When Jenny comes home, late at night, exhausted from the overtime she won’t get paid for, she only turns the one light on to cut through the gloom. The table lamp and her laptop screen offer the only illumination. She doesn’t turn the heating on either even though frost is starting to crinkle on the inside of her thin windows. She could afford it, really, but the last two months have been tight. Her old car needed a new starter motor, and she needs the car to get to her shifts at the hospital, nine miles away. Often she has to be on before the buses start running, or at least before the first bus on that route would get her there in time. The unplanned expenditure means that she feels as though she needs to save. She knows it’s a false economy, that not keeping warm will probably make her sick and unable to work, but she has to feel as though she’s doing something to help the situation, to make a dent in the credit card bill. That’s just the way she was brought up.
Jenny warms some baked beans and slaps two slices of own-brand bread under the grill. For the third night running. She’ll add some grated cheese tonight to make it a bit more interesting and there’s some Tabasco left. There’s that bottle of wine her sister bought a couple of weeks ago. Jenny really fancies a glass. Her knees and her back hurt from being on her feet all day. Her head throbs and every time she closes her eyes she sees that office worker, smashed out his skull, calling her a fucking slag because she wanted to clean the gash in his hand where the glass had gone through. She keeps seeing that memory and a premonition of the same again the next day. The endless, repetitive churn of people who need different care to what she can provide and those who should just be a bit more grateful. The old ladies who view her with suspicion, clutching their handbags close. The angry drunks and the middle-aged guy who needs a friend as much as a nurse. She thinks about all these things in the gloom of her one bed flat, shovelling watery beans into her mouth, a Youtube video playing in the background, a song that’s too sad really; she should have searched for something livelier. She chews her beans and thinks about that glass of wine, but it’s for Saturday so it stays there, on the counter, undrunk.
Michael is a good student. Or he tries to be and that’s more important. He enjoys school. He likes learning, even maths, which is boring, but every so often, when he finally sees the beauty in the calculation it is all worthwhile. Michael tries to get to school every day, but sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes his Mum or his brother, Jermaine, will ask him to pick some stuff – always stuff, always vague - up for them from the other side of town and then, by the time he’s walked there and back, it feels too late so he just watches TV instead. But he prefers school. Most of his friends hate school. They think it’s pointless. They’re going to be Premier League footballers or a name of some sort, whatever that means. What do they need to learn for? They’re better off out on the streets practising, learning their trade.
Michael’s Dad always tells him to go to school, when he sees him. Michael promises he will and usually he does, even though his sister, Danielle, calls him weird.
Mister Colbeck is Michael’s favourite. He teaches drama and even though Mister Colbeck’s classroom is always cold, because the radiators don’t work, Michael looks forward to his class. Michael likes studying, working through text books, but sometimes it’s good to get out of your seat. Michael likes pretending.
But Mister Colbeck hasn’t been seen for a couple of weeks. Not since there was the trouble with the Year 11s. Something about a boy and a girl. Something about respect. It always is. No-one’s seen Mister Colbeck for a while and they’re having extra English lessons rather than drama and on the cold dark mornings Michael thinks that maybe he should just stay at home.
Samuel kicks his heels. A funny turn of phrase. One that he hadn’t really understood before, until he had enough time on his hands to learn how to kick his heels. These days he has more time than he knows what to do with. He left school with four GCSEs and grand hopes of an apprenticeship, but then so had half his year and there weren’t that many going round. Three years later and he was pretty much happy to do anything for anyone, just to fill the hours, just to make him feel a little less utterly reliant on his parents.
Samuel changes target from his heels to an idle pigeon. The pigeon dodges with the onrush of wind and Samuel curses.
The sportswear shop on the retail park had offered him a contract. Zero hours. Something his Dad had been worried about. They were all over the news, apparently. Samuel didn’t know about that and, frankly, he didn’t care. He just wanted work, to get some money. For the first couple of months it was okay. He worked most days. There was even a little bit of a bonus when the store hit its sales target. He’d been enjoying himself. Jack from the year above at school worked there too and there were a couple of girls Samuel had his eye on, just for a laugh like. Then Brian, the rota manager, stopped calling. They didn’t have a slot for him that week, or the next, or the next. His contract meant he had to give two weeks’ notice if he wanted to leave and find another job, not that there was anything else, and when he’d mentioned going Brian had promised there’d be some hours in the next couple of days.
That was three weeks ago.
The job centre wouldn’t give him the time of day. Even though he wasn’t getting paid he was working, they said. Samuel doesn’t see how that makes sense. Can’t they understand that he’s desperate?
There’s no life left in Samuel’s town. Every day he thinks about heading to the big city. He’d heard there were jobs to be had there, but he doesn’t have the money for the bus, or anywhere to stay and besides he’d miss his mates and his Mum. With a sigh, he kicks his heels one more time for luck.
Catherine wakes like the bed is on fire. It’s early, too early. The light is barely sneaking under the curtains and, even without checking her phone, she knows it is hours until her first lecture. Last night’s wine and the dancing still race through her blood. She should still be sleeping. That’s what the rest of her house is doing. But she was awake, woken by the sudden, creeping memory.
Most of the time, it is all right. She can get on with life, be like a normal person, but it’s always there, deep inside. And after a while it starts to grow, the sense of dread mounting like cranked pressure, pushing down on her shoulders, a steady weight on her chest, the constant ringing in her head, the ker-ching of old cash registers she’d seen on that old show her parents watch.
It’s the debt. She’s done the sums. Clocked up how much her three years of being young with some learning on the side had cost her, or will cost her at some point. Her Dad keeps telling her not to worry about it. He keeps talking about what a liberating and enriching experience his years at university had been, even without studying that much. But it had been different for him. It had been free for one thing and after he’d come through he was one of few graduates. A job was almost a foregone conclusion.
It isn’t like that for Catherine. Her cousin Max, two years older, had graduated eighteen months ago with a first in biochemistry and still hasn’t even had an interview. Catherine can’t help but worry whether she’s done the right thing, saddling herself with so much baggage. Even when her head isn’t pounding, her throat sticky and dusty at the same time like it is that morning, it consumes her. Has she just spent three years messing her life up?
Paul looks at Ali’s mound while she sleeps. Her sleep is deep and soulful, snuffles of caught air exhaled into the early morning fuzz of streetlight sneaking between the curtains. Paul looks at them, at his wife and the shape of his unborn child, and felt awash with love, and worry.
Ali had wanted the baby more than him. No, that’s not true. She’d wanted the baby imminently more than he had. Paul wants children too, and with both of them aged thirty-six, he knows that time isn’t on Ali’s side, but there’s part of him that felt irresponsible. He feels callous to be bringing another life into the world simply to fulfil a biological urge to parent and pass on genes.
He sighs, quietly, rolls over and looks at the wall. Because that’s the only option. Their flat is so small that the bedroom only just accommodates a double bed, shoved into the corner, and with Ali struggling to sleep the night through they’d recently swapped sides and Paul suddenly realised why she’d always complained of feeling pinned in at night. They both had good jobs and, even when Ali went on maternity leave, they’d be earning more than he’d thought possible when he’d graduated with idle dreams of being an artist. Funny how life works out, funny how enticing working for a media company can be when the money’s right.
And yet still, this shoebox of a flat was only rented. The idea of owning a place had been permanently shelved; both of them had been unable to overcome the compromise of location versus ownership. To stand even a chance of buying somewhere they would have to live somewhere they didn’t want to. They’d looked into it, a couple of years ago, but had been repelled by the eye gouging bloodbath they’d seen to buy flats which weren’t much better than this one they already thought of as home and in a nastier part of town. But the contract was up for renewal and the landlord kept leaving odd messages on Paul’s voicemail. Still, it was an irrelevant dream: they didn’t have a deposit anyway. Not for the first time, as the magnolia walls burned boredom on his eyes, Paul regrets quite so many holidays and frivolous nights out in his twenties.
Paul’s childhood had been somewhat idyllic. As a teenager he’d thought the tree-lined suburbs had been a particularly tedious form of hell, but with hindsight the relative comfort and carefree nature of life had been a blessing. He wanted to give his children outdoor space, safe and reliable schools, but he also wanted them to be exposed to a range of culture and for their father to not spend nearly fifteen hours a week commuting. That was a lot of their growing up he’d miss.
Margaret looks at the letter again. There must be some mistake. How could they be cutting her housing benefit because there was a bedroom unoccupied? It wasn’t a spare room, it was Jacob’s room. Didn’t they understand? He’s only been gone a few weeks.
It hadn’t been unexpected. Indeed, it had been his whole life coming. Slowly it had ebbed him away until there was nothing left but a husk. That didn’t make it any easier, though. He had been her whole life and now he’s gone. She’s bereft. Becalmed. Unable to summon the energy to get dressed in the morning and now this.
Margaret hasn’t been in paid work for years, not since Jacob’s Father had left and caring for their son had become a full time occupation. That was what Mothers did, wasn’t it? They care for and nurture their offspring no matter what. Even if, all along, you know it isn’t going to be forever.
Margaret looks at the calendar on the wall. It shows a picture of daffodils. Spring for April. The letter in front of her is dated June. Maybe it has been longer than she realised. It’s hard for her to keep track. Time has become both unmoving and rapid now that her days lack structure. Still, such a big cut. She knows she can’t make the difference up. Somewhere inside her head, she knows she’ll be moved on, away from the memories, the last things she has of him.
The final few hours of an election are occasionally decisive but this time feels as though we’re entering the last act of a seaside farce. Russell Brand has gone back on his previously militant, tour ticket selling position that we should all abstain from voting and come out for Labour, helpfully after registration has closed. It is as though he suddenly stopped listening to just himself and thought, “oh, maybe some of those ideas about improving the country aren’t so bad, after all.” Meanwhile, should Ed Milliband take the top job his first act ought to be firing whichever idiot came up with the idea of planting a stone in the Downing Street garden with some policies carved on it. The policy stone would beggar belief were it not easily outstripped by the latest UKIP suspension. The latest in a long line of disciplinary actions, which is beginning to make me suspect the only candidate still actually endorsed by the party is Nigel Farage, takes the biscuit. Robert Blay was filmed by a journalist threatening to put a “bullet between the eyes” of his Conservative rival forNorth East Hampshire, Ramil Jayawardena.
Seriously, the latest act of bigoted, sensationalist, moronic “telling it like it is” is the absolute pinnacle of what is so wrong with the right hand half of the political debate. Murder may be as extreme as the rest of UKIP’s views, but let’s not forget that Boris Johnson had a rival journalist beaten up in his youth. There are people vying to be in charge of the country who are deeply unpleasant individuals and who will go about their political careers in the same unpleasant fashion.
Politics should be inclusive, not divisive. It should bring people together not create suspicion, resentment and distrust. We are a modern, first world nation. We should have opportunities to make things better. We should be seeking to establish how we want to live in the twenty-first century not still holding onto to a redundant twentieth century model, not still have the same boring arguments about the basics.
We should not be interested in the self. We shouldn’t be voting for low taxes, for small government, for a system which relies on individuals to make the most of themselves. Instead we should vote for something which allows us all to work together to make something greater than the individual parts.
Margaret Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing as society, that there are just men and women and the family unit. She was wrong. There is nothing but society. Without society we have no systems or infrastructure, without society nobody looks out for anyone other than their immediate. Society provides us with homes, with jobs, with culture, with entertainment, with industry, with innovation and with greatness. Without a society as advanced as the one we are blessed with, we would be little more than cavemen scrambling around for food and warmth at the expense of others.
I don’t know about you, but that isn’t how I want to live.
Will Hutton in How Good We Can Be writes about a compassionate capitalist society. He calls for the system whereby corporations are bound to the communities, the society, from which they spring. Corporations which pay tax, which are not subject to the piracy and short term gain of the management buy-outs, that become embedded in delivering what they set out to do, that offer apprenticeships and sustainable growth. The renationalisation of essential services from utilities to the internet, from transport to the stock exchange, of reminding business that its subject is to serve society, not the other way around.
That’s a good start.
Then let’s create sufficient homes for people to live in by building sustainable, affordable rental properties. We can create a more diverse approach to living that doesn’t see everyone scramble to get on the housing market by limiting the amount a property can increase in value in a given annual period, by taxing profits from house sales, introducing rent controls and removing tax benefits for buy to let landlords.
Let’s see a return to fully comprehensive education which gives all children the same opportunities in groups of mixed ability allowing those who struggle to learn from their peers as well as teachers. Let’s end university tuition fees and accept that a well educated society is to everyone’s benefit and so we can all pay for it through taxation. Let’s push our universities to be centres of academic excellence, striving for world leading research for the benefit of the nation, not because it makes more business sense.
Let’s stop this petty, futile squabbling with Europe and internally with ourselves. Let’s recognise that the problems the country faces are because of our own greed and the failure of the state to properly regulate and support society. They are nothing to do with immigration.
Let’s properly invest in the NHS, both clinical and non-clinical. The rich can continue to use private providers if they wish to skip queues for non-essential procedures, but they can help pay for a system that they will invariably use at some point.
Let’s increase the minimum wage so you can actually live on it, scrap zero hours contracts and ensure that everyone working gets a just reward for their efforts. And for those who can’t work, either temporarily or permanently, let’s end the stigma they face and treat them with respect and dignity. Imagine yourself in their shoes: how would you want to be maligned in the national press simply for caring for a relative?
Let’s have high quality armed forces, but let’s take the moral stance of ending nuclear deterrent and foreign intervention unless it has the express support of the United Nations.
Let’s seek to end our reliance on fossil fuels. Let’s seriously strive to be the country that leads the world back from the brink of extinction. All of the above is pointless if the world chokes to death within a generation or so. We started this mess with the industrial revolution; let’s have the courage to try to end it and with advanced green technology be at the world’s vanguard again.
Let’s be a shining light, a beacon for the world to admire. You want to put the Great back into Great Britain? Then let’s doing by becoming the fairest, kindest, greenest, most moral, most supportive nation in the world not by whinging, moping, blaming others, over-hyping the handcart’s destination or harking for a bygone idyll that never existed.
Sure, this isn’t going to happen overnight. It probably isn’t even going to happen in a single five year term, but over the course of a generation. Obama’s big failing was to give too much hope. His slogan should have been “yes we can, but...” It’ll be hard, it’ll take time, but, you know what? That’s good enough for me.
‘Are you secretly a communist?’ my wife asked me in the candle flocked Copenhagen bar over the weekend. I’d been verbally thinking through some of the ideas above, and some slightly more radical ones. ‘I wish you’d just think before you speak,’ she sighed, not unreasonably.
Do I believe in five year plans, state control of everything, the suppression of creativity and response to challenge, no wages, complete theoretical equality for all and gulags on Orkney? No, of course not. I’m not an idiot.
I may be naive. Okay, I can live with that. Common theory holds that I will regress into selfish, small-c conservatism as I grow older, so perhaps allow me one final naive, ideological flourish, okay? I’m mean, what do I know? The above might not be feasible. I’m not a politician. I’m not an economist. I’m not even a journalist. I’m just someone with hopes and a computer who reads a lot.
In the end, this isn’t about me. It isn’t about you, either. It isn’t even about some abstract, half-formed idea I may have of future children. When you vote tomorrow, this should be about all of us. I hope that your decision will be one which helps to bring about the best and brightest future for every single person in this country. It should be for all of us. Together.
When asked why he wanted to be Prime Minister, David Cameron famously replied that it was because he thought he’d be good at it. Even by his own targets, he hasn’t been. Instead, over the last five years he has been ostracised on the world stage, seen the union at the heart of the United Kingdom stretched to what feels like an irretrievable breaking point, and created a less equal, less tolerant, less wealthy and more fearful society.
“A new dawn has risen, has it not?” Tony Blair smiled that sunny May morning nearly twenty years ago. The past five years have felt like a particularly bleak, dark and cold night for many. It might not be dawn just yet, but surely we can at least switch the lights on?