electile dysfunction: democracy doesn't stop at the ballot box
The election is over, but this is no time to abandon politics. It’s never too late to step up. We are citizens, not subjects.
Time flies when you're having a crisis.
This time last week, most people I know were looking forward to a new government dedicated to winding back the worst excesses of David Cameron and his pedigreed chums, headed by an honourable nerd with an unlikely fandom of righteous teenage girls. This week, many of us are in angry shock, while the victors haven't wasted any time handing out champagne and favours to their mates, and the real pain of continued insecurity to just about everyone else. Meanwhile, that mild-mannered Ed Miliband - a man normally thought incapable of laaarging it - is having some kind of comedown in Ibiza.
You'll have to excuse me, but I don't think I'm up to raving just yet.
This time five years ago, I was sitting at a table with author Jeanette Winterson, setting the world to rights in the Spitalfields sunshine after another election with a result neither of us liked or expected. Jeanette was en fuego. "At times like this," her warm Lancashire voice sang out, "we can't forget that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance!"
"Yeah, totally!" I replied, with a sense we were heading for trouble at t'mill. "They're all smiles, but they're planning to leverage the financial crisis into an opportunity to renegotiate the social contract. They'll try to privatise everything. Unless you've already got a little nest-egg, it's going to be devastating. You've read The Shock Doctrine, right?"
Jeanette Winterson had, and Naomi Klein was right: the bankers got their bonuses and bailouts - and woes betide everyone else. Ordinary people tried to be vigilant, but when right-wing political forces and the corporate elite colluded to lay blame for the deficit on public services and the people most likely to use them, it was a nosebleed-inducing uphill battle. Sharing the latest injustices with like-minded friends and signing countless petitions clearly didn't change the electorate's mind or the government's policies. And if you had the temerity to go out to protest austerity or tuition fees, the prevailing narratives presented in a right-wing media portraying itself as - scoff! - centrist were there to belittle all these haters, outliers and vandals. Wealthy politicians and pundits told vast sections of the electorate, long used to working hard for every last gain, to stuff their placards, STFU and get back to work.
Excuse me? We've really gone straight through the looking glass if those we elect to work for us as public servants have the audacity to treat us as though we're only here to work for them. Nobody of mine, Ed Miliband's and David Cameron's generation - the last to benefit from free university tuition and maintenance grants, and inexpensive and secure housing in major cities like London - has any business telling younger people to accept less, wait longer, and work any harder than Gen X did to get ahead. When people who call the UK home have worked together across the generations, we've given ourselves the NHS, victories in just wars, enviable rights in the workplace, and explosions of creativity and social justice. If we have no solidarity with one another, we're remarkably easy to divide and rule.
We're all adults here - or will be - so now's the time to step up. If you believed things weren't getting that ugly, or that people on benefits are fair, lazy game, you've got another thing coming. David Cameron has something he'd like to say to you. "For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone," he asserted this week, delivering plans for legislation to monitor 'anti-establishment' groups along with the usual teenage wannabe jihadis, as if they are one and the same. Maybe to David Cameron, who has never sounded more like he was translating policy from the original wartime German, that's all we are. Perhaps he's forgotten that the right to go un-hassled by the state is a cornerstone for people who vote for the Conservatives, too. If we're truly citizens and not subjects, we mustn't tolerate a 'pumped-up' PM undermining the civil rights of law-abiding people, delivering such chilling words from his fancy lectern, with that tight little smile.
Five years from now, we might well wake up to find the NHS broken up into millionaire-sized nuggets and flogged off to shareholders; we might discover the ground underneath our homes has been sold to a fracking outfit; we might know students who leave university or art school with debts pushing £100,000 each; we might lose Scotland and our place in the EU. Each of these outcomes will be presented to the nation as necessary and coming from the sensible centre, instead of cooked up in right-wing think tanks by the sort of people who've never read a book for pleasure, then hammered home 24/7 by rolling commercial media with their own shareholders to please.
With calm determination, we need to find common ground with people outside our usual comfort zones to start having a conversation about the world we'd like, as opposed to the one we've got. Criticising other people for the way they vote --or don't vote at all-- is no way to begin that sort of chat, so it's up to the altruists, creatives and firebrands amongst us to figure out how to listen again. Over the next five years, we'll have to educate ourselves in the ways of government because I can assure you, the current system is arcane and boring on purpose. Five years is a long time to count down. It'll take that long to build up the idea that our opinions and voices still matter, to pull together and fight as one to secure the happier future being stolen from all of us.
Text Suzy Corrigan
Photography John Neon