause I worked there for six years and I became the top earner, but what had happened, there was an opening in Germany and my foreman at that time gave it to one of his blue-eyed boys and not me you see, ‘cause I was qualified to do that job, to go to Germany to set up a machine […] I created a bit of a commotion about it […] I called [the foreman] names […] and because I swore at him [laughs] I was then taken into the big manager who was his brother. And he said to me, ‘Look son, what you need to do is to apologise to him and everything will be forgotten and you can have your job back’ and I said, ‘no, what I said, I meant.’ So therefore I got the sack.”

However, the new town period was also one of conflict and resentment between different groups of white British people, locals and newcomers. The Development Corporation was contested by existing residents who suffered compulsory purchase of their properties or had to accept the allocation of newly built homes to incomers from London and elsewhere when they themselves did not have the opportunity to rent or purchase one.

This in-migration doubled the size of the city and is part of a longer history of inward migration to Peterborough. Many thousands of Italians, for example, moved to the city to work in brick manufacture and in canning fruit and vegetables in the 1950s and 1960s. South Asian and Caribbean heritage people moved there for work in the 1960s. Peterborough was an official dispersal centre for asylum seekers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many EU nationals migrated to work there in the 2000s and 2010s following the expansion of the EU.

Prior to the 2004 enlargement of the EU, nationals of non-EU central and eastern European countries were attractive to temporary employment agencies because of their vulnerability to deportation. Maria recalled being taken into custody in an immigration raid on a food processing factory near Peterborough in 2002 prior to her deportation.

“They took me and put me with other people inside a big van. So I remember that and from that place I had sent some texts to people that they’d caught me, just be careful or something like that […] they found a lot of tissues in my pockets, you know like from the tears and that. I remember that because they were laughing and maybe I was laughing at that time as well, but anyway, I spent that night in the cell which was terrible. The food they brought us was disgusting. I took a shower, they didn’t let me change the clothes. I wear the same clothes. I was not stinking but really I felt dirty and humiliated.”

By the time of the 2008 financial crisis, working in the fields, pack-houses, food-processing factories and warehouses in and around Peterborough had become firmly associated with international migrant workers with a range of immigration statuses. Along with developments in technology – particularly the electric point of sale (EPOS) system and the management by algorithms that accompanies it – logistics and distribution companies sought certain kinds of workers racialised as migrants, and expected to work intensively and under digital surveillance for low wages.

A city of solidarity.

But alongside and entangled in these various manifestations of hostility to migrants, racialisation and racism, Peterborough is also a place where non-elite cosmopolitanism is alive and kicking. Young white Zimbabwe-born Donna Stevens spoke to me ten years ago about a song she had recently written evoking a palpable sense of global connectedness and care for other people and for the world:

“My song is about the battles that people face in the city and in general really, all over the world. It’s about what I face and other young people as well […] The first line is: ‘As I walk on this earth I start to feel the hurt…’ So it’s like as soon as you get here you sort of feel the pain and the hurt that people around you face as well as yourself. I try and generalise it so that if it does get released it helps other people.”

Sotindra Singh Panchi’s son Ron Singh reflected back on the homely, cosmopolitan feel of the Millfield area of Peterborough during his 1970s childhood:

“You would walk down the street and first of all you would smell all the different foods that were coming out, you walked past that house there’d be saag coming out, saag just wafted out like that [chuckles] And you’d walk past someone else’s house and there’d be some Polish food and then you’d walk past the Marcus Garvey Centre, there’d be Bob Marley playing, reggae…”

In spite of, and alongside, the racialisation of the people who worked there, the harsh algorithm-managed warehouse workplaces of more recent years were also remembered as sites of an emergent non-elite cosmopolitan disposition. Warehouse worker Agnieszka Kowalczyk-Wojcik spoke with me in 2017 about her relations with other workers:

“When I start working at [the warehouse], I couldn’t imagine that I can spend my off time during the break with people from Malaysia, we have one guy from New Zealand. It’s amazing. I can sit with them and speak. I like it.”

Others like Laura, Azwer Sabir and Judita Grubliene also appreciated the mix of people at warehouses they worked at. Laura, who moved to the UK from Poland in 2005, met her South American husband in a Peterborough workplace. Azwer, originally from Iraqi Kurdistan and living in the UK since 2002, spoke of his experience working in a warehouse with Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Bulgarian and Romanian colleagues and the friendships he and his wife (working at the same warehouse) developed with people of other nationalities there:

“There were so many different communities […] Sometimes we sit with English people as well; honestly it does all depend on individuals. Some of the English people I still have friendship with them.”

Judita, who moved to Peterborough from Lithuania in 2009, described a specific moment of resistance where she combined with Turkish, Latvian and other Lithuanian colleagues to challenge nationality-based discrimination. Like Laura, her broad employment experience before and after working in a warehouse enabled her to reflect on the specific opportunities such workplaces presented for communicating with others across different nationalities and for sharing stories. 

Contrasting her warehouse job with her earlier experience of working in a meat processing factory, Judita remembered her warehouse colleagues as “more communicating and […] more welcome to each other, because in warehouse sometimes you have to work with groups and sometimes you have to work alone, but alone doesn’t mean just alone, anyway others are around you and you have to communicate.” 

To whom does England belong?

So how has this complex history played out at the level of parliamentary representation?

In recent years, Peterborough has seesawed between Labour and the Conservatives. In 2005, the seat was taken from Labour by arch-Brexiteer and outspoken anti-immigration Conservative Stewart Jackson. In 2017, just one year after the city’s resounding vote to leave the EU, leftwing Labour politician Fiona Onasanya defeated Jackson. Onasanya was then recalled after being found guilty of lying about a speeding offence. 

The by-election that followed in June 2019 happened to follow Farage’s Brexit party’s outstanding national success in the European parliamentary elections the previous month. Farage put up a candidate, Mike Greene, a businessman with roots in Peterborough, who came close to nabbing the seat from Labour. But Labour held on after a fightback that involved a combination of well-organised local activists and on the ground support from ordinary Labour members from across the country, as well as high profile party figures including Gordon Brown, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell.

The Conservatives then retook the seat in the December 2019 ‘get Brexit done’ election. Yet the by-election result from June that year was further evidence of support in Peterborough for a strongly anti-racist vision of England, and for a more internationalist and hopeful politics – the kind of “planetary humanism”, to use Gilroy’s terminology, that is needed for humanity to fight its existential crises.

It’s autumn in 2021, and Farage has now taken up a regular slot on a struggling rightwing TV channel. Rashford is once again a national hero. The battle is on and goes way beyond any notion of battles over the nation, over England. To use Adom Getachew’s phrase, following her path-breaking study of the thought of twentieth-century anti-colonial leaders, these are world-making struggles. And, as reflected in the testimonies of residents of Peterborough, they are in no small part rooted in place.

Ben Rogaly teaches at the University of Sussex. This article includes extracts from his book Stories from a Migrant City: Living and Working Together in the Shadow of Brexit. Some names have been changed.

Breaking Britain is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).

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