"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
[This post was originally published ahead of the May 2015 general election in the UK.]
This is not about poetry. It’s about politics.
In every election I can remember, journalists have spent weeks in a frenzy of analysis. Their agenda is to tell a story, and to keep us interested in that story. It doesn’t matter if they get it wrong. They always get it wrong. Even in 1992, when even the most blue-rinsed of Tories felt sure that Labour would win, they were wrong. But anxiety sells papers.
Coverage around this election has been a feast of drooling over the various thrilling narratives that might unfold. The power struggles! The male-female, SNP-UKIP, the Welsh-English contrasts! The closeness of the battle! On this last they may be right. My number-crunching friend John tells me that overall Tories have averaged 32.63% of the vote, Labour 32.69%. Your vote counts on Thursday, more than ever before. Do not be told what the outcome is likely to be. That’s for us to tell them.
When questions are asked about actual policy, it is often on terms defined by the government – deficit reduction, immigration etc. Cameron and Miliband are asked who they would ‘get into bed with’. That is not the question today. It might be the question next week, and when it is, the party leaders will have to answer it. This week, the only question that matters is the one posed by Steve Ely in his new book Englaland:
Who are we? And how do we want to live?
Okay, so there is some poetry after all. But examine your own experience, and your own ideas. Never mind all the percentages and doublespeak and head-to-head debates. What is happening to you and your community?
Here’s what’s visibly happening in mine, since the last election. My library has reduced opening hours and is being partly run by volunteers. Does that matter? Yes, because a library is where people go who can’t afford a computer and broadband to find jobs, to research things, to meet each other without paying for coffee, to keep warm. The local Women’s Aid refuge has lost much of its funding, and changes to legal aid mean that women in their situation are unable to defend themselves or protect their children. I see many more beggars in the streets of every town I visit. We are all dressing from charity shops and making a virtue of it. My disabled friends are seeing their benefits cut so hard that they can’t travel to claim them. My doctor can’t make me an appointment within a fortnight. The rail fares have gone up by tens of pounds for every journey I make to earn my living. People are eating less meat, because they can’t afford it.
Most obvious of all, my local supermarket now has a collection for the food bank. When I do my food shopping, I buy extra items for the food bank because people in my town are not getting enough to eat. And last winter according to notorious leftie rag the Daily Mail, 31,000 EXTRA people died of the cold in our country. People in our country are hungry and homeless and freezing. It is shameful; it is shocking; it is a motherfucking scandal. It is the fault of this government, who have failed in their duty to protect the poor.
In areas that matter less to most people, but very much to me, the Arts Council has had its funding utterly slashed so that many ‘hardworking families’ in my own sector have lost their jobs. The Canal & River Trust, which looks after the canals where I live, has had its budget slashed so violently that it has had to completely reinvent itself as a charitable trust, which sounds very sweet if it can only bring in the revenue it needs. Which is a shame because in London, where so many poor people can’t afford housing, 36% more people are living on the water. For me boat-dwelling is a choice. For them it’s one step from homelessness, and a timebomb of boat-versus-bank tensions.
Who are we? And how do we want to live?
Who am I? For almost twenty years I was an archaeologist. I have a deep love for the monuments of our nations which shape our collective identity; for Westminster Abbey and Holyrood, the Giant’s Causeway and the Falkirk Wheel, for the Welsh Assembly and (of course) the Pontycysyllte Aqueduct. No monument that we have, no physical construction, is so valuable as the welfare state: the great monument built by the post-war generation who had seen what happens when we forsake each other. They were not saints, but they understood what humans will do to each other once divided. So, they said: we will build houses for those who need housing. We will care for the sick from cradle to grave. No-one will go hungry in this country. We will take something from the richest to support the poorest, and if they don’t like it well that’s a terrible shame but that’s the price we pay for living together. We help each other. We pay taxes to help each other. We build a safety net that serves for all of us. It wasn’t Utopia, but it was a country to be proud of. It was a country that had the courage to be kind. That’s where I want to live.
The project of the right has always been to divide us. But there is such a thing as society. Journalists will continue to talk about (so far) imaginary coalitions, negotiations and deals. That is inevitable. Speculation is their job. Voting is yours. They don’t write the story. We write the story.
So who are you? And how do you want to live?