Category Archives: #dontjustvote

X marks the spot

Two years ago, I wrote a lot in the run-up to and aftermath of the UK general election, and my “morning after” post remains about the most-read thing I’ve ever written. I don’t plan on trying to repeat that. Except to say, if you live in the UK and you have a vote, stop reading this and go do something more important.

Then once you’ve voted, there’s one more thing to which I’d like to direct your attention, in these in-between hours before Big Ben bongs and they unveil the exit poll.

Long-time readers may remember a madcap project during the closing week of the 2015 election campaign in which my old friends Billy and Martine rode trains across England, singing in the street and talking to everyone they met about power: Who has the power? What does power mean? What kind of power would you want to have?

This was, in effect, Act II of a performance that started earlier that year, when they popped up on BBC1’s The Voice with their reworking of Snap’s 90s rave-pop anthem, The Power. Ask them why they did that, as serious musicians (well, silly-serious musicians), and Billy will tell you about the samba band they run with people with so-called learning disabilities, and how they realised that for the people they were making music with, shows like The Voice were serious – were music. So Billy wanted to show them that someone they knew could be on that show – and to see how much of the liveliness of their music-making could be squeezed through the narrow pipes of the TV production machine. (Later, when they released The Power as a single, the samba band played on the recording – and you’ll see them in the video…)

If that was Act I, then Act II was the ‘power trip’ in which Billy and Martine played the song on high streets and market squares and seafronts, filming conversations about power with whoever they met, culminating in their arrival at Westminster on election night by milk float.

Over the months that followed, Act III began to take shape. Back home in Devon, Billy took the words of people they’d met on that trip and set them to music. The result was The Other Place, a ‘vox-popera’, a street-level journey through the state of UK democracy. Over the past year, with their band The Multiple, they’ve toured it as a live show across England, each show a retelling of the story of their election-week trip and a ritual of democratic imagination in which the audience takes part. (Here’s a great write-up of the show at Camden People’s Theatre in November, where it was part of All The Right Notes, a festival ‘exploring what happens when gigs and theatre collide’.)

Now they’re recording it as an album – and, as every self-respecting gang of independent musicians does these days, they’re running a crowdfunder. So yeah, I’m writing about this because I want to persuade you to chip in, pre-order a copy of the album and help them make it happen. (Heck, if you’re feeling generous and deep-pocketed, you can even get Billy’s famous pink bodywarmeras seen on TV – into the deal…)

But I’m also writing about this because I think The Other Place is an amazing piece of art. For a start – and maybe this is because I started out as a radio journalist, sticking a microphone in shoppers’ faces on The Moor in Sheffield – there’s something beautiful about going to the opposite extreme from the way such material is normally treated. The conversations on which The Other Place is based start in the realm of the vox-pop, where people’s first response is to recycle newspaper headline clichés, saying the things they think you want to hear – but as they realise that Billy and Martine are actually interested, they wander off in more interesting directions, voicing their uncertainties, telling stories about their lives. And whereas in a newsroom, you’d be clipping out eight second soundbites and slamming them together in time for the next bulletin, here the recordings have been worked with for months by a composer, and there’s something tender and subversive about giving that much care to people’s words. It ends up somewhere between John Harris and John Domokos’s essential Anywhere But Westminster video series for the Guardian and Rajni Shah’s extraordinary musical, Glorious.

Musically, Billy and co are rooted in the borderlands of folk and jazz, inspired by the Canterbury scene of the 1970s. (Besides performing and recording their own material, they’ve made an album with Dave Sinclair of Caravan and are regular collaborators with jazz theatre composer Mike Westbrook.) When it comes to The Other Place, the music is led in different directions by the shifting moods as they move across the country. So in Bristol, there’s an anti-austerity anthem worthy of the Manic Street Preachers, while a swing through Kent (as Nigel Farage fights for Thanet South) takes us into Kurt Weill territory, and the final milk-float ride through London produces the punky electronica of ‘We Are Merely Plebs!’

The journey whose story is told in The Other Place took place in another world – a world where Ed Miliband seemed likely to become prime minister, Russell Brand seemed like a figure who might influence the outcome of a general election and Donald Trump seemed like a reality TV joke. Two years on, the joke isn’t funny anymore, but many of the themes that have surfaced as pundits try to make sense of the political events of the past two years are already there in these conversations. The widening distance between cities and towns, the sense that democracy is broken, bewilderment and mistrust, an anger and an ache.

Full disclosure: I’ve played a background role in The Other Place, helping tell the story of the road trip as it went along, contributing a few lyrics and generally being a sounding board when the show was in development. But mostly, I’ve admired from a distance, and having lived with these songs since they were demos, I can’t wait to hear the studio album. So, um, please get over to PledgeMusic and support their campaign, sometime between now and 17 June, so that they can get on with mixing it!

Here’s the bit I wrote, by the way. It comes at the end of the first half of the show, half-way through the trip, as Billy sits down with a postal ballot paper:

X marks the spot
The place you find the treasure
X is the mystery, the unknown variable
X, the one you used to love
The signature of the unlettered
The wrong answer…

Imagine if we all sat down to write
All the things you can’t say with an X
But can with all the other letters…

Rereading that, it hits me that I missed the obvious: X is also a kiss, a mark of love. So how’s that for a polling day message? Go out and say it with an X.

  • This is taken from today’s edition of Crossed Lines, an occasional newsletter where I ramble about whatever I’m thinking, reading or writing about. Sign up here to get words in your inbox.

Labour through the looking glass: 15 early-morning speculations on the Corbyn surge

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

1. If only Labour had a reason to exist…

I keep thinking of Landon Kettlewell, the dot com entrepreneur from Cory Doctorow’s novel, Makers. At the start of the book, he has just bought up the exhausted shells of Kodak and Duracell. To an audience of puzzled Silicon Valley journalists, he explains that these companies have history, infrastructure, administrators, facilities, supplier relationships, distribution and logistics. All they lack is a reason to exist.

To their own and everybody else’s surprise, the Labour establishment looks to be losing their party the same way they lost Scotland. That’s what set me thinking about Kettlewell. A month earlier, the Corbyn surge would have sounded impossible, a piece of wild political science fiction. Now, they were throwing every trick in the playbook at the Islingtonian candidate, to the opposite of the intended effect, and casting around for explanations as to what the hell is going on.

So here’s one more explanation to try out: Labour is Kodak, Labour is Duracell, Labour is the shell of something that has lost its reason to exist. As it currently stands, it is useless, but it is also the heir to a whole stack of resources that could be very useful indeed, if only it had a purpose.

Kettlewell has a solution for ‘Kodacell’: he is going to turn it inside out and put the companies’ resources at the disposal of a network, a grassroots network of tens of thousands of hackers and makers. Between them, they will make it useful again.

And so the absurd thought came to me: what if this is what Jeremy Corbyn’s election ends up doing to the Labour party?

2. What does this look like, if it works?

Bear with me, this will take some time, but there may be pieces here that start to fit together.

I’m thinking about what it looks like, if this works. No need to ask now whether Corbyn can win – that was last week’s question – but winning is the easy part and there are plenty of scenarios circulating for how things then go wrong. Could we construct a scenario for how things go right? Is there a plausible account of the next few years, in which a Corbyn victory turns out to be the best thing that had happened to the Labour party in a long while? And how would current events look, from that looking-glass future?

I’m not a member of the Labour party, I don’t have a vote in this leadership election – and I’ve hesitated to join the ranks of the registered supporters who will get one. But in the raw hours of May 8th, I wrote something that resonated with a lot of people who would have preferred some kind of Labour-led government to five more years of rule by the rich, for the rich.

Here’s a taste of that post:

What we have seen is a failure of politics, a failure of democracy at a cultural level, part of a larger story playing out across the struggling countries of the post-industrial west…

Labour is about to endure a tug of war between those who believe it needs to go leftwards and those who believe it needs to go rightwards. The truth is, neither of these directions will be much help. Right now, the only way is down.

That came from a place of loss; I’m writing this now from the vanishing point where scepticism and hope converge. My first reaction to the Corbyn surge was that this is wishful thinking, a shortcut, an attempt to bypass the journey down the hole into which we had fallen. But it’s worth at least trying out the alternative, the possibility that this might be one route into the upside-down world we need to learn to navigate.

A caveat, before I try to trace that route. My post-election post was about larger social and political currents. This one is about the Labour party, an organisation I only know from the outside. So it’s probably best to take what follows as one more piece of wild political science fiction. (Especially the part where I start writing Corbyn’s victory speech.)

It is after three in the morning, the sky is getting paler, and this is a story a man is telling himself to see if it sounds believable.

3. On the appropriate response to losing an election

Labour, as it currently existed, was useless. If the election campaign had left any doubts, these were buried by Harriet Harman’s attempt to explain why the party would not be opposing the welfare bill.

‘We can’t simply say to the public, you were wrong,’ explained the acting leader of the opposition. (Except, that was, the 75% of the public who hadn’t voted for the Conservatives, or hadn’t voted at all.)

This wasn’t an aberration, it was an unusually clear expression of a mind-set that suffused the Labour establishment. According to this mind-set, the appropriate response to losing an election is not to do a better job of making your party’s arguments, nor to do a better job of coming up with convincing alternatives that embody what your party stands for, but to do a better job of imitating the party that just beat you.

Those who thought of this as ‘realism’ thought of themselves as the heirs to New Labour, but this did New Labour a disservice. Whatever you felt about it, once upon a time, New Labour had worked. Some combination of Blair’s talent for summoning up conviction on demand, Brown’s brute cunning and the times in which they found themselves made it a formidable operation, until the men at the heart of it spun off into various flavours of self-delusion. But if Blair and Brown had been the Gallagher brothers of Brit Pop politics, the current Labour frontbench was a dodgy Oasis tribute act. The tunes might be the same, only if you thought they were going to wow an audience, you hadn’t really grasped how this works.

Harsh? Sure, but this matters, because it was the backdrop against which Corbyn’s leadership campaign started to make sense to far more people than even he could have expected.

4. An unexpected legacy

Let’s just say the Corbyn thing worked out. We’ll come to how this happened, but one consequence was to recast the Miliband legacy.

He became the leader whose reform of the way that Labour chooses its leaders paved the way for one of the great transformations in the party’s history. And there was a certain poetic justice to this, because inside the conflicted soul of Ed Miliband, there was a politician who wanted to be in the place where Corbyn now found himself, riding a wave of networked radicalism.

But in truth, it was a piece of luck. A reform designed to solve one problem accidentally solved another: the great conundrum of British politics, south of the Tweed, as of 2015. Like most other western democracies, a strange insurgent political energy was bubbling up from below the surface of politics as we had known it. But how could this energy ever break through in a parliamentary system locked up by first-past-the-post?

The solution was to take over one of the existing big parties – and Miliband’s legacy was to create the conditions under which this could happen.

5. The Return of (Groucho) Marxism

If it took Miliband’s reforms to make it possible, it took a candidate like Corbyn to realise that possibility. The day that nominations closed, he told an interviewer he was standing because ‘It was my turn.’ As Diane Abbott and John McDonnell had carried the standard of the Labour left in previous contests, he had been persuaded to do so this time around.

His lack of ambition was palpable – and this turned out to be his attraction. Here was the rarest thing, a politician with no hunger for power. The sincerity of this was unfakeable, backed up by the evidence of thirty years’ unfashionable dedication to his principles. (Another kind of left-winger – the roguish kind, a Livingstone or a Galloway – would not have had this effect.)

Well beyond the natural constituency of a politician with his views, there was an appetite for this, a kind of electoral version of the Marxist theory of clubs: ‘I don’t care to vote for any candidate who is after my vote.’

Meanwhile, as they tacked leftwards in response to Corbyn’s unexpected appeal, the other candidates seemed to embody that other Marxist dictum: ‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.’

6. Occupy the Party

As the newspaper columnists woke up to what was happening, they reached for easy historical parallels. Among the most popular was the Militant tendency, the Trotskyite group whose entryist tactics saw them expelled from the Labour party in the 1980s.

The comparison reflects a failure to understand how the world had changed in the intervening decades. A takeover might be under way, but it was of an entirely different kind.

Militant was a party-within-a-party, a Marxist sect with an ideological leader, hierarchical, disciplined in its tactics, wedded to its own ‘correct analysis’. It belonged to another era, an era in which you met someone who told you a totally different story of how the world worked to anything you’d ever heard, gave you a newspaper and invited you to a meeting. An era in which almost the only way to develop and sustain a critique of the society in which you had grown up was to adhere to an alternative orthodoxy, a support group of people who schooled you in a different way of making sense of the world.

This mode of politicisation belonged to an era in which Google and Wikipedia were unimaginable. You had no way of checking or filtering the information and analysis on offer from your new friends, little chance of exploring and developing it. The experience resembled joining an evangelical sect.

The survivors of these sects may have got excited by the Corbyn surge, but the character of the surge was quite different: it resembled the waves of networked disruption that first broke into view in the events of 2011. This was not a stealthy entryist takeover, years in the planning, it was a spontaneous movement to Occupy the Labour party, a suggestion taken up with an energy that took everyone by surprise. Such networks are like a mood in action, a rolling conversation that gathers momentum and brings the boundaries of possibility into question.

One of the characteristics of such a network is that it learns, experiments, adapts. In Greece, Spain and Scotland, the energy of the network had already evolved from the horizontalist purity of 2011 into a series of experiments in interfacing with the top-down forms of institutional politics. On each occasion, this had happened rapidly and unexpectedly. Now, it seemed to be happening again.

7. After all the wild words

So much for the events leading up to Corbyn’s election and how they came to look in hindsight. Now the hard part: what had to happen after September 12th, for this not to turn out to be the disaster so widely forecast?

The new leader had to reach out to three different groups: a parliamentary party that would never have chosen him in a million years, the movement of members and supporters that he had enthused, and the wider electorate.

After all the wild words that had been thrown at his campaign, he had to claim the ground of common sense and pragmatism. Opposition to austerity was not some revolutionary project: it was a position backed by some of the world’s best-known economists, Nobel laureates among them. A government’s finances don’t work like the finances of a household – and yes, this is harder to explain than the ‘maxed-out credit card’ story that the Conservatives had been offering for the past five years, but so far Labour had not even tried to counter this.

‘From now,’ he told them, ‘our job is to challenge austerity, to help people learn about how finances actually work and how the decisions that shape their lives are taken.’

To do this, we need to work with everyone who shares our desire for a fairer, more just and more liveable society. If Labour could join forces with the Tories and the Lib Dems to campaign for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom, then we should be willing to work with other parties, social movements and groups within society to campaign for an alternative to austerity. That doesn’t mean we stop being the Labour party, or that we form electoral pacts that take away people’s chance of voting for a Labour MP, but we need to take up our responsibility as the largest and one of the oldest forces within a wider movement for social justice.

8. The MPs

The talk of an instant coup came to nothing: even the hardest Blairites could see it was suicide, and no one was really enthused by the prospect of importing another Miliband. But the parliamentary party was biding its time. Corbyn wasn’t their second choice of leader, he was their last choice, the leader no one had expected.

Meanwhile, another unexpected effect of his victory was the split between the Blairite true believers and the bulk of the party. While it prospered, New Labour had justified itself on the grounds of pragmatism: your heart might lie to the left, but your head accepted the need to move rightwards. When Blair said he wouldn’t want the party to win with Corbyn in charge, he revealed the unspeakable truth: that he would prefer a Tory government to what most still thought of as a ‘real’ Labour government. This surprised no one, yet now that it was spoken, the internal coalition on which New Labour had been built began to unravel.

As it became clear that, against everyone’s predictions, Corbyn was holding his own at Prime Minister’s Questions and establishing himself in the leadership, a couple of the true Blairites left parliament to spend more time with their careers. In the resulting byelections, with candidates drawn from the grassroots movement, rather than the party machine, Labour saw its majorities increase, and this steadied the party a little. Perhaps the new direction was not electoral suicide, after all.

A surprising number of MPs began to rediscover the reasons they had come into politics in the first place. The renewal of the parliamentary party would not be complete, though, until the arrival of the 2020 cohort. For the first time in a generation, it felt like Labour was represented in parliament by people who were recognisable to their voters, who had worked in ordinary jobs, been self-employed, knew what it was like to live on the minimum wage or to queue at the job centre.

9. The movement

Over the past weeks, tens of thousands of people have found a faith in politics, a faith they never had, or thought they had lost long ago. It is not a blind faith nor an unquestioning one, it is not dogmatic. At its root, it is a faith in each other, as human beings, that we are something more than just self-serving consumers.

The future of the Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership would depend on what happened next with the movement which had grown up around his candidacy. ‘The job of this movement is not over,’ he told them. ‘There are four and a half years until the next election. We can’t wait that long to start rebuilding society, we need to start today, in the places where we live.’

There were three things that needed doing, now, he went on.

First, to start conversations that went deeper than doorstep canvassing, those five million checkbox encounters that had amounted to so little in the general election campaign. Labour needed to listen to people, not just when they fed back the soundbite opinions circulating in the daily papers, but in spaces where they had room to reflect on their own experiences, and to start making sense of the forces shaping their lives. The task of creating those spaces started in people’s kitchens, in rooms above pubs, in empty units in shopping centres, with house parties, meet-ups or pizza nights. Members of the leader’s team would show up to these events, sometimes the leader himself, and party organisers helped find guests and speakers, people to get the conversations started and to carry ideas from one town to the next.

The second task was for members of this movement to get active in the places where they lived, offering practical help and support to those hit hardest by austerity. ‘There’s a word for this,’ Corbyn told them, ‘an old fashioned word: it’s called solidarity.’ This was a movement for a society where no one would need a food bank, but while food banks existed, its members were going to be there, alongside the people running them and the people dependent on them, because these were the people with whom society would be rebuilt.

The final task would be a voter registration campaign on a scale that Britain had never seen.

10. The voters

The panic and despair of the Labour establishment at Corbyn’s victory was based, more than anything, on their certainty that he could never deliver electoral success. (That the same people had been certain, two months earlier, that he could never succeed in the leadership election did not cause them to question this.)

What were the factors that proved them wrong? The effectiveness of the voter registration campaign – not only in getting people onto the electoral roll, but in generating a wider sense that, this time, voting would matter – was clearly part of the story.

But another part of it was the gap between the way the political establishment thought about voters and the messier reality of the voters themselves. Most people don’t have a political opinion or identity in the way that people who dedicate their lives to politics tend to think of these things. The left-right spectrum is irrelevant to them, not because they subscribe to any of the analyses used to argue that this frame is obsolete, but because the words just don’t mean much. What they do have is a gut-level feeling about the direction in which society is travelling and a trust in their own intuitive judgement about whether someone trying to persuade them of something believes the words coming out of his or her own mouth.

Mainstream politicians had tried to respond to UKIP by borrowing as much of their rhetoric of xenophobia as they could get away with. Just like Gordon Brown with Gillian Duffy, the assumption was that UKIP voters were bigots, it’s just that bigots had now been identified as a target demographic. Yet this was too simple an interpretation of UKIP’s support, which was rooted in a deeper, vaguer sense that things were headed in the wrong direction, had been headed that way for a long time, and that nothing these voters heard from the mainstream politicians seemed to acknowledge this or reflect the experience of their lives.

11. The obstacles

Among the reasons people wrote off the chances of Corbyn’s Labour was the hostility of the press. Yet so much ink had been thrown at Red Ed and his Britain-hating dad, there was no stronger vocabulary left with which to damn his successor, so the message that Labour was lurching dangerously leftwards just sounded like more of the same. Except that what viewers identified when watching Miliband was his awkwardness, the constant sense that he was trying to work out who you wanted him to be, whereas you could see that Corbyn knew who he was and was happy with it.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the shadows of the defence and intelligence communities, contingency plans must have been drawn up for the possibility of a prime minister committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from NATO. But whatever its calculations, there were no outward signs of the deep state moving against the Labour leader.

The other predictable source of hostility, big business and the City, was preoccupied with the fall-out of the second wave of the global financial crisis, which broke in the autumn of 2016. It was that October that Labour first took a clear lead in the polls. The party also benefited from the damage done to the Conservatives by the deepening paedophile scandal.

12. Back to the allotment

Of course, in the end, the people who said Jeremy Corbyn would never become prime minister turned out to be right.

In September 2018, in his conference speech, he announced his intention to step down as leader. The leadership campaign that followed could hardly live up to the drama of 2015, but it was historic for another reason, as it led to the election of Labour’s first woman leader. Three years earlier, when she was among the backbenchers elected to Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet, few would have identified her as on the left of the party, but the platform on which she stood combined the anti-austerity commitments of her predecessor with a pledge to reform the electoral system.

As for Corbyn himself, he was only too happy to leave the despatch box and get back to his allotment.

13. Beyond a nostalgia for social democracy

It is August 2015, it’s getting close to six in the morning, and this is a story a man has been telling himself to see if it sounds believable.

Does it even come close? I’m not sure.

I can convince myself that there is a movement happening that could go far beyond the leadership contest, that the reach of the kind of politics Corbyn represents could go a lot wider than those who identify as on the left, and that a Labour party that confidently made alternative arguments would have a decent chance of reshaping political debate, despite the hostility of the media. (A hostility that hardly goes away if the party tries to play it safe, instead.) The hardest part is imagining the parliamentary party coming together around a Corbyn leadership, or at least giving it a chance.

At the level of political ideas, despite a lot of what’s being written, Corbyn’s platform hardly comes across as ‘hard left’. (For comparison, try watching this televised debate with Militant from 1982, where Peter Taaffe declares that Labour should nationalise 80-85% of the economy and ‘introduce a socialist plan of production’.)

What I do get from his campaign is a distinct flavour of ‘the Scooby-Doo theory of neoliberalism’: the idea that, if it hadn’t been for those meddling neoliberals (Friedman, Thatcher, Reagan, Blair), we could have got away with a social democratic end of history. That way of thinking always feels like it gives its enemies too much credit, makes them masters of events, rather than the opportunists that they were. Neoliberalism today is hollower than it appears, but that doesn’t mean we know what an equivalent of social democracy looks like for a world of international capital and networked individuals – or what an equivalent of social democracy looks like that knows how to include the people crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats and climbing fences at Calais.

These are hard questions, but the space in which we can articulate them and think carefully about them seems to be opening up. Whatever else comes of the Corbyn surge, it should help to enlarge that space.

The most encouraging thing I’ve noticed in his campaign is the crowdsourcing of policy ideas: 1,200 people contributed to the Northern Future document. This has to be better than a policy-making process concentrated among the London-based thinktanks and inner circles populated by PPE graduates who have never worked anywhere beyond Westminster. It seems like the best chance for developing the principles of those supporting Corbyn into a policy platform that is not simply nostalgic for the golden age of social democracy. And it’s how Landon Kettlewell would make policy, if he took over Labour.

14. The reality-based community

There’s one other line that’s been ringing in my head as I read the churn of comment pieces, the phrase that Karl Rove used to Ron Suskind. ‘Guys like you,’ he said, ‘are in what we call the reality-based community.’ For many, it summed up the delusions of the Bush regime, and belonging to the reality-based community became a badge of pride. But I always thought that Rove had half a point, when he made that distinction between those who study reality and those who create it.

The alarmed voices of the Labour establishment surely think of themselves as the reality-based community. The panic grows as they find those enthused by Corbyn are seemingly immune to reasoned arguments. But reality is complex, it isn’t just composed of facts, those facts are always entangled with perceptions, and with stories that shape those perceptions. A lot of the reality to which Labour’s realists are currently appealing is made up almost entirely of perception, since its facts consist of the results of opinion surveys and focus groups. It’s worth asking whether these methods borrowed from the market research industry really plumb the depths of the electorate, or even its shallows. Not to mention, at what point perceptions that have become dislocated from the facts get to overrule them, whether in relation to the effectiveness of austerity or the impact of immigration.

Another chunk of the reality to which the realists are appealing consists of stories. For a story to work, it needs to show a certain respect to the facts involved, but there will often be more than one story that fits the facts. When Polly Toynbee writes that her heart lies to the left of Corbyn, but the 1983 election result tells her this would be futile, she is invoking what has been the definitive story of Labour’s wilderness years and its return to power under Blair, the story of ‘the longest suicide note in history’. Other stories are available, though, including one which might mention that, when the Tories took the seat of Lewisham East from Labour at the 1983 election by a margin of 1,909, they were helped by the 9,351 votes polled by the breakaway SDP, whose candidate was Polly Toynbee.

15. You get one chance

It’s nearly time for breakfast. I’ve been practicing like this, the last few mornings, because I want to believe that there is a constructive insurgency going on, a wave of networked disruption that will renew the Labour party, remind it why it exists and open up the politics of the country where I did my growing up. I want to believe that the party can take this and not just tear itself apart.

Give me a few more days, maybe I’ll have got enough practice.

Meanwhile, here’s one thing I am sure of: if Corbyn doesn’t win, there will never be another chance for a grassroots surge of this kind within the Labour party. The system for electing a leader will be reformed all over again, the gap that Miliband opened will be sealed and the control of the parliamentary party reasserted. And perhaps the result will be that the pendulum of politics continues to swing jerkily from blue to red and back again, as if by some ahistorical force of nature, but my hunch is that the gap between the reality talked about by politicians and the realities of people’s lives will continue to grow, the pressure will continue to build, and sooner or later it will find a way to break through the cracks of the existing system. Since I’m writing this from Sweden, which many of you still think of as the spiritual home of social democracy, let me remind you how ugly that can look.

The only way is down: 18 notes on the UK election

So, good morning. I’m afraid it’s true: that nightmare you had, it wasn’t a dream. Let yourself feel the shock, the rawness of disappointment sharpened by sleep deprivation. If you ached for an end to five years of government by the rich, for the rich, then what you are feeling today is a blow to the soul. Stay with that for a while, before the pundits and the candidates in the coming leadership elections start to rationalise what just happened. There are other levels on which we need to make sense of this cruel result.

Labour is about to endure a tug of war between those who believe it needs to go leftwards and those who believe it needs to go rightwards. The truth is, neither of these directions will be much help. Right now, the only way is down.

What we have seen is a failure of politics, a failure of democracy at a cultural level, part of a larger story playing out across the struggling countries of the post-industrial west. For now, it may look like the Tories have won, but it is a fragile victory. If you want an image for the state of English politics today – Scotland is another story – then think of three cartoon characters who have run off a cliff. Two of them have just plummeted and flattened themselves into the ground, while the third is still hanging there, feet spinning in the air, oblivious to its situation.

The one cold comfort that Labour – and perhaps even the Lib Dems – could take from last night’s results is that events have forced them into a confrontation with reality, while the Tories will continue to govern on the basis of delusions, with ugly results, for a while longer, before gravity catches up with them. This could give the defeated parties a head start, but only if they are prepared to enter into a kind of soul-searching deeper than anything we have seen in British politics in a very long time.

For that to have a chance of happening, it will have to start somewhere else, somewhere beyond the party machines and the earnest, highly-educated, decent people at the centre of them, who are almost entirely unequipped for the journey to the political underworld which is now called for.

What follows are a set of notes that might help us get our bearings for this journey, some of which may turn out to be wildly off the mark. But I hope they are some use, this morning. Take care of each other. Give someone a hug today. Look out for the moment where you catch a stranger’s eyes and recognise the loss you have in common, a loss that goes deeper than the tally of seats. Grieve for the inadequacy of the ways in which we have tried to stand up to greed and fear and exploitation. But hold your disillusionment gently, don’t let it harden into damning conclusions about human nature. Get ready for a dark ride ahead. We are going to have to rethink politics on a level this election didn’t touch.

Everything is broken

1. Three tribes go their separate ways. About the only piece of commentary from the election campaign that felt truly prescient last night was Paul Mason’s analysis of the fragmentation of the UK into three distinct political geographies: a Scotland dreaming of a future as the warm south of Scandinavia, a south-east held up by asset wealth, and a post-industrial remainder of the union. There is no party that is now a major contender in all three parts of the country and their divergence means that there is no unified pattern of swing at a national level.

2. Labour talked to five million people, but it didn’t know how to listen. The sincere bewilderment of Labour figures as the exit poll turned out to be accurate says something about the failure of the “ground campaign” in which activists had five million doorstep conversations over the past four months. How do you talk to that many people and come away having misread the mood of the country this badly? Two easy answers will be given to this: Labour talked to the wrong people and/or people didn’t tell them the truth. There’s probably truth in both of these, but there’s a third reason that goes to the deeper levels of what just happened: the conversations they had on the doorsteps weren’t real conversations. We badly need new ways of having political conversations – and if we’re to start regrowing a democratic culture from below, it will start with finding ways to bring such conversations together.

3. The Lib Dems totally misunderstood their own voters. One of the most striking features of the night was the splintering of their vote in every direction: in some constituencies, it appeared to be dividing equally between Labour, Tory, UKIP and Green candidates. Some collective delusion convinced the Lib Dems that their MPs had earned the loyalty of local voters. It seems truer to see the party as having been a depository for vague dissatisfaction of a variety of flavours, whose raison d’etre disintegrated when they became an adjunct to the Tories.

4. People who are into politics just don’t get how puzzling and alienating it looks to the rest of the population. This is a broader version of the problem the Lib Dems had. Over the past week, I’ve worked with the #dontjustvote tour, a tiny playful art project making its way across the south of England on its way to Westminster, starting conversations about the election in all the places they stopped along the way. The stories they gathered along the way, snatches of which you can find on their Facebook and YouTube pages, brought home to me the sheer confusion, mistrust and disconnect with everyday reality which is most people’s experience of politics.

5. Social media is not delivering on its promises to change politics. There are lots of reasons for this, including that many of the promises were hype. But here’s one element in the mix. If you’re old enough to remember when Google was new, then think back to the first time you saw the Google search page: how long did it take before you got why it was good? Not much longer than a few keystrokes and a click. Then think back to the first time you saw Twitter: how long did it take you before you got why it was good? Probably months. Or maybe you’re still not convinced. The social technologies that have grown up over the past decade layer a depth of social and cultural subtlety on top of the technical platform in a way that wasn’t true for the information technologies of the internet in its earlier phases. This creates an under-recognised gap between the people who have invested the time to get initiated in the kind of active, engaged use of a tool like Twitter and people who don’t get it and aren’t likely to get it any time soon. So it’s not just the self-selecting echo chambers we create that make social media problematic, it’s also the unrepresentative section of the population who are actively present there and the detachment this fosters from the rest of the population.

6. Is it time to ditch the expensive American advisors? Hell yes! When I was a broke student, I spent my summers selling educational books door-to-door for a US company, first in the UK and then in California. Nothing prepared me for the difference in psychology between how Brits like to make “buying decisions” and how Americans do. Just because we share a common language, doesn’t mean American experts are well-placed to help British politicians.

A 200-year moment?

7. The unmaking of the English working class. The long trend underlying all of this is the unravelling of the social settlement that slowly emerged from the Industrial Revolution, from the destruction of pre-industrial ways of living to the emergence of the labour movement to the social democratic consensus of the mid-20th century. We have inherited political parties that belonged to a kind of society we no longer live in. As I rushed out the door yesterday morning, I found myself grabbing E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a pre-history of the labour movement that covers the period between 1790 and 1830. The period we’re in has many resemblances to that. (If I were a cartoonist, I’d be tempted to draw Cameron as the Prince Regent…) None of the forms of left-wing politics that we’ve inherited are adapted to the times in which we find ourselves – and the process of regrowing a democratic culture is, I suspect, going to require a search for new and unexpected political forms that resembles the history that Thompson tells. The roots of the popular political movements that grew up in the 19th century were deeply entangled with grassroots self-education movements – and something equivalent to this is going to be needed in the years ahead.

8. The British media make a joke of democracy. A handful of tax-avoiding billionaires control the agenda of almost all the national papers which then indirectly controls the agenda of the broadcasters. The grip of a cynical and decadent establishment is another feature that’s reminiscent of the period Thompson describes – and the creation of new grassroots media was part of the process that led to the emergence of the labour movement.

9. Love him or hate him, Russell Brand might just be our William Cobbett… It’s neither a precise analogy nor an unambiguously positive one, but Cobbett found a voice that captured the popular imagination, speaking in dramatic language about the monstrousness of the times. He was also a fantastic egoist. “Cobbett’s favourite subject, indeed, was William Cobbett,” writes Thompson. “But… his egotism transcended itself to the point where the reader… is asked to look not at Cobbett, but with him.” (I don’t know whether Cobbett also swigged from over-sized bottles, but if he did they probably weren’t full of water.)

10. Brand provides a clue to the only kind of revolution that is still even conceivable. The week he went on Newsnight and predicted a revolution, I’d been in England, giving a lecture about “the failure of the future”, in which I suggested that one of the symptoms of this was the impossibility of taking seriously the idea of political revolution in the way that had still seemed possible in the 1960s. As the video went viral, I wondered if I was wrong. And then I remembered something Martin Shaw says, one of his mythic metaphors for making sense of the kinds of times in which we’re living: “This isn’t a hero time, this isn’t a goddess time, it’s a trickster time.” When people like John Berger (one of my heroes) were young, it was a real thing to believe in the heroic revolution that Marx had seemed to promise. Today, the only kind of revolution that is plausible is a foolish one, one where we accidentally stumble into another way of being human together, making a living and making life work. (And whatever that might look like, it doesn’t look like utopia.)

A journey to the underworld

11. This is not just a battle of ideas, it is a battle for the soul. Another thing that Brand is onto, in his inimitable way, is what he would call the “spiritual” nature of the revolution. Margaret Thatcher was explicit about how deep the project of neoliberalism went. Two years into her first term, she told the Sunday Times: “Economics is the method: the object is to change the soul.” The left has never taken this seriously, we have never even tried to contest neoliberalism on the territory of the soul. The people at the top of today’s Labour party, a few of whom I’ve crossed paths with over the years, are in no way equipped to operate in the territory of the soul – so it’s probably going to take the help of some of us who’ve been a long way outside the pale of politics-as-we-know-it, if we’re going to work out how to do this. But one of the wrong notes that Miliband hit in the past few weeks, for all his decency and awkward charm, was his repetition that this election was “a clash of ideas”. The political battle in which we are engaged is deeper than that, it’s a battle for the soul, and until the left feels that, I don’t think it will find its way to the kind of new politics we are going to need.

12. We need to be willing to go to some dark places. I had a public conversation last summer with Steve Wheeler in which he sketched out a set of thoughts about the need for a politics of “depth”. I must edit the recording and get it online, but the thrust of it was that the left has associated depth and the darker, less rational side of ourselves with the worst kind of politics. His argument – which parallels the one Zizek makes about Nazism in his Perverts’ Guide to Ideology – is that it’s a terrible mistake to cede the territory of the intuitive, the emotional, the unconscious, the irrational to the far right. It’s only by people of good will engaging with these sides of ourselves, at a cultural as well as an individual level, that we can prevent a political “return of the repressed”. We need to go there vigilantly, but we need to go there.

13. We need to understand the amount of fear in the equation. Miliband used to talk about the “squeezed middle”, but it turns out the Tories can still count on the worried middle. As I’ve said before, there aren’t enough people doing well in Britain to deliver a Tory majority, but there are enough people who are worried, who hope the brittle prosperity of the housing bubble will sustain their way of living a little longer, who hope that what happened to the poor, the young and the disabled over the last five years won’t happen to them. The puzzlement I see in the despairing posts of friends on Facebook over the past twelve hours comes, I think, from the difficulty we have in understanding this. Somehow, we need a space for conversations where people can speak honestly about their fears, their disillusionment, their lack of belief in the possibility of change for the better – without trying too hard, too quickly to convince them they are wrong. Presenting big ideas or retail policies is no substitute for this.

Regrowing a democratic culture from below

14. Democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box. The aftermath of the Scottish referendum proved this, wrong-footing the entire UK establishment. Below the surface, barely capable of being translated into election results (except in Scotland), there is an extraordinary welling of anger, disillusionment, disgust with the lot of them. I wouldn’t like to predict the circumstances in which this will take louder, more visible shape, but it was one of the running themes that emerged from the #dontjustvote tour. The Scottish precedent needs to be the inspiration for an ongoing grassroots process of democratic renewal.

15. This needs to start outside of politics as we know it. Politics today is broken in ways that go deeper than our political institutions or the people who inhabit them are able to reach. While the kind of regrowth of a democratic culture that I’m talking about is not non-partisan in some detached, objective way, it can’t be on behalf of any one party, either.

16. Build a movement that starts by being present in the place where you are and supporting the most vulnerable. Look at the role that the grassroots movements around Syriza have played in helping people to endure the hardships of austerity in Greece. That needs to be one of the models for whatever happens in Britain, as five more years of austerity are piled on the weakest. And for heaven’s sake, work with the churches (and the mosques, synagogues, gudwaras and temples) – whatever the rational differences many on the left may have with people of faith, the everyday engagement of religious communities puts most of us to shame. And the churches have shown more courage in criticising austerity than most of the Labour frontbench.

17. Another party is possible. The FPTP system may be a steep obstacle, but we live in strange times. Look at the polls in Spain. Look at the polls in Iceland, one of the few countries hit harder than the UK by the banking crisis – they are now in the third (or fourth?) act of some kind of political revolution, where a left outsider coalition gave way to a centre right government, but that government is now losing support as the Pirate Party lead the opinion polls. Strange times, really.

18. Come to Sweden (but lose your illusions). I’m writing these notes in Gothenburg Central station, about to rush off to the Congress of the “popular movement” that owns the national touring theatre for which I currently work. Since the exit polls came out last night, I’ve had a stream of people, with varying degrees of seriousness, asking me if they should move to Sweden. I wish I could help you fulfil your wishes, but there are far more similarities between the reality of politics today here and the British situation than you would like to believe. The work that needs to be done here is much the same as the work that needs to be done there – though, for now, the harshening grip of neoliberalism is better hidden here, and we have been spared the kind of austerity the UK has seen. But precisely because the work that needs doing is similar, maybe there are possibilities to host conversations here that bring together people from both countries who want to engage in this work. I’m certainly interested in helping to make that happen.

Alright, enough words. Be kind to each other. And be wary of the tendency to allow a situation to be defined by the oppositions present within it. This is going to be a time for redrawing the maps, a time when things we overlooked or undervalued may end up making all the difference.

Taking The Power to Westminster

“How does it all look from over there?” people ask me, meaning the general election that is going on back in the UK.

The first answer is, strangely familiar. Sweden had a general election last year where the big parties of left and right got historically low votes, the Social Democrats and the Greens formed a minority government with the support of the Left party (though they wouldn’t let it into their coalition), the balance of power in parliament is held by the Sweden Democrats (think a slightly browner version of UKIP), and a second election was called and then called off again only when the centre-right alliance (think four different factions of the Conservative party, standing under different names) made a deal with the government to provide limited support. The details are Borgen-like, but squint so the details go fuzzy and you see a familiar shape. The rituals of voting work differently, but in both these countries, as in lots of other parts of the west, something similar is going on – what I’ve come to think of as a crisis of democracy that goes deeper than politics as we know it knows how to reach – and these unsettled election results are what that buried crisis looks like on the surface.

The second answer is nothing to do with Sweden: it’s personal, it’s about the kind of life I’ve had and the age that I’ve reached. I’ve been following UK elections with an unhealthy attentiveness since 1987, but this is the first time when there are significant players who are my age, some of whom I crossed paths with when they were rather less well known than they are today. Rachel Reeves lived on the same staircase as me as first-year undergraduates in Oxford and her passion for social justice and dedication to the Labour party as the vehicle for this has been unswerving from that day to this. When I listen to Chris Mason’s entertaining Election Desk on Radio 4’s PM programme, I have an extra chuckle because I remember him crashing in my spare room the week he worked his first few shifts for the BBC at Radio Sheffield. I’ve been getting my geek fix from Alberto Nardelli’s data analysis for The Guardian, while recalling pitching School of Everything to him in the days when he worked at Unltd. And I’m certain I remember Rowenna Davis – who is fighting an impressively organised battle for Labour in the super-marginal Southampton Itchen – throwing brilliant, awkward questions at me after a rambling talk I gave at a squat in central London a few years ago.

Name-dropping is about as attractive as nose-picking. But what I have in common with all of these people – none of whom I know well, but all of whom I have a lot of respect for – is that our lives have passed through places like Oxford, the BBC or the London social-activist-thinktank scene that are totally alien to the experience of anyone outside a circle of at most a couple of hundred thousand people in Britain. (You could probably draw the circle rather smaller than that.) And without bringing anyone’s good intentions or the worth of what they are doing into question, I think this is part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my own little quixotic long-distance intervention in this election campaign. If you happen to read Crossed Lines, the occasional newsletter I’ve been writing, then you’ve been hearing for weeks about #dontjustvote. But I’ve been slow to write about it more publicly because, if I’m honest, right up to when it got underway on Friday morning, I wasn’t quite sure what it really was or why I was doing it.

One thing it is is a week-long tour by my very old and dear friend Billy Bottle and his other half Martine Waltier, winding their way from Devon to Westminster, pitching up on high streets and seafronts, in marketplaces and community cafes, playing an exuberant acoustic rendition of Snap’s ‘90s rave-rap hit The Power, jamming with local musicians who turn up to meet them and starting conversations with everyone they meet along the way.

There is a kind of a message running through the project, the clue to which is in the name – do go out and vote next Thursday, but don’t let anyone tell you that your role in democracy is over for another five years when you leave the polling station.

But what gets clearer with every stop along the way is that this is not a campaigning project with a message it wants to get across to people, this is about what happens along the way, the conversations you get into when people realise you’re actually interested in what they think and what they feel about the state of the country. I’ve been keeping in touch with Billy and Martine as they go and helping to write up the experiences they have along the way in posts like this:

Everyone we meet feels disillusioned, disengaged, disenfranchised. They all feel like they’re not being heard. A lot of them aren’t voting. Yet they also believe that we as people do have power, they just can’t see a route to change that goes through the ballot box.

We’re not pretending we’ve got any answers. We’re definitely not pretending that wearing fluourescent tights and playing a song in the street is a way to change things. But it’s a way in, a way to start meeting people, catching little snatches of a tune that this country is humming under its breath, that nobody’s quite remembered the words to yet.

I’m not claiming that this is an intervention that is going to affect the course of this strange election, even if it was partly inspired by a short story I wrote where a Facebook post ends up (possibly) doing that. But two-and-a-half days in, I’m starting to understand why this matters and why I’ll be spending as much time as I can this week, in my lunch-breaks and on commuter trains, doing my bit to help tell the stories they are picking up along the way.

Firstly, one reason I’m doing this is because I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of role art can play in making sense of the mess in which we find ourselves – and I think what Billy and Martine are up to might have some clues to that. One reason I love working with them is that I have total confidence in them, not just as performers who come alive wherever and whenever they play, but as people who will roll with and play with whatever happens, and that’s what’s leading them into a constant stream of fascinating encounters, only glimpses of which reach the Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr we’re running for the project.

More than that, I know that a lot of what I’ve written lately could sound like I don’t believe that art that tries to be political can work – but that’s not quite true. What I’ve been poking at is the problem with art that thinks its job is to deliver a message to a (hopefully receptive) audience. What I believe in, though, is another kind of political art which doesn’t have all the answers, which makes a space in which people can meet each other and come alive together, where words are given to thoughts and feelings that hadn’t quite been articulated before, not carefully pre-prepared words, but words that arrive unexpectedly in the middle of things. This is something I’ve felt in the work of Troja Scenkonst, the theatre collective I’ve been collaborating with in Sweden since last summer – and you can get some sense of this in the talk I did with Lisa Färnström from Troja.

It’s what I love about the work of artists like Lottie Child, what I pick up from the impro practice of a teacher like Keith Johnstone. It’s what I’m hoping to talk about in the conversation I’m holding in Malmö on Thursday night, where I’ll be jamming words with the sounds of the saxophonist Ola Paulson.

So far, so arty… What about what’s going to be happening back in Britain on Thursday?

Well, for what it’s worth – and I’m not imagining saying this will shift a single vote – I do desperately hope that some combination of MPs will be elected that makes it impossible for David Cameron to form another government on behalf of the rich and the worried. (There aren’t enough people doing well in Britain to support a Tory government, but there are enough worried people, hoping the housing bubble’s mirage of prosperity doesn’t evaporate, hoping the things that happened to the poor and the unemployed and the disabled in the last five years aren’t going to happen to them…) I also hope that if such a combination of MPs is elected, the massed forces of the British press doesn’t succeed in preventing it forming a government.

I have some deep currents of loyalty to what Labour has meant to previous generations of my family, but I don’t have any illusions about what a Labour-led government is likely to mean in practice. But the ballot box isn’t a tool for building utopia, it’s a tool for damage limitation. So if I was voting in a seat where my vote had a chance of making it more likely that a Labour MP was elected rather than a Tory or a Lib Dem, that’s how I’d be voting. If I could help elect a Lib Dem rather than a Tory, I’d do that. In any other situation, including the safe Labour seat where I’m registered to vote, I’d vote for whichever party came closest to standing for something I could believe in, so that when the votes are added up we can all point to how absurd the system is that is set to give one party on 5% a single MP while another party on the same kind of share of the national vote gets 50 MPs.

So, in the unlikely case that you wanted my advice on who to vote for, there you have it. Meanwhile, back to the musical duo with the frizzy hair and the unfeasibly fluorescent tights…

What I’m getting from talking to Billy and Martine about the conversations they’re having along the way is a kind of below-the-radar read on the election in England. The gentle futility of their journey takes them out of the game of serious politics, played by the Oxford-BBC-thinktank types, and into the everyday worlds that they’re passing through. And out of those worlds comes a murmur of the great welling of discontent that lies about a quarter of an inch below the crust of our societies.

Whatever uncomfortable parliamentary coalition is cobbled together in the weeks after polling day, I expect that murmur to get louder over the years ahead. Something like it has already found its voice in Scotland, up-ending the confident assumptions of the entire London-centred establishment, and making an unmistakable contribution to the strangeness of this Westminster election. UKIP may tap into one part of England’s restless dreaming, the Greens into another part of it, but for different reasons, both parties struggle to become its voice.

In one of the newsletters where I started sketching out the ideas for #dontjustvote, I wrote that so much of what has happened politically in the past five years – from Wikileaks to the Arab Spring and its darkening aftermath, from the Indignados to Occupy, Beppe Grillo to Russell Brand, the Clacton by-election to the Green surge to #milifandom – would have sounded like wild political science fiction the last time Britain went to the polls.

I don’t expect the next five years will be any less weird. I don’t expect, sadly, that any result at this election will fully take the weight of austerity off the backs of the most vulnerable, or hold off the next financial crisis that could well make the autumn of 2008 seem just an early tremor, or reverse the polarisation between London and the rest of the country, and between the playboy London of the few and the struggle that, to varying degrees, forms the reality of London for most of its residents. I don’t expect a beautiful revolution led by the wildly gesticulating Russell Brand and commentated on with carefully calibrated enthusiasm by Paul Mason.

I don’t know what to expect, but like tuning the dial on an old radio, trying to make out a distant AM signal, I’m certain I’m picking up some weak transmission from the streetcorners and seafronts of southern England that my friends are strumming their way along as they take The Power slowly towards Westminster.

So, go out and use your vote on Thursday for whatever seems the least worst option, but be ready for whatever unexpected forms democracy comes to take in the days and weeks and years that follow. (And if anyone tells you that democracy ends at the ballot box, ask them how we got the right to vote. Clue: it wasn’t by voting for it…)

And meanwhile, if you’re anywhere along the south coast of England, check out this map of the route that Billy and Martine are taking and go give them some love.

#dontjustvote