These are the second general elections I experience as a permanent resident in London. Five years ago, I was impressed by the lack of passion, the sluggishness of the process, society’s business as usual on the elections Thursday. I thought there was something I could not understand, that something was shuning me from finding out that actually nothing was happening. Five years later, being more familiar with what English people think about politics, and a bit more politically organized here, I wonder whether my initial feeling had any kind of basis indeed.
Today weather in London was less cloudy than usual with intervals of blue sky which I happily welcomed. In the Tube the morning tabloids depicted the seven political opponents as contestants of the X Factor. Facebook reminded us that we reserved the right to vote and urged us to share this privilege with our friends. At work, a colleague was sharing her decision to vote for the Green Party while pointing out how uncomfortable it was for her to talk about politics in her workplace. No one actually responded to this daring confessions, and I was left with that cheery fantasy that I was secretly selling her the “Socialist Worker” or “Rizospastis“.
Shortly thereafter, as part of my work, I spent time with a young woman. She was a second-generation immigrant from Africa, unemployed, impoverished, with 3 children all in care, with benefits having been recently cut, a pending eviction order from the council flat which lived all her adult life in, and with serious and irreversible health problems. She had to survive with just 142 quids allowance every two weeks. She was desperate. And helpless. With the NHS as her only solace. She was that part of society for which elections don’t make the slightest sense. For her, today’s day was like all the others.
Business as usual.
The Big Society, the great vision of Mr Cameron and the Tories five years ago, was actually the vehicle towards an unprecedented widening of the gap between the rich and the poor, with which social inequality reached the levels of the Victorian era: Zero hours contracts, food banks, bedroom tax, punitive horizontal benefits cuts for the long-term unemployed, arduous physical and mental disability reviews by ATOS, cuts in the welfare state, privatization of sensitive social sectors, cuts and privatization in the NHS; Poor people displaced from their local communities, social housing bought and resold at prices inaccessible to their inhabitants, gentrified areas that lost what made them alluring for gentrification, rents in London becoming unapproachable and home buying opportunity almost nonexistent; The working class was targeted systematically while a new scapegoat was discovered by the brutal front line of the establishment: Muslims and immigrants. These are just a few of the achievements of the Tory-LibDem coalition that transformed an already ailing society to a discredited mass of poverty and misery for the benefit of a particular banking elite. Extreme neoliberalism in its most cynical face.
Although the context is so clear and the result of the polls so markedly critical, yet I am not clear what the mandate of these elections should be. Yes, it is imperative for the Brits to get rid of Mr Cameron and his collaborators, as it is clear that their policies destroy the lives of the most, but if you consider Labour, how will they differ in practice? False promises, rants, mud thrown by the media and cheap populism, of an intensity I haven’t even seen in Greece, allow no hope. And since the word “hope” somehow found its way in this paragraph, just to mention that the dominant public discourse in the UK regarding recent Greek project, Syriza, mostly uses it as a counterexample. And this is because politics here are identified with the management of a specific and well-established system of power that apparently nobody actually wants to change or even dispute. And which society accepts in a pure determinist fashion, like a law of nature.
The young African immigrant waved a lifeless goodbye to me. Just before she exited the building, she coincidentally met with my colleague who was going to vote for the Greens. The latter, a young middle class white british lady opened the door for her with that nice smile. I saw them both going away, each one with their own purpose, and had to think once again for the real meaning of this day.