A lot of vocal, determinedly anti-politics people demand two things from their representatives: they want ordinary people not ‘in it for themselves’, and they want people who are honest and speak the truth. Except they don’t want the first. When politicians act human they are considered a walking gaffe and, if vying for the highest office in the land, un-priministerial. And the latter is often a euphemism used by racists demanding politicians speak a universal truth about migrant hordes.
Thus, it seems, our politicians cannot be normal; but by not being a certain definition of normal, and speaking personally and openly, they are hated. And thus a cycle of anti-politics has been in motion.
For me, I have since the election considered this impossible trade-off to be an absolute truth you have to oblige by and somehow master. I have caught myself speaking not for myself, but for the Labour party. Or more specifically, the shadow cabinet member reading focus groups, head in hands, trying to work out how the hell to reconcile Labour to the public’s increasingly rightward shift on issues like welfare and immigration. Instead of offering my opinion on immigration, I offer to be the devil’s advocate so Labour can win. I have caught myself losing my once deeply held principles as I desperately try to ponder where Labour went wrong. Because when Labour lost (and if we vote Brexit), it meant all my values had lost as well. Surely I am wrong, I pondered. The public are always right. The guy telling me about Turks taking over is right, I justify to my Turkish self.
I can’t do it anymore.
I sometimes worry, often feel guilt, when I catch myself changing my own personal positions, particularly on welfare and immigration, two issues I am passionately pro for. Why do I feel this need for devil’s advocacy?
I presume, by being pro-welfare and pro-immigration, I am the metropolitan elite. A few years back, I’d shrug at use of such a phrase, see it as something euphemistic, racist and even a bit classist (because working class people can’t be socially liberal, see*). But in the past year I have used it sincerely and genuinely. To the point I am scaring myself.
(*this is also linked to the patronizing idea that working class expression of patriotism is inherently based in blood and soil, or that social conservatism about queen, flag and country is the same social conservatism that always gives fuel to this bigotry -the first is wrong and the second is overly simplistic.)
I understand in not indulging in certain principles to see your party succeed. I get that. Socialism is the language of priorities. What your priorities are is a value judgement. Though in the case of a Bennite is seems sort of obvious. I still get angry at Jeremy when he talks about Trident or the Falklands or whatever. But on issues like immigration? The line between morals and electoral necessity are beginning to be drawn more deeply in the sand. It feels dichotomous. It feels like our culture has become so aggressively xenophobic, driven by fear and hate, far now beyond pragmatic, rational grievances with immigration and conditions, that it is becoming impossible for a social democrat or socialist to keep up with the rightward shift in debate. I can’t keep up. I don’t want to keep up.
I cannot lend my credence to virulent anti-immigration voices truthfully or sincerely. As I said, I don’t want to. I can’t.
The more I do, the less true to myself I become. It is not my job, and frankly – it shouldn’t be anyone’s job. It is not my job because, while I like to commentate all grown-up on how Labour can win and how it must do XYZ to do so, I am not burdened as a politician and I never intend to be burdened as a politician as it is now. Certainly not like this. I do not aspire to any office if, as I have been warned, my views on here -from welfare to private schools- will be screenshotted and vetted by The Sun and carried in a story decrying them as making me unfit for said office. I cannot function in a world wherein my, for me (this is selfish, for sure, but personal un-aired views are always “for me”, that is individual freedom that knows no constituency), rational and decent views on issues at the core of who I am and that I prioritise as necessary for a just society are used against me and my very election would depend on me keeping my mouth shut when trying to defend the stigmatised.
This is not my being elitist, my being a metropolitan elite not understanding the concerns of immigration. Mine are principles from an ~urban~ place, sure. But it isn’t about that. Our politics has become all or nothing. The mainstream is becoming hardline. Dissent by defending migrants, even refugees, is legitimately met with gasps. You see politicians defend immigration and you fear for the backlash against their respective parties. I can’t keep up. I don’t want to.
I used to want to be an MP.
When I was in secondary school, we had to do this creative writing task. I chose to write an article on how MPs don’t care about the poor and live in mansions outside their (poor) constituencies. Like most of the population today, I thought politicians were ‘in it for themselves’, that they didn’t care for us. You have to know that this was at a particularly awful moment in life where financial realities were dropped on a teenager far too early. I get it. I get the post-crash world. I see the backlash against globalisation and I understand. I took it out on my representatives and the ‘elite’. I had no faith in our politics to change my world. That could have been preyed upon, in another context, by the likes of Farage.
That was until I got involved, only briefly, in Movement for Change, and through that saw the work Stella Creasy, my local MP, was doing regarding payday loans -the very predators that had preyed on my own household at our time of need. A few various good deeds later, And I had a sudden faith in politics beyond scapegoating to irrevocably impact our fates and fortunes. As did my mum, as did my brother. I became involved. Inspired.
Then this happened. This blog post. Everything in it. The growing despair that I would have to become something I am not to become something. British politics’ way of turning you into a machine with an ‘off-switch’ for emotions and empathy.
There are a lot of ‘I’s in this blog, from a blogger all too aware she has preached about the need for compromise of the personal for political gain for the gain of the many. But this isn’t about me. The worst part is the wider effect it has, these culture wars, this rightward shift. There are going to be so fewer normal, outspoken champions of those without voices and with few advocates wanting to stand for office. Not just now. Our culture, one that permits only ever more vitriolic, antagonist, anti-immigrant views and rhetoric is becoming a place where but two sets of people can thrive: One, the racist that genuinely believes and has conviction in what they are saying; and two, those who are trained to say it anyway.
That is why I have so much respect for outspoken (especially female) MPs who continue on, battling for what they believe to be true. They are the last defendants of Britain’s most vulnerable and most hated. Even with consequences as horrific as this.
But this is at the same time I feel belligerence toward the leadership for saying contentious things that jeopardize the party’s chances of winning in this increasingly toxic country. That paradox is impossible to mend.
My fear is that others who should be in Parliament and in Cabinet and Prime Minister, fighting against the grain, will have to make a choice between being true and being effective, and will understandably choose to remain the people they are. The effect will be that fewer and fewer voices will exist for those with none.
I hope British politics can one day be a place where decency can prevail openly and without threat once more. It’ll take a platform of powerful voices to change an entire consensus, to find that balance between the realities of opposition and the infamous shift in the Overton window, a thing I’m not entirely sure is actually a thing in its purest sense. I know something like it has happened before, from suffragettes to civil rights to the LGBT+ movement. I stand with the people with guts carrying that fight to change and challenge Britain’s increasing xenophobia forward, ones that can find a place between being true and being effective, so we can one day win to govern by our truth and build that better world. To change an entire culture to get there. To fight Jo’s fight.
Her fight has certainly reminded me to be true and good and courageous. To be human. And to fight for other humans.