Mum wants to buy a million-pound flat - that's not fair, right?

Alice O'Keefe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘Darling, I just had to tell you.” Mum sounds slightly breathless. “The Old Flat is for sale!” “Oh yeah?” For a moment I fail to register the symbolic importance of the words.
 
The Old Flat is where my family lived until I was 15. Funnily enough, it was slightly too small for two kids – oh, how history repeats itself – and eventually Mum sold it and moved around the corner. With its prime central location and its big windows looking out over the park, it is a lovely place, imbued with many cherished memories.
 
“What, are you thinking of buying it back?”
 
“I am considering it seriously, yes.”
 
I haven’t heard Mum sound this excited about anything for ages. She became a Buddhist a few years ago, and it’s really calmed her down. She meditates every morning, and once a week she goes to sweep the floor of the Buddhist centre. My mum is big on becoming a better person. I think that’s where I get it from – but she’s way further along the road than me. I feel tired just thinking about all the meditation and sweeping I would have to do to become as calm as her.
 
But right now she sounds stoked, like Larry does when he talks about opening his Christmas presents. “Well, that’s exciting!”
 
It’s only after I hang up that I realise it is not exciting. I hate the thought of it. For a start, the past is the past. We moved on. Trying to turn back the clock is never a good idea.
 
But there is another reason, too, one so shameful that I can barely acknowledge it to myself. I had always assumed that once Mum sold her current house – central London, four bedrooms, worth a fortune – she would move somewhere smaller and cheaper, freeing up some cash for us.
 
It’s not as if she hasn’t helped us out already. We could never have bought our slightlytoo- small flat without an unspeakably generous donation from her.
 
Nevertheless, our only real hope of ever being able to afford somewhere family-sized and not in Hull resides in the sale of her house. That or a Lottery win, which Curly confidently predicts will happen within months, if not weeks.
 
To buy back The Old Flat, Mum will need every penny of her money. Of course I want her to be happy. I want her to have everything she could possibly wish for. But . . .
 
I phone Curly at work to let off steam.
 
“Hello, Domino’s Pizza.”
 
“?”
 
“Only joking. Worthy Causes ‘R’ Us.”
 
“Curly, it’s me.”
 
“I know.”
 
“Mum wants to buy a million-pound flat.”
 
“Great. Good for her.”
 
“Don’t you think it’s a little bit unfair?”
 
“How do you mean?”
 
“Well, I mean what about us?”
 
Silence on the line.
 
“Curly, are you still there?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“What do you think?”
 
“What do you mean what do I think?”
 
“Don’t you think it’s unfair?”
 
“I think it’s her money and it’s her life. And anyway, I think we are doing fine.”
 
God damn Curly and the way he makes me feel like a selfish cow. It’s out of order. 
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.