It’s a simple truth that on the left of politics, we get nowhere without offering hope. It is both the fuel and the product of change, and without it we stop believing in ourselves.
This problem is acute in our approach to young people. Too often we on the left treat young people as victims. Tuition fees, EMA, the cost of renting; we could do all the speech. We assume that merely by pointing out economic injustice we can persuade young people to vote for progressive parties.
This is too shallow. Young people are right to be angry about what the Tories have done, but that anger ought not to rob young people of their power to change our country. In our anger at what we were powerless to stop, we should not lose sight of the power we have to do something better. I want to set out some thoughts expanding this idea, starting with the importance of hope.
‘There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will.’
Reading this article about optimism a few weeks ago by Jade Azim, I was reminded of those words.
What Jade reports is – somewhat tragically – almost an exact repeat of how I felt growing up. Being old enough, by the time of the early 1990s recession, to know that there were money worries at home, and those in the lead of our country were making the problem worse for my family not better. Experiencing those times when my family really needed the NHS, and the wait was way too long. Seeing my city, Liverpool, left with great big holes, where buildings and people should have been. And getting to university but realising meritocracy was ‘as real as unicorns’.
I’ve spent time in my life feeling pretty depressed and anxious. And whilst I know that there are all kinds of complicated causes, sometimes I do think that depression isn’t so much just an emotional reaction, but more a logical response to events. It is how you feel when captured by the real facts of the situation, unable to just enjoy life. It’s not irrational, depression. It’s rational, alright.
And now, when I think about the things I am (even as a Member of Parliament) powerless to stop, I feel that Dr King’s words resonate. I will never be adjusted to the idea that there are children in our country that are growing up with the stress and uncertainty of knowing their parents have serious money troubles. So, sitting through the debate on child poverty last week, listening to Tories argue that money doesn’t make a difference to a person’s life chances, gave me that sense of being seriously maladjusted to the situation I found myself in.
Worse still. We all know what horror has come upon civilians in Syria. We all know it. And we know that, even if we have to accept (though I sometimes doubt we should accept) that we are powerless to stop the fighting, we know we could be helping our friends in Greece, Italy and across Europe to find safe refuge for the victims of the conflict. As a country, we are doing far too little.
I cannot accommodate myself to this. I am maladjusted. Because it’s wrong. But nor can we leave it there, or give up. Hope must come from somewhere. Which begs the question: where? How do you give hope to people who are anxious and depressed?
My view is that we give people hope by stopping that feeling of being powerless. People need the power to be what they want to be, to be able to shape their own life and the world around them. That’s what makes you believe that the future is worth having.
For the left, this idea – having power over your own life – as a political principle has not always resonated. We believe in solidarity, community, and equality. How does that equate with having the power and freedom to do as you please?
This problem was made clear to me in a recent presentation by Ben Page of Ipsos Mori. He described what the British Social Attitudes Survey has to tell us about the generational shift in attitude on this. Whilst clearly there are some young people who want more government intervention, in general the trend is the other way. A few will join protests, but many more are interested in what they, themselves, can do to improve life.
For millenials (those born as I was in 1980, and in the years onwards), or Generation Y, as they are also known, perhaps this implies a huge paradox. Many of the challenges we face: an unbalanced housing crisis, high-cost childcare, an aging population whose health care must be paid for, seem to call for big, statist answers. We reach for price controls on rents, or state controlled wages to bolster incomes and deal with the inequality that the market allows, at a time when younger generations of British people actually say they want more control over their own life. They seek empowerment, rather than to be told by a centralised state how their problem will be dealt with.
This seems to be a problem for the left. What if our collectivism turns off the next generation? Whilst young progressive activists might be prepared to listen to us, if their peers are not interested, what should Labour do? Should we try to persuade young people that they need to accept a big all-powerful state, because it’s in their own best interests? Or do we have to just accept that individualism now has a permanent place in the values of our society and there is little that we can do about it?
Maybe Generation Y – that’s me included – really is to blame for the sense of hopelessness we experience. Maybe that’s what’s wrong? It’s Thatcher’s children who never learnt to put others first?
Well she is to blame (of course) for so much, but on this occasion, I don’t think so. If the attitude of my generation could really be reduced to simple individualism then maybe we would be doomed. But it isn’t like that. In my view, that attitude is something else. Something hopeful.
Let me explain. It seems obvious to me that there is a difference between a community, and a homogenous group. You can have a coherent group of people who all live near each other, or who work together, but who are all different by various measures. Community does not depend on everyone being similar to each other
And what’s more important, even if everyone started out the same, shouldn’t you have the right to change? To be yourself, who you truly are?
One of the facts that is true for Generation Y that was not so true for their parents or grandparents is that people can change class. Better education and the huge expansion of university education has meant that whereas before, just a tiny few made a break with family tradition and went to university, now, the tradition that working class parents had working class children is over. Mainly thanks to Labour, and the choices made by Labour Governments, elected by Labour activists and voters.
Now, as a part of that group of people experiencing this rupture with the past, what has this experience taught me, other than, with regards to higher education at least, that money still makes a huge difference to your chances in Britain?
It taught me about how I want to live. I want to feel – and for others to feel – part of a community, but not to be forever, or simplistically, defined by it. People can learn and change. Class is not permanent, and the choices that education provides are not just about employment. Education brings choices not just about what you want to do, but about who you want to be.
It’s not just the choice of job to apply for, or the supermarket to shop in. It’s the choice that you have the right to express yourself. My Grandfather lived his whole working life never having had the choice of university. He went to Liverpool University when he was 67. Even when work was behind him, he wanted to spend time learning and thinking about the world. That need never goes away.
I don’t think that opening up education has made people selfish. But education changes the choices you have available to you. And our country has become less stratified and homogenous because of that. Generation Y want to be themselves, not stereotyped into an inescapable box.
I think this is a great thing for modern Britain. Much better than when a person’s class was, to use Shakespeare’s words, ‘an ever-fixed mark’. People should be able to be themselves. And if wanting that makes me ‘individualistic’, then maybe I am.
On the subject of hope, and people being themselves, Generation Y have lived through other great shifts
We have more power over our identities that previous generations. I can remember what Britain was like before the huge strides forward on equality for LGBT people for example. I can remember what life was like when many more people felt that they had to hide their real identity. When Danny Boyle chose to show Brookside’s lesbian kiss in the Olympic opening ceremony, that buzz of pride we felt was the knowledge that here was Britain, setting an example to the world of what freedom and love for each other looks like. Same goes for the signing choir’s performance. That’s people taking pride in being themselves, deaf or not.
Likewise, women in Generation Y have grown up with equality as not just a campaign, but much, much more a reality. Culturally, we expect to be able to be who we really are. Women are challenging perceptions and being and doing more than ever before. Passing judgement on women’s sexual, reproductive or career choice was once commonplace and acceptable. Now – in Britain, anyway – it is not.
Again, thanks to Labour, gay people can be parents if they choose, women are footballers and railway engineers, and people with disabilities have much greater freedom and choice than ever. These are huge steps forward for Britain.
Add to this the ability to communicate and to express ourselves more widely than ever before. The printing press once opened up words and democracy. But for my generation, the Walkman gave us music, self expression, and a cocoon of music wherever we happened to be. Instagram and Facebook have made permanent artists of anyone who wishes it.
What I am trying to explain here is that what at first sight might appear to be individualism in a right-wing, selfish sense, is in fact, being an individual in a progressive sense. How can wanting people to be everything they might like, and to truly be themselves, not hindered by class, bad fortune, or lack of resources, be anything other than a left-wing, progressive idea?
What’s more, these choices, these opportunities, are built by giving everyone the essential platform they need in order to make the choice. Whether that’s excellent teaching at school, or childcare that frees women to choose different work, this is what the left in Britain has built. Conservatives may want choice for the wealthy few, but we want opportunities for the many, most especially in the chances for self-expression that new technology brings.
I want people not to be trapped by history, but to be able to make life anew.
That’s what real hope is. That’s the answer to anxiety about the future. The chance, as Phillip Larkin put it, of a catching of happiness.
So how do we bring this about? Maybe, given that I think Dr King was right to say that we should remain maladjusted to injustice, we should persuade younger British people to be more angry? Which begs the question as to who they should be angry with?
Should they be angry with the baby-boomer generation, who were able to buy their home without a university degree, and who did not face a de-regulated labour market or high-cost renting? This generation will retire earlier than those at work now, and many receive valuable pensions.
But the fact is that previous generation of British people did not see the benefit of wider education that I described earlier. Women who started work in the 1960s or 1970s had constrained choices and little in the way of help with the expectation that childcare would also be their job.
And what’s more, this generational conflict makes no sense when we think about who these people are. They are our parents and our grandparents. Our aunties and uncles. They are our friends and family. We love them and they love us.
So we need ideas that work for everyone.
We also need ideas that are real. Our campaign must be for radical change that meets the aspiration of the next generation, as well as ideas that are practical and concrete. The challenge is great, yes, and we want to make serious attempts to give people a better chance. But you don’t convince the cynical or the anxious person with slogans and spin. We need new policies that we can make work.
In that vein, I would like to suggest an initial ideal that is both radical and do-able
I mentioned earlier that these positive liberating changes in Britain have arisen from Labour governments building platforms on which all can stand. It’s time for a new platform.
Universal childcare – where parents would have access to free, good quality care for children during working hours – would make a seriously radical change to the choices available to families.
During the last election Labour and Conservative competed for who could offer parents the most free hours of childcare. From November 2014, I had the job of selling our policy of free 25 hours childcare for 3 and 4 years olds to voters. What initially seemed like a good dividing line between us and the Tories, was then quickly done for when they topped our offer, saying they would provide 30 free hours.
But worse, when even in my own constituency I saw our contact data say that we were struggling to get the attention of voting parents, I knew that the policy wasn’t radical enough. It offered no support to parents until their child was three. And said too little about our vision for the life of working parents. Only that we would help them with ten more hours than they were currently getting for the duration of two years of their child’s life. Think back to mine and Jade’s experience of struggling with insufficient family income. We did not give people enough hope.
But universal access to childcare could powerfully open up choice for parents, and be a huge boost to business and our economy. What’s more, because it removes a huge cost from working parents, it helps to stop poverty and inequality, providing support for everyone, but with greatest value to those who might otherwise struggle to make work pay. And finally, because we know that the earliest years are crucial in terms of learning, universal childcare could also change future life chances for British kids.
But what about the paradox I began with? Is this a modern problem to which we are offering a big centralised state solution? There is no reason why that should be so. As I found out when touring the country to talk about our 25-hours proposal, childcare needs vary greatly across the country. The service needs to respond to local economies. So devolution offers an opportunity to start afresh with childcare. A complex range of financial support for parents could be replaced with an accessible service that supported working parents. Plus, as one in three families with childcare needs get help from grandparents, this is a policy for the whole family from young to old.
This is a big idea and will take a great deal of work to bring about. But I believe it is an idea worth making real.
So, overall, what is such a policy idea for? Well, if maladjustment is – as Martin Luther King described – a rational response to inequality, injustice and distress, then I believe that action is required to bring about ‘freedom and human dignity’ – also his words.
Dignity is not a straightforward idea, and one that I’ve wrestled with before.
In this context though, the challenge for those of us with progressive values, is to argue that for all we have changed British society to allow people the dignity of freedom and self-expression, there is more to be done.
Poverty keeps people down. And for those from ordinary backgrounds who do ‘get ahead’ despite the barriers, that sinking feeling that you don’t really belong – that you don’t really deserve success – comes from the knowledge that you ought not to have been in a minority.
Success should be possible coming from any part of our country, from any background, wealthy or not. The answer then is radical change. And therefore, a Labour Government.