Five years

Way, way back, in 2015, I wrote a piece responding to the outcome of a general election, with the same title. Things seem to be immeasurably worse today than they were then. (If you’d told me then about Brexit, Trump and a Labour Party poisoned by anti-semitism I would simply not have believed you.) But somehow we have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start all over again. We have to decide what’s important now.

We go into 2020 with a Prime Minister who is devoid of integrity and principle, an Opposition that is (perhaps irrevocably) divided and even weaker than its numbers would suggest, and the certainty that we will be leaving the EU, quite possibly without a deal. It’s hard to find hope in that.

I can hope (though my hopes have been not just dashed but stomped on and the crushed fragments stomped on some more and then set fire to so many times since 2016 that I hardly dare) for a Democrat victory in the US elections. I don’t even know what to hope for, for the UK.

One day, somehow, we may be back in Europe (but let’s not start thinking about that now). One day, somehow, we may have an Opposition that will be willing to sacrifice ideological purity in order to gain power, so that they can actually do something about the things they claim to care about, other than shouting (usually at the wrong people) from the sidelines. Perhaps.

If we’re concerned about the impact of a rampant Tory government and a potential hard Brexit, not necessarily on ourselves but on others, what are we going to do about that? If we now feel politically homeless, how are we going to engage with politics over the things that really matter? If we despair at the mendacity, the bigotry, the contempt shown by too many politicians for the electorate or sections of it, and the overt bigotry faced on our streets by those whose accent, skin colour, or dress proclaim them to be different, how do we stand up for each other? I can’t answer my own questions, not yet.

My friend Mike Press doesn’t claim to have the answers either, but he’s asking the same questions. He posted this on Facebook, but it deserves a wider readership. It gives me a little, just a little, glimmer of hope. With enough thoughtful people, with enough kind people, with enough people who give a damn whether or not it’s their turn, maybe we can do this.

In the twelve years that I lived in Stoke-on-Trent there was a recurrent joke that did the rounds at election time – there’s no point in voting in Stoke, so the joke ran, they may as well keep all the Labour votes in the cellar of the town hall and take them out to weigh them every few years, such was the certainty that being a Potteries Labour MP was a job for life.

Clay runs in the veins of all Stokies, so it was suggested, on account of their passion for their craft, industry and identification with it. If it did then that clay was the same deep crimson as their politics. Nowhere else in Britain had swept Labour to power so decisively and swiftly as Stoke in the elections of 1918 and 1922. In the 1997 election – my last while living there – Labour was returned with 66% of the vote. We believed we were about to build the New Jerusalem. Since early on Friday morning all of The Potteries’ constituencies have become safe Tory seats.

I have voted in twelve general elections and in none of them has the defeat been as disastrous as this one. We have to go back to 1935 – the age of mass unemployment and Nazi Germany – for an election as catastrophic for Labour as the one we’ve just experienced. Our reactions to this have been perhaps understandable. After venting our anger on Boris Johnson and the Tory Party, we turn our barrels on the electorate itself. I’ve read comments from people here on Facebook and on twitter that described the English as “swinging to the far right”, that people who vote Tory are “stomach churning” or “just plain thick”. I’ve read comments that wish increased child poverty on Tory supporters “because they’ve just voted for it”.

The people of Stoke (and Blyth, Darlington, Redcar, etc, etc) have not swung to the far right, they are far from thick and they – along with all other folk – should never have child poverty wished upon them. There is serious thinking to be done to understand why people voted (or did not vote) in the way they did, and what is needed to build a new politics of hope. Because as progressives, we never lose hope. Out of every disaster comes hope. After Labour’s calamity of 1935, the party needed to rebuild, so it elected a little known new leader – Clement Attlee.

But a politics of hope requires empathy and kindness – despite the shock, anger and grief many of us currently feel. It also requires that we look very carefully at the data.

The English have not swung to the far right. The increase in the Conservative vote in England was 1.2% – a small increase on their lacklustre 2017 election performance. While many former Labour voters did vote Tory, more of them simply stayed at home. The demographics of age and education (and identity) are clearly reshaping political allegiances and replacing the old certainties of class. An interesting (and hopeful) phenomenon is a significantly reduced tribalism in politics. According to the Ashcroft poll, around one third of voters for all parties are now ‘tribal’ – the rest make up their minds as the campaign develops.

People vote for a whole variety of reasons. Along with 25% of SNP and 43% of Lib Dem voters, I voted for a party that is not my first choice, but I did so for tactical reasons. People voted Tory for three main reasons (according to the data): Brexit, the economy and leadership. None of the Tories I know support the party because they wish child poverty on others. A vote for Brexit and Scottish independence? Well the data also shows that 53% of UK voters supported pro-remain parties, and 54% of Scottish voters backed unionist parties. Those figures in themselves don’t tell us very much, apart from the need for a root and branch overhaul of our parliamentary democracy.

But looking at the data remains challenging given the distortions of the stultifying and dangerous bubbles we have created for ourselves. Social media has served to provide us with instant validation for our biases, assumptions and prejudices. As a consequence we do not engage with views we don’t agree with. We do not debate, we do not argue, we assert and feel validated by the ‘likes’ our assertions attract. We don’t need to empathise because we keep within our bubble of largely like minded people.

A few weeks ago my friend Adam StJohn Lawrence sent me a video he filmed on the streets of Hong Kong minutes after a riot. He was there to run workshops with government workers and citizens – not on the conflict, but on other issues. He recalled one of the people he was working with who gave their explanation of the crisis. They’re stuck – he suggested – they’ve run out of vocabulary, and this is the consequence.

It’s the same here. We’re stuck. There are no words that can bring us together – we’ve run out of them. We are in a state of continual conflict. How the Scottish question will be resolved by two governments that cannot find common ground, is very uncertain. Unlike European models of modern democracy that require negotiation and compromise, the British system is built on conflict, on “opposition”.

Now, let’s suggest an alternative – based on empathy and kindness.

There are two reasons that this is possible. First, because since Friday the majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs are women, and that will necessarily bring in new values and behaviours both to those parties and to political discourse. Second, because Scotland has already placed kindness at the centre of its National Performance Framework. As Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, has said (not of this election, but in terms of public policy): “We need to recognise that the challenge ahead is not primarily a technical ask but a behavioural challenge and a reflection of the relationships we nurture. And if we can succeed in making this shift to instil kindness within public policy, we will succeed in improving lives.”

Politics is not an indulgence to prove a point. It’s no gladiatorial combat to entertain TV viewers. It’s not a game: “You can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.” Politics is “a behavioural challenge and a reflection of the relationships we nurture” and we either behave with kindness and respect, despite our differences, and at times actually relishing those differences, or we descend into a form of barbarism.

The UK and Scotland may well be on different paths to different futures. The task of all of us is to find a way into our respective futures based on empathy and kindness – understanding and respecting each other. With that foundation then we can empower citizens to make their own futures – to be active participants in democracy and in the public domain.

Despite all I’ve written about kindness, I still feel angry, still raw. I’m angry with Corbyn and the infantile disorder of the left who gave some folk no choice but to vote Tory. Above all, I’m angry with Johnson, Gove and the others for their lies, for their disrespect, for their self-serving and misplaced sense of entitlement.

But the folk of Stoke I feel no anger towards at all. They lost the steel works, then the mines, just before most of the potteries closed and as a consequence their sense of identity has been bulldozed. How do you think it feels to vote for one party for your whole life, and then switch to its arch political enemy? How do you think it feels to spend over a year on strike in a forlorn attempt to keep your mine open then decades later to use that stubby pencil to put a cross against Conservative in an election?

I don’t know either. All I know is that empathy and kindness might take us beyond this. And I know that getting angry with people just trying to get through life and make the best choices they can isn’t really on. We can and should be angry with those who lie and mislead. But for the rest, let’s just try to listen and understand.

Well, over there, there’s friends of mine
What can I say? I’ve known ’em for a long long time
And, yeah, they might overstep the line
But you just cannot get angry in the same way
No, not in the same way
Said, not in the same way
Oh no, oh no no

Arctic Monkeys

‘I never thought I’d need / So many people’

David Bowie, ‘Five Years’

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