I spoke to Claire on Skype last night. She’d just done an interview with Jon Snow on Channel 4 News. It’s strange to be in touch again: until last month, I hadn’t heard from her in 20 years, not since we were kids knocking about in small-town County Durham, back when Major was prime minister and my idea of political engagement was marker-penning the anarchy symbol on the back of my German army jacket. She still has the accent that I mislaid somewhere along the way.
‘I just keep asking myself, what if nobody actually turns up? I’m going to look like a right…’
‘Don’t be daft! It’s been trending on Twitter every day for a fortnight. You’ve started a bigger fuss than when Billy went on The Voice in his orange tights.’
That made her laugh, at least, but I couldn’t blame her for feeling nervous. It’s that moment when you’ve organised a party and there’s nothing left to do but wait for the first guest to arrive.
I check Twitter on my phone as I’m waiting at the bus stop. It’s still early, half six here is half five in the UK, so my feed is mostly Californians, but as I scroll through I see a few early risers. A knowledge management consultant in Surrey just Instagrammed two vacuum flasks and a tartan picnic blanket—hashtag #streetparty—and an artist I used to share a house with in Sheffield has what looks like a stack of old-school deckchairs on a bicycle trailer. Lots of people are RTing a late night blog from Paul Mason: ‘20 reasons why the #streetparty could win tomorrow’. I don’t think Claire needs to worry.
I said it was 20 years, but that can’t be right. Sometime around 2007 we must have reconnected on Facebook. Still, I don’t remember the last time I’d seen her name in my feed, until the morning after the second debate, when some faceless algorithm decided I would want to read her original #streetparty post. The algorithm got it right, and I wasn’t the only one: by the next morning, more than 300 of us had reposted it.
I hadn’t seen the debate, but when I found it on YouTube, I understood why people were reacting. It wasn’t like five years ago, when Clegg had his fifteen minutes of popularity. This was just grim. No one shone under the spotlight, Cameron’s face reddened and Miliband fluffed his lines, and everyone shouted over everyone else. It was a bad-tempered mess.
‘I watched them all just now and I thought, my kids are better behaved than this,’ Claire wrote. ‘If it’s down to this lot to run the country, then we’re screwed. I’m not saying we don’t come out to vote, because for those of us who aren’t millionaires like Russell Brand, it makes a difference which of them wins. What I’m saying is, we don’t go home again thinking that’s the job done.
‘I see us all having our rants on Facebook about the library closing, people getting their benefits stopped, rich twats who think paying tax is voluntary. But sometimes I think we enjoy getting angry more than we actually want to figure out what’s going on and why, and how things could be different. So I’m saying, let’s vote for whichever of them seems the least worst, but then let’s have our own party—a street party, on election day, outside every polling station.’
She was running a cafe, two doors down from the record shop where we used to hang out on Saturday afternoons. On May 7th, she was going to shut it for the day. They’d take chairs and tables up to the playground of the junior school that was the local polling station. Free teas and coffees all day. Everyone was invited to sit down and join in a conversation about what we were going to do about the state of the country.
When I wrote a blog about it, two days after the debate, I still saw Claire’s street party as a cute idea that was happening outside one polling station in the town where I grew up. But I thought it had echoes of other things that had happened since the last time Britain had a general election: the Indignados and the Occupy camps, the beginnings of the Arab Spring, the final summer of the Scottish independence campaign.
It was in Scotland that it started to spread, as people set up their own #streetparty events outside their local polling stations. The SNP picked it up and so did the Greens, encouraging their supporters to take part. Miliband was asked about it on a visit to a hospital and his reply was non-committal; then an unnamed backbencher was quoted saying his leader would probably be more comfortable at a #streetparty than leading the Labour party. As more events popped up around England, Cameron did his staying aloof thing, but Theresa May was reported to have asked police chiefs to look into public order concerns and whether these events constituted an attempt to intimidate voters. The next day, Boris Johnson told a crowd of reporters on Uxbridge High Street that he thought a street party sounded like a splendidly British expression of the democratic spirit, although his invitation seemed to have been misdirected in the post.
I didn’t do much to help—a blog post, a couple of introductions to journalists who would have been contacting her anyway, the rate that it was spreading. I don’t even have a vote these days, since I left the country. But I feel involved and here I am, all day, watching the streams of images coming in, trying to figure out what this thing is that my old friend has started. Does it make a difference to how people will vote? Does it make a difference to what will happen tomorrow, when everyone sees just how weak the connection has become between how many votes a party gets and how many seats it has? And will this mean anything, five years from now, or will we see it as one of those occasional waves of popular madness that pass through a country?
My phone buzzes, a DM. ‘Have you SEEN how many ppl came to our party???’
As I’m starting to reply, I suddenly remember another party, one summer more than twenty years ago when my parents left me home alone for a week.
‘Hope plenty of them come back tmrw to help you clean up! Watch out for breadsticks under the carpet… :-p’
This short story appeared in 28 Days, a one-off newspaper published during the 2015 general election campaign.