Friday, 16 April 2010

There's just no pleasing some people.

... here's the bit where I'm impolite.

So last night, two hundred well-dressed members of the British literary and political eschelons gathered in the Thomson Reuters building in Canary Wharf to watch three nice white chaps in identical suits jostle for the most recalcitrant position on immigration. The great and good who were assembled for the announcement of the Orwell shortlist got to watch the leaders' debate on huge screens over drinks and nibbles. Television history was made over the clink of champagne flutes, in what I couldn't help feel was a dazzling dramatisation of the alienation of 'mainstream' politics from the reality of people's lives.

Don't get me wrong. It's wonderful to be nominated for this prize, and I'm very grateful to the Orwell Trust and the judges, and it means a very great deal to me. But the featured debate, 'Have the political classes been fatally weakened?' made me so angry I could hardly speak, even though for the first time in three years of attending London debates, most of the speakers were women *and* the topic was something other than women's rights. Because I don't see myself as part of the political classes, and I don't care if they've been fatally weakened. What's more, I don't think George Orwell would care much either. Meg Russell from the UCL constitution unit declared that voters were being 'hysterical' in their vocal impression of having been politically betrayed, and MPs who fiddled their expenses were 'just normal human beings'. A basic salary of sixty thousand pounds plus a free house, travelcard and dinner expense account does not a normal human being make.

The whole point of books like The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London - indeed, the point of most of Orwell's work - was to create a fluent political discourse which talks about most of the people, most of the time, rather than gleefully acquiescing to political privilege. When one speaker explained to the audience that 'of course, all of your children will go to university,' I wanted to stand up and yell, 'I won't be able to afford children until I'm eighty-five!'

I had spent the early part of that morning bidding farewell to my housemates, who had finally been forced out of their Tottenham bedsit after years of frantic joblessness and graduate debt in which all of us were repeatedly denied welfare benefits and adequate health care because we had the temerity to be young, poor and disenfranchised. It has taken two years for us to lose hope in our collective future. Suddenly, I'm having opportunities flung at me - of course I am, I was always the posh one - but my peers are suffering setbacks at every turn.

Over two years of economic catastrophe and personal disaster, during which young people like me have watched our future being progressively mortgaged by middle-aged politicians who enjoyed all the benefits of free higher education and parliamentary expense accounts, I started writing this blog about the rage and frustration of the new lost generation, our generation, and feminism, and bigotry, and all the other things that make me impossibly angry. I started writing this blog because I was unemployed, angry and needed an outlet for my energies, and now I have a prize and my friends have had to leave the city. It is wonderful to have a prize. But any amount of prizes, any amount of expensive canapes and any amount of televised right-wing pageantry will not make up for the manner in which the British political class has betrayed its poorest constituents and broken the hearts of its children.

On giant screens in the glittering Reuters foyer, Messrs Clegg, Cameron and Brown fought to score cheap laughs off each other's poster campaigns while appearing to be men of the people. ITV had to resort to a clunky gameshow formula to distinguish the speakers, with swooping close-ups and colour-coded ties - Gordon Brown chose a fetching metallic fuschia, presumably in order to deflect the impression that he had any sort of red flag around his neck. The whole thing resembled an apocalyptic late-1990s cookery show, with 9.9 million viewers clustered to watch the yellow, blue and pink teams compete to make the best stew out of the economy. Will the swan-faced bloke in the blue tie stave off the unemployment timebomb with a magical cake made of marriage? Or will everything burst into flames?

At my shoulder an Italian delegate nibbled expensive potato wedges. "I think I'd pick the yellow tie," she said, indicating the Lib Dem leader. "But I don't know - the blue one is really the same, isn't he?"

Nick Clegg is roundly considered to have won the debate, a conclusion that may have had less to do with the Lib Dem leader's barnstorming summation and obvious rhetorical flair than with our understanding of the way television works. Pitted against two Establishment villains with broad smiles and murderous eyes the young underdog with the strange hair always wins. In fact it was only Clegg's progressive stance on nuclear disarmament that distinguished him in ideological terms - the remaining 86 minutes of airtime were a pageant of empty rhetoric, with all three leaders struggling to give least offence to centre-right swing voters in "Middle England."

Meanwhile the few young people watching in Canary Wharf drank ourselves into a frenzy in the front row, occasionally throwing peanuts at the screen. None of the leaders' placations were directed at us. Cameron's promises of tax cuts for married couples will make no difference to the thousands of young couples who don't earn enough to pay tax, let alone get married. I'm certainly not going to be able to afford to rent a house with my partner for the forseeable future, and I've got posh parents. Brown's growly avowal of support for our troops meant nothing to the millions of young people whose first political memories are of marching and demonstrating against the war in 2003 and not being heard. And Clegg's repeated imprecation that politicians must not "let the young offenders of today become the hardened criminals of tomorrow" rang terrifyingly hollow for a generation who have had to downsize their dreams and want nothing more than the chance to hold down a job in a world that isn't entirely on fire.

Stepping out into the sparkling Docklands night, it felt like I had just attended the party at the end of the world. The magnitude of the crisis facing my generation is already frighteningly misunderstood, both by the tie-wearing men on the television and the well-meaning chicken-goujon-eating progressives at the Orwell debate.

Nobody is addressing us. And why would they? We aren't influential, or important. We don't own any property or assets, and we aren't likely to. We have neither high-powered jobs nor the organising traditions that would allow us to hold our bosses to account in any meaningful way. We will continue to sweat and toil for longer hours and fewer rewards than our parents could possibly envision, and some of us will win prizes, and most of us will be turned away time after terrible, heartbreaking time from any chance of economic stability and personal dignity, especially if we are working class, or non-white, or unwell, or women. Nobody is addressing us, and because nobody is addressing us, the energy of our frustration is being dangerously underestimated.

36 comments:

  1. Excellent post. Do not let that spark die out. It's where your best writing comes from :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fantastic post. The best thing I've read on the debate and a passion which shows Orwell is still alive inside us.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good points, though I can't help feeling that the 'us' here is occasionally a 'you', or at least a middle class 'us'. It certainly includes university educated me, but I think "Brown's growly avowal of support for our troops" would definitely cheer the many of my friends, family and people I went to school with who are in the forces. Though that suggestion may be to do with *my* background (working class Lincolnshire - lots of RAF bases - this doesn't make me pro war).

    However I would totally agree that the three leaders weren't addressing anyone, real, really. They were, quite simply, talking to the press.

    'The political classes' is such an outdated idea, strange, really. What were they trying to get at? Powerlessness? Or apathy?

    ReplyDelete
  4. What Penny doesn't seem to understand is that if you're refused welfare benefits, it's generally not because you're poor, but because you're not poor enough. And if the NHS denied them healthcare, that'd be grounds for a formal complaint, I should have thought?

    And it may come as a total surprise, but very many creative careers just do inherently come with a great deal of instability, especially at the beginning. Always have done. If you're struggling to make it, it's not because your generation has it harder, but because of the career you've chosen. It was always thus, for actors, dancers, writers, artists, musicians, the list goes on. It's called paying your dues. If you can't take the heat, get of the kitchen.

    This endless harping about your "generation" really is starting to grate. Like old people aren't being shafted too. Like people your age didn't have it just as hard in years gone by.

    I think when you're older, you're going to look back on this post and cringe :-)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Congrats on your prize, Laurie. I actually enjoyed the evening, whilst the panel never once questioned why it is that in the UK, politics is something done by a "class" at all - class implying a divide whereby some people are in it and everyone else is not. Surely, in a democracy, everyone should be able and willing to take part in politics.

    Anyway, I found the chance to wander around and chat to people more interesting than the guff on TV. When I saw the first question was immigration, and heard Brown say he has banned chefs from outside the EU, and Clegg say that immigrants should only go "where they're needed", I gave up on the whole bloody thing. Whatever joy I might have had at Clegg breaking through to "win" was quashed by the same sense of shame and betrayal I got when Chris Huhne tried to outdo Labour and the Tories on the BNP edition of Question Time - even Nick Griffin sees how silly it all is.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Watching in on all this from under the sold-out U.S. center-left wing, I am sad that the Lib Dems aren't running stronger on more steeply progressive income taxes. I guess the U.K. is too small to avoid the threat of corporate capital flight. We need global tax haven treaties with teeth at the U.N., not piece-wise between pairs of countries. Otherwise Bermuda and the Cayman Islands will keep holding all the rest of us hostage.

    ReplyDelete
  7. 'I won't be able to afford children until I'm eighty-five!'

    A trending topic on twitter the other day was "selfishgeneration" and it was all young people being self-deprecating. It was annoying as surely the most selfish generation is the older generation who sold out our future and still won't admit it?

    Great post.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hold on. They held a debate over the weakening of the political class, and assumed that was a bad thing? WTF?!

    Good article, one of your best. It's dispiriting how the parties have decided that attacking politics is the only votewinner they have, and still can't imagine any change bigger than getting their clique on top.

    And after all that, I'm still going to vote -- I just wish the entire political establishment weren't so determined to make me feel like a sucker for doing so:(

    ReplyDelete
  9. "...first political memories are of marching and demonstrating against the war in 2003 and not being heard.". Shouldn't this read "...and being bluntly ignored."?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Meg Russell from the UCL constitution unit declared that voters were being 'hysterical' in their vocal impression of having been politically betrayed, and MPs who fiddled their expenses were 'just normal human beings'.

    That's outrageous! You can't say that in public or the political classes will tear your head off in a self-righteous MP-bashing rage to distract attention from the fact that they have no actual ideas. I mean it's true, but you can't say it.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This post reminded me that I just read Orwell's short essay, Politics and the English Language, where he says:

    “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefencible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

    Now, as if to prove his point, let's hand over the mic to the fatally weakened politically class:

    “We're in the future business.”
    Gordon Brown

    “We stand for society, that's the right idea for a better future.”
    David Cameron

    “The thing I really want to change is to give people greater fairness.”
    Nick Clegg

    “It's Greens who are standing up for fairness.”
    Caroline Lucas

    ReplyDelete
  12. Today I got a letter through the post to tell me that the conditions on my occupational pension plan are probably going to change in the near future. There was a nice explanatory leaflet telling me exactly how this would affect people in different situations, which went to great lengths to show that people who retire in the next decade or so are only going to end up a few hundred pounds a year worse off. Fair enough, there's a recession and people are living longer, so it's what you'd expect, but almost footnoted in at the end, is an example showing that someone who is only 30 now will receive about £4-5k less per year, even though they'll have to keep on paying in the same proportion of their salary. They even had the temerity to suggest that younger people would probably need to consider other savings and investment options to supplement their devalued occupational and state pensions. How exactly are we supposed to do that? It's not as if we have buckets of spare cash to put into the stock market, and most of us can't even think about buying a house. We're inheriting a world that's environmentally, financially, and socially screwed, but the people who are middle-aged now are blaming it on *our* greed, when this is just the culmination of things politicians and businessmen did while we were still in primary school.

    Yesterday I might have been more sceptical, but today I'm angry and this post gets a definite "Hell Yeah" from me. Thatcher may be long gone in almost every sense except that nobody's allowed to put her in the ground yet, but her influence is still with us.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Meg Russell is right in the sense that none of the serious bad stuff happening in the UK right now is related to MPs expenses.

    There is a danger - and, in terms of the right-wing press, a clear deliberate agenda - that people will think that our current economic situation has been caused by MPs wasting money on duck ponds and expensive TVs for the second homes.

    This serves the purpose of distracting attention from the fact that we are currently screwed due to neo-liberal economic policies and that the money we are now not going to have to spend on public services has been spent on bailing out mismanaged banks.

    I think the answer to the 'no one is addressing us etc.' of the final paragraph is 'well, make them'.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Penny's lumping an awful lot of people into "our generation". I have City friends who think it's sad that medical research can't recruit clever people, but what can they expect offering less than £75k pa. There are the big sink estates up North with their Neds. Whining wannabe London-based media/music/journalists (I read Penny's blog, I'm not complaining!) sponging off parents and dreaming of the big time. There are the lucky ones who got on the grad track at Accunture&Co and are now turning into New Labourites with 2 kids.

    Everyone knows that we're being bleed for X or Y vested interest, but I can't see a generational consensus on what to cut.

    I'd drop income tax, half VAT, shut down 1/2 the welfare system, reduce banks to semi-nationalised utilities, sell most of the remaining social housing and let 10% of recent house buyers go bankrupt.

    Most commentors here would raise income taxes, increase benefits, entirely nationalise the banking system and double the number of council homes.

    We can't do both - there's no resources for it.

    But under all circumstances, the most politically expedient option is to cut real after-tax salaries for new workers and delay family formation. Look at Japan :-( Their society is very slowly (and hopefully reversibly) dying to maintain a social structure that collapsed two decades ago.

    Anon of Not Searched

    ReplyDelete
  15. Dear Dandelion,

    I appreciate what you're trying to say, but it may well be worth you spending a couple of minutes reading about the benefits system as it stands, rather than as it used to be, or how it looks on paper (whichever you were describing in your above comment.)

    Disabled living allowance is held in place currently by a system solely and specifically designed to keep as many disabled people, such as myself, OFF benefits for as long as possible (look up the acceptance rates before and after first and second appeal. You need to appeal twice to get your case considered, unless you are suffering from a terminal illness.)

    As a claimant of or applicant for jobseeker's allowance, you must swallow an unbelievable quantity of abuse from the staff, above and beyond the public uproar against you for having the temerity to be unemployed. No matter what mister murdoch says, £40 a week in London is not sufficient to live in any way befitting a human being, let alone in luxury.

    There are countless stories like this, but as long as people like you shitting on us and telling us we have it better. I take it from your tone that you are both financially comfortable and not under 25, so well out of harms way with regards to the worst of the job shortage, the worst of the current political depredations and the worst of the blame.

    I'm so glad that you took the time out of your precious schedule to deign to tell us that nobody under your age could possibly have any problems, but perhaps a smidgen of research as well next time, hmmmmm?

    ReplyDelete
  16. Great post. I thought that I was making the right decision by not turning up for what sounds like a horrendous evening. Congratulations on making the shortlist and good luck.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Brilliant post, Laurie. I'm so sorry your friends have had to leave. As another unemployed young person who suffers with mental health problems I know exactly what you're talking about here.

    Your best writing comes from your frustration.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Also, maybe you're already aware of this, but here's Tony Judt (eminent historian and former Orwell Prize winner) agreeing entirely with you:
    "The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a “lost generation.”"

    ReplyDelete
  19. A media orchestrated event with political bias for the 3 main parties, one of whom will most definatley rule,with the possible young turk king maker.All done in the best possible taste without interjection or question, from a selected passive audience.What a load of bollocks it was,although it would appear that a society consumed by appearance image won on the day the prize going to the youthful camera freindly young turk, however shallow his political view.

    ReplyDelete
  20. "The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s"

    ...and the 60s. and 80s. Not the 40s because of the war though I guess.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Tony Judt just seems to complaining that we're not out rioting to get back to her idealised version of the 70s.

    The first graph on inequality looks horrifying though. We've managed to go from 38% to 52% state spending and actually *increase* inequality, what a total f*ck up. (Figure 6 should probably be a backdrop to every Obama health care speech.)

    At least I'll be able to squat a nice 3 bedroom in Clapham when it all falls apart. Smoke pot, drink cheap red wine from paper cups, listen to Jim Hendricks .. :)

    Anon of Not Searched

    ReplyDelete
  22. I'm an attention bitch, it means I'll deny you attention at will.

    ReplyDelete
  23. "We will continue to sweat and toil for longer hours and fewer rewards than our parents could possibly envision..."

    I'm afraid the above comment doesn't hold. Our parents and grandparents grew up in a world that was in many ways harder.

    My Granny wept tears of joy when she got her first council house because for the first time she had hot water on tap and an indoor toilet.

    Hardships faced by young people today shouldn't be underestimated and your rage at injustice is commendable. But you don't help the argument by underestimating the hardships of the past.

    "We have neither high-powered jobs nor the organising traditions that would allow us to hold our bosses to account in any meaningful way"

    Then Unionise? I'm one of the youngest people at my work but am also the Shop Steward. There's plenty of scope for more to do the same.

    I also know there are plenty of Unions who'd love to have this passion and energy onboard.

    ReplyDelete
  24. "We have neither high-powered jobs nor the organising traditions that would allow us to hold our bosses to account in any meaningful way." How true this is - I think taking away the right to join a union and be represented by them as a matter of course without painful and obstructionist laws that effectively permit massive employers to shut out unions by careful strategising against employees rights has a lot to do to this.

    I'm a few years older than you and I remember this exact feeling in Ireland when I graduated in the early 90s - there was nearly 20% unemployment, being "innovative" for my classmates with a good degree meant going back to secretarial school. We were caught in many cases in the crack between having a middle class education and a working class background - we were scary to our working class peers who looked down their noses at credentials (and went on, like my n+3 boss, to utterly ruin a business through incompetence and inexperience, costing 50 other people their jobs, including mine) - and we were too rough for the middle class toffs, and of course their idea of "education" meant stereotypical professional qualifications such as Economics and Social Science, not Music or Communications degrees.

    Hang on in there though, there are loads of people out there who are furious, and won't stand for this much longer. What I find, however, most pathetic, is the sight of a turncoat college friend representing one of the most reactionary neo-fascist employers organisations on TV when she was a welfare officer back at college 15 years ago supposedly advocating for deprived people.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Brilliant post, a mentally-ill and currently unemployed woman, I feel like a worm done over by a sodding blackbird by our political masters - I'm so sorry about your friends too.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Inskauldrak seeks to temper your comments on current hardships by comparing/contrasting them with those of previous generations via the suggestion that her/his 'Granny wept tears of joy when she got her first council house'. How many young, working class people get access to social housing these days? Young people, and pensioners alike, are bearing the brunt of this recession and will continue to do so for decades to come. With tuition fees, student loans, youth unemployment and a culture of McJobs, oppressing younger people, Laurie has every right to draw attention to the plight of her contemporaries. Marx was spot on when he pointed out that: 'The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possession of modern peole is their national debt.'

    ReplyDelete
  27. @ Chris

    I would draw your attention to the bit that follows on from 'first council house'... you know, the bit where there's hot running water etc. And this wasn't a poverty story, this was a normal working class family of the time.

    I was in no way seeking to belittle or underestimate the problems people face today, of whatever age.

    But, tempering that with an awareness of what's gone before advances the argument more effectively.

    Going back to my (his) Granny, your reference to Marx is apt seeing as she spent many years helping run the CP bookshop in my home town ; )

    ReplyDelete
  28. We are taught in school and one of our main subjects are history,to be learned and tested on,and in most tested for the historty of the rul;ing class.Off course youth and frustration is what brings forth determined progress of our society, but do not forget, the history of the past.The gone who fought not with gun but with misery of being alive.

    ReplyDelete
  29. "Have the political classes been fatally weakened?"

    If not, why not and what can we do about it?

    ReplyDelete
  30. Working class, whats new.Middle class, idiots.Upper class, they think their like us those with their books and english words what school did they attend.Obviously not ours.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Dear Mr Shine

    Perhaps you would do better if you made fewer assumptions yourself. For the record, Disability Living Allowance has now been replaced with Employment Support Allowance. And yes, I am well acquainted with the process of claiming. I happen to agree that the threshhold for claiming is too high, the amounts too low, and the whole process too rigid and vicious, but I was merely picking Penny up on her claim that her housemates were denied benefits because they were poor. That is patently nonsense. They may well be poor, but I can guarantee that won't have been the reason they were declined. Your comments therefore, while true, are totally tangential to the very simple point I was making.

    Do you think I would be asserting that Penny's "generation" are not the only ones to have it tough if I were financially secure myself? Seriously? What is the thought process there?

    At no time did I say, or even imply that people younger than me do not have problems. As well as putting words in my mouth, you have missed my point entirely. I was merely asserting that the problems Penny described (and which I acknowledged) are neither restricted to those under 25, nor to this particular point in the 21st century. Both of which are demonstrably correct. I'm sorry if you don't like reality.

    My future was sold, just the same as Penny's, I just don't bang on about it like I'm in the first set of people it's ever happened to (or the last), or like it's anything other than a side-effect of a corrupt short-termist set of self-selected power-seekers bent on lining their own pockets first and foremost. Penny's line of arguing on this really is not productive, and does no favours either to "her generation", or to the rest of us, that's all.

    ReplyDelete
  32. A good rant Penny I agree and I am 71 year white male with no money and 3 ex-wives and hundreds of friends in many countries.
    There is much room for change but what is better for you might not be better for the other 6 billion in the world.
    Let us see money for what it is and not as a value in itself and we can then see that the so-called leaders are just puppets of the financiers who make up the rules of money so that they can live in a style they prefer.
    If you really want to cause a stir then you should suggest a rent/mortgage payments strike.
    The financiers are simple money lenders with no money. They make it up. Who has lent us these billions of pounds and where did they get it from in the first place? They got it from their daddies who got it from their daddies etc... who killed our daddies for it.
    We can simply ignpor the system they have set up and invent our own way of trading and working amongst ourselves. Now THAT would really scare everyone.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I admit that the long break and the rest were both much needed and very much appreciated. I am thankful for that time, and still look back on it with delight through these long, dark, cold days. luxury apartments london

    ReplyDelete

Comments are open on this blog, but I reserve the right to delete any abusive or off-topic threads.