“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.