Last Friday, the day after the election, in a fog of tiredness and sorrow, I went to work, where I dragged learners through English mocks, and fought to believe that anything can make any difference now.
One learner, who manages an incredibly demanding life of balancing the needs of various dependents with a zero hours care job, was late. When she came in, she was, as ever, flustered. She offered her apologies and said,
“I had to get on to the Universal Credit. They’ve only paid half my rent.”
I sympathised and pushed her work in front of her. She completed it in her habitual rush, with her usual betrayal of her intelligence, because her way of coping with a life of overwhelming economic and familial responsibility at too young an age is to do everything in a hurry, avoiding dangerous reflection. We discussed each answer, interpreting how she hadn’t read the questions fully or considered all the options in the multiple choice section, and how, with a few minutes’ care, she is perfectly capable of passing what should be, for her, the formality of this exam. She promised to be early next week, and to take a few minutes to become calm, but I expect she will rush in to the exam room late, pre-occupied by another crisis that she will bravely cope with, as she tries to make the space to better her life.
In the afternoon, she came back for the maths class. I had been preparing for this class for several weeks, laying the ground for nervous learners: it’s the one in which we move from basic calculation with decimal numbers to working with fractions. This is where people give up: they believe that ‘fractions are hard’, and that they have some innate inability to ‘do hard maths’ and this section of the course is always as much an exercise in boosting learners’ self-belief and reflecting on how much they have already achieved as it is about introducing new skills and understanding.
She and my other learner who had turned up – there’s a wave of colds and stomach bugs keeping children off school, and two other women were at home with sick offspring – have developed a friendship that is still at the stage of curiosity about one another. Off-topic discussions, pleasurable as they can be, are a headache for me, as I only get two hours each week to teach a demanding curriculum. I had given them their warm up task – a few questions on what we had covered the previous week – and checked that they knew where they were with it, and I left the room to go to the loo while they completed it. By the time I got back, they were discussing the election result.
I groaned inwardly, and cautioned myself to be like a fly fisherman with a bite: to let it run until I could feel they were tiring and then take control again. A few weeks before, as part of my duty to ‘promote British values’, I had used a voter registration poster in our English class for an exercise on identifying presentational features in a text. At the time, the learner of whom I am writing had asked me my politics and I had explained that I wasn’t allowed to say, and she had responded, after a discussion of why that was sensible for a teacher, that she reckoned I was for Corbyn. At the time, I’d congratulated myself on remaining neutral. Now, as I sat quietly, waiting for my opportunity to get them back on task, she said,
“I was right about you.”
She’d seen a photo on the local newspaper’s website, in one of the few articles the openly Tory-leaning rag had bothered to publish on Labour’s campaign, that had a picture of a group of Labour supporters gathering for an event in Ryde, smiling, comradely, happy, optimistic. At the back, peaking over the shoulder of the shorter man in front, grinning like a hungover idiot, I was clearly visible.
“You know I can’t talk about it,” I said, shaken.
“Yeah,” she said, “I voted for Boris. I’ve never voted before, but I voted Conservative.”
It was as if she hated me. I know she doesn’t, but that was how it felt.
I haven’t blogged about this election, beyond changing my homepage to a trite meme and linking to a couple of social media posts I’d heard about through the news. I haven’t blogged much this year, of course, but I did expect that, when the longed-for election campaign happened, I’d be leaping into prolix action, as I had in 2017.
Instead, I’ve been involved, ‘on the streets’, and through the Constituency Labour Party’s own systems. I’ve been the assistant secretary of the CLP for nearly two years, but that has, until recently, only meant being the keyboard monkey for the secretary and chair, both of whom have become friends. Just before the election started, however, the chair withdrew himself from consideration for the position of candidate, having been subject to sustained vilification, including threats to his family, since the last election, and the secretary got himself locked out of the Labour comms system for a mistaken breach of the opaque rules, which have more to do with internal politicking within the national party structure than they do with making the system work.
Thanks to these circumstances, my role became, accidentally, central. Over the last six weeks, I have probably written more words than in the previous twelve months. They just haven’t found their way here. The chair, who had become the new candidate’s campaign manager, told me, late on in the campaign, that his role was taking the fight to the Tories, and my role was galvanising the troops. I hadn’t been told that before, but had simply adopted the job that I didn’t see anyone else doing, or being in a position to do.
Each day after work, once I’d done enough to be sure that I would know where I was for the next lessons, I turned off my work laptop and went straight on to my own computer, where I would often be trapped until after midnight. If the next day wasn’t a teaching day, I would be out with the Cowes and East Cowes branch, delivering leaflets door-to-door, or helping with the distribution of garden signs and posters to people who had contacted the party, asking how they could help. In the evenings, there were many events, most of which were a pleasure: I have spent more time in pubs over the last few weeks than I have for many years.
At first, it was exciting. I was surrounded by people who believe, broadly, in what I believe: that humans are only of any account if they serve the group; that selfishness is a moral and intellectual failure; that the dominant political and economic system is, without question, evil – childish, rapacious and evil – but that elation had, after the first couple of weeks, begun to compete with exhaustion. I did not, however, lose hope, but I began to feel a little let down by comrades whose belief in the coming victory of justice and good sense was tempered with caution.
Two things gave me a different outlook to the majority of people fighting for a Labour victory in this election: my Christianity and my disavowal of social media.
I am not an ardently practising Christian, but I came, through the nineties and noughties, to realise that I cannot escape my faith, and that the arguments against faith that were trendy in those decades, were, in the words of Terry Eagleton, a process of Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching against a system of thought that the neo-atheists wilfully misunderstood and misrepresented. Earlier this year, I joined Christians On The Left, and one of the results of that is that I have been receiving a remarkable set of emails, the 2019 Prayer Diary. Written by a theologian who only introduced herself as Hazel, they were wonderfully welcome at a time when I didn’t have the space to read my normal blogs and news for which I receive update emails that, through the campaign, I simply had to delete, to be able to keep up with my inboxes. Each day, though, I read her prayers, and then got on with whatever needed doing.
As for social media, I think my absence from it since July 2017 has given me the clarity to think for myself and to avoid the political panic to which I am prone and which, I think, guided many people in this election. The Tories are crisis capitalists: they thrive on the established P.R. tactic of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD). I suspect, without being in a position to offer evidence, that this was the election in which the capitalists realised their technological dream of controlling people’s reactions from within. I may expand upon that at another time, but I think that, accomplished as we in the Labour Party are at using social media to make ourselves feel effective, it means nothing unless the people who own the media are on your side.
…accomplished as we in the Labour Party are at using social media to make ourselves feel effective, it means nothing unless the people who own the media are on your side.
Actually, I did rejoin Twitter for the duration of the campaign. It helped me to keep up with events in the CLP, where a disparate set of groups, spread over the largest constituency in the country (by population), were arranging their campaigning efforts semi-autonomously, and were not always brilliant at communicating outside their social media bubbles. I tried to join Facebook as well, but was frustrated. I think my use of Firefox’s Facebook Container extension, coupled with a disposable email address and a phone number linked to a burner SIM card I had no intention of using again, tipped the creepy capitalist bastards off. I’m rather proud to have been blocked by Facebook before I posted a thing!
A facile pretence of utility and ubiquity have made social media essential in politics, and have, I believe, handed the reins of power over to a capitalist hegemony as completely as any other factor in this election. I had set up my home server, after two years of study and trial and error, less than a month before the election was announced, and would have been lost without the calendar, to-do lists and contacts server it hosts, but I was still obliged to use a Google calendar for shared calendaring with the CLP. We need to look at owning our infrastructure, but it’s a hard sell. People who automatically accept the ‘services’ to which they are tied by their choice of computer system and mobile phone have a hard time understanding that they are being used, when they have put so much effort into just mastering the technology that seeks to control them. The idea that it is escapable defeats them, as the idea that all politicians are not the same defeats people who are struggling to survive in an economic system that is tightening around their lives. There is a simple answer (simpler than the route of learning and self-building that I have used), but how many people will make the effort to do it?
Earlier this year, I read Democracy Hacked, by Martin Moore. A couple of months ago, I read, almost in one sitting, the Edward Snowden autobiography, Permanent Record and, just before the election was called, I bought The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff, which I will now have the time to read fully. If you want to understand what has happened to democracy over the last decade, you need to read these texts. You do not control your data, and, consequently, electronic communication does not, any more, give us a full say in our democracy. We’ve overthrown one tyranny of informational cartels to replace it with another. We need new mechanisms of resistance.
I’m not keen on going into mainstream media’s role in this election. Enough people are already examining that, although I will add a couple of personal observations. Firstly, the full emotional crash of the exit poll was pre-announced by about twenty seconds, for me, by the smirk on the face of Andrew Niel as he talked over the countdown to it. Rattling through his bland script, he looked as though he had a hand stuffed down his truss, so excited was he by the predicted result to which he, I assume, had had early access. If you believe in democracy, honesty or truth, the BBC is not your friend, any more than Facebook is.
Secondly, it dawned on me, as I angrily skimmed The Guardian’s website each morning, that the key figures among its columnists and editorial staff are probably on a lot more than £80,000 per annum. I think their utter betrayal of democracy is a good enough reason to not ‘support independent journalism’ for another year. Let them take comfort from their massive wealth, their second homes and their positions of quisling influence.
There is a lot of commentary on the election leaping out and I haven’t had the heart to try to keep up over the weekend. Yesterday, Saturday, we met other Island Labour members in a Newport pub to have a bit of a thank you session, with the candidate, Richard Quigley, a gloriously happy, funny, clever and warm man, bringing his wife and daughter so he could say his personal thanks. Richard has been a pleasure to support in the campaign, as Julian, his manager, was in the last. In the pub, many of us were talking about how we are now facing the very real dread of the last restraints being released from the Tory plunder of our country’s assets. We’re thinking about the fact that we will not be able to afford ‘health insurance’ when the Fascists pocket the bribes from the Yank money and drug industries; we’re thinking about the fact that those of us who are in public service jobs will probably endure a continued slide into deeper and deeper working destitution, if we are lucky enough to keep our jobs. We are finding it harder to think without real, urgent horror of the fate of disabled people, homeless people, people who cannot find legal redress for rape or harassment and how soon it will be our turn to join them. It’s personal. Dying, untreated, of some wretched cancer, or living with pain that would be treatable if we were part of the 5%, now seems like our common fate.
What we are supposed to do, if we follow the advice that we have told ourselves since Jeremy Corbyn first gave us hope, is to pull together, look to one another, and begin to support those people already jettisoned by the Tories’ campaign of exclusion and abandonment. Some people are talking about it, but we all know that the Blairites will try another doomed and deluded attempt to drive the party into impotence by reopening the insane whinges they’ve been picking at since they were crushed in 2015. And, pathetic as their positions are, they have The New Statesman and The Guardian behind them, so they don’t have to be right, just shamelessly persistent.
So, I’m looking at my position. If infighting does get a grip, I may decide to not stand for local party office at the next AGM. Over the election, I have made new friends, or deepened existing ones, and the idea of becoming a social activist, working on practical projects, rather than just being a political campaigner, appeals to me. Food banks, advice and support networks, and care volunteers are all able to affect lives in a way that, while it is not as powerful as political office, is more useful than arguing over dogma and political tactics. And, if I convince a few people to see through the lies of the capitalist hegemony on the way, all the better.
One other thing is troubling me; an issue that is like the ticking bomb that fascists love to use to justify their cruelty. If, by some miracle, the vile Bozo Johnson manages to hold together a government for five years, the timeline for installing a government that will meet its responsibilities to the climate emergency before the deadline that scientists now say is the very latest chance to save human civilisation will be halved. We have to stop the Tories before then. We have to. I am ambivalent about Extinction Rebellion, but I think it’s all we’ve got left. We are into a period of resistance, not participation.
Let’s get back to my Tory voting learner. I can’t discuss her much more closely than I already have, but I can make some guesses about those things that drive her. Not ideologically racist, she has, I suspect, suffered humiliations at the hands of people whom she perceives as different, and came to the Island, partly, to get away from communities that are in turmoil and have been turned against one another by poverty and poorly resourced and led policing, social structures and political leadership. For her, Brexit seems like a triumph of the poor over the powerful: a reversal of the truth, as it turns out, but if your information comes from social media and tabloids, you can continue to believe that.
For her, also, they are all the same. It’s the FUD lie of lies, that says that politics is pointless and the safest and bravest response is to follow the herd. Political voting is confused with voting for a Love Island contestant, where the outcome is similar to a bet: you win if you back the winner.
In truth, of course, backing the winner in this election has guaranteed that the phone calls she gets, when she says, “Someone after money: they can jog on,” will increase. The waiting time for her Universal Credit will lengthen, the amount she is entitled to reduced, so her debts will deepen; the inadequate working protections she has at the moment will be removed one at a time, until she will be paying, not only for her work travel, but for her uniform, her equipment, and, finally, for the privilege of being employed.
She hasn’t yet noticed, I suspect, that the NHS has been privatised. The fact that ‘Boris’, as she calls him, lied about putting more money into the NHS hasn’t got through to her. They all throw figures around, don’t they? They’re all the same.
When she told me that she had voted Tory, I stared at her for a moment, taking in her beauty, her nicotine-stained front teeth, her bravely well turned out appearance that is testament to her courage, given the hours she works, and then muttered that I couldn’t get into it. It was an uncomfortable moment.
She got on with her work, doing well, grasping lowest common multiples and then comparison of fractions, but the moment must have lingered for her, as well as for me. I realised that, for her, I am part of the body of authority that keeps her working and working and working, denying her the right to gain full realisation of her talents and potential and, by confronting my politics, she was asserting herself; laying claim to a dignity she doesn’t realise I already see in her. She’s not to know that I earn less than her, and that, for all my education, I am as constrained and limited by the political and economic system as she is.
Finally, as we were summing up the learning at the end of the class, she brought it up again.
“It bothers you, don’t it,” she said, reverting to her mannered London speech, which is not how she usually talks to me.
I wanted to channel Jonathan Pie, and descend into a rant that would contain all the frustration and pain I had been feeling since ten o’clock the previous night, when Huw Edwards and Andrew Neil had gleefully pronounced my country’s doom. I stared into her eyes for a moment, trying to find the right thing to say. Nothing came.
In my struggle, I remembered Christians On The Left’s prayer email of that morning. I hadn’t absorbed it properly: I’d been too tired and too sad, but one line had jumped out at me:
Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10)
I stopped searching and words came.
“Your vote is your own choice,” I said. “It’s wonderful that you voted. The fact that you have voted, for the first time, is a really good thing. The more people who vote, the more powerful all our votes are. I celebrate that.”
I doubt I fooled her. I suspect that, given the struggles she has and the job she does, she is a perceptive person, who saw how much pain I was in. However, she smiled, packed her bag, and went on to her next obligation, her courage and dignity undamaged by our exchange, knowing a little bit more about maths than she had when she came in.
We win when we try.