Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Politics of Engagement

The last general election in the UK took place when I was 14 – in my penultimate year at secondary school, an interest in politics slowly nurtured in between homework assignments. There was Nick Clegg. Oh, Nick Clegg. How exciting he sounded! Ready to shake up the political system, to listen to young people, to do things differently. Well, we all know how that turned out…

Skip forward to sixth form: coalition in place, cuts happening, various relentless rounds of grim news. One of my good friends and I had regular coffee and conversation dates in our favourite café – caffeine fuelling big, rambling chats about policy, art, education, the environment, gender, housing, benefits. In summer we sat outside in the courtyard at the back, gabbling excitedly – steam and words rising around us.

She’s now actually studying politics. I’m doing English at a University whose name appears in the national press regularly – often in relation to our cabinet, many of whom trod the privileged path from good prep to private school to Oxford - or Cambridge. Before the reshuffle there were more individuals who’d attended Magdalen College (Oxford) than there were women. Yep. Really.

I don’t claim to know the kind of social sphere they inhabited there. It still exists, but it’s not one I’m familiar with – only having observed it from afar, much as one might watch a wildlife documentary with odd curiosity. This city houses a lot of different versions of the ‘Oxford experience’ within its streets, spires and colleges. Words like ‘Bullingdon’ and ‘boating dinner’ have no relevance or interest to plenty of us studying here.

Being here does give a glimpse, however, into the inevitable flaws to be found in having a cabinet primarily composed of those who’ve never worried about money; who were told by their elite fee-paying schools that they were destined to succeed; whose sense of entitlement is stitched into the seams of their clothes. And that’s before we get to the overall make-up of Westminster, where only one fifth are female (more like Stella Creasy, please. I love her. She’s fabulous.)

Oxford is also the constituency I’ll be voting in come May 7th. This is the first time I can take part rather than watching from the sidelines and I’m pretty much positive that vote will be going to the Greens – for all the reasons I articulated in the Sunday Times Style the weekend before last (see the pictures above).

Please, please can I stress at this point that the deadline for registering to vote is April 20th. It takes less time than watching a Youtube video or procrastinating on Twitter. Students and young people need their voices to be heard, but you’re silent if you can’t (or can’t be bothered) to vote. There’s a huge number of missing female voters too, as pointed out in the excellent #XXVOTE campaign by the Youth Media Agency.

I’ve been dipping in and out of election coverage – trying to inform myself, but also not to live in a perpetual state of raised blood pressure. I am simultaneously more fired up by and frustrated with politics than ever before. What raises my hackles most is the slippery rhetoric: the hollow words, pat phrases, sound bites and general performance of it all. I don’t mind performance if it's interesting or meaningful, but there’s little of that to be found in this dull (and pretty dirty) grapple for seats. Instead it becomes about who can win more voters with this comment or that neatly enticing policy. Fuck the actual human implications. It’s all about power here. Many of them speak a lot - but say pretty much nothing in an attempt to win everything.

Obviously there are some brilliant MPs out there. To deny that would be unfair and ignorant. Many do care about their constituents, about improving this country, about the environment, about the NHS and schools and housing and mental health and plenty of other things too. But you know what? Not enough of them, by far.

I was talking over all of this with my mum. She’s a former teacher. The state of education is an ongoing conversation in this household. Yet, as she said, “every time I look at any exchanges taking place in the House of Commons chamber, and see the behaviour on show, I feel like I’ve stumbled across a riot in the classroom.” 
Having gone to a secondary school where lessons did sometimes descend into chaos, I fully agree.

“My inner ‘teacher voice’ rises”, she continued, “and I want to stand in the middle, and in quiet, commanding tones, remind everyone of the rules that basic, civil human behaviour operates by: taking turns, no shouting, treating each other with respect, listening, putting one’s hand up to speak, and not saying rude, personal or provocative things. These seem to be lessons that many instantly un-learn once they become an MP. It would not be tolerated in any school, or by any inspection. Why can’t Ofsted fail Westminster on its behaviour policy?”

We need more of that all round. Respectful human behaviour – grounded in empathy and understanding, rather than a quest for control. That doesn't mean claiming that you totally ‘get’ what a life is like that’s very different to your own, but it does mean a willingness to put yourself aside, listen, respond and think your way into someone else’s shoes. It’s what great novelists do all the time – asking the big “what if?” Why can’t more politicians do that?

I was styled in the most fabulous Stella McCartney ensemble for the shoot, along with my own vintage coat and shoes. Photos were by David Yeo and styling by Flossie Saunders. The fab Fleur Britten was immensely searching in her questions, and I was thrilled with the write up. A pleasure to meet everyone else who was featured too - stressed to me again the importance of being young, and engaging with politics, even if it feels like the politicians aren't engaging with us. 


Freya said...

Every time I've tried to watch any of the political broadcasts I've quickly lost interest as they spend far too much time trying to insult the opposition than actually discussing what their party stands for. I'm completely clueless because none of them will give a single straight answer, so I'll have to make the effort to delve into each parties manifesto at some point. Which absolutely should be read if you plan on voting for someone, but it's infuriating that I know so little about each party's policies on particular issues because they refuse to talk about it. They seem to be relying on "Vote for X to ensure Y doesn't get in!" which is a truly irresponsible way to vote! I'm genuinely frightened for the future because I don't trust a single one of them. Most of the politicians don't seem to have a single clue about what it's actually like to live in this country as a working class citizen, a you say, it's all about power and control.
I apologise for adding my own rant, but it's such an infuriating topic!

Vix said...

What a fab article and a lovely accompanying photo.
I've always been a Labour vs Green voter. I was impressed with Natalie Bennett's passion over Ed's polish in last night's debate. Have you tried doing that survey at Who To Vote For? xxx

Ivana Split said...

I have a feeling that the politicans aren't really engaged with the problems of anyone, especially the young. More and more, they're becoming a class of their of their own and I really resent that. There are many serious problems in Europe and the high unemployment (the young generations as especially vulnerable to it) is one of them.

Still, it's important to get involved in some kind of way, even if it is a protest vote. So, I'm happy to see that the young are making their stand. I love what you had to say in your section.

Melanie said...

It's so difficult for me not to become cynical when it comes to politics. I try hard to believe that passion in the pursuit of the Greater Good still exists.
Green Party? Yay! I suspect it's much like ours here.
I enjoyed reading this piece.

Barbro Andersen said...

Money usually trumps the environment. It's so sad. Politicians are just for show these days, no one in charge seem to really want change. It's an international problem. We're killing ourselves, slowly and selfishly.


I find it great that more and more youth are getting involved than ever before in the political realm. It's good to be aware of what's going on during elections without allowing it to consume your daily life completely with "raised blood pressure" and all, as stated. The XXVote film was powerful and well done. Really wonderful article and feature on you, of course being styled in Stella McCartney's effervescent prints is always a good idea.

Theresa said...

Well done on being excited to vote. I hope you'll encourage your friends to do so -- and to get involved in politics. Volunteering is something young people tend to do even less than they vote, and can have such an impact. I come from a political family so know that firsthand.

Gareth From said...

Great article and brilliant news that you're so motivated to vote, as so many people aren't. I was, unfortunately one of the people that got sucked in by the Nick Clegg hype; literally one of the most disappointing things ever when he turned out to be no more than Cameron's tea boy, who reneged on pretty much everything.

In other news, I absolutely love your outfit. Such a gorgeous print and looks lovely on you x