Squeezed Middle: How to change the world

I just haven’t had much time for changing the world lately. It’s been difficult enough to get my shoes on the right feet in the morning.

‘‘Do you really think all this is going to make a difference?” I gesture around me, at the shattered, rusting greenhouses, the weedy vegetable beds, the wobbly wind turbines. I have brought the boys for a day out at the Squat. I needed to venture out of our suburb, to take them somewhere more enriching to the soul than Ikea Edmonton.

I’d been meaning to visit the Squat for ages. Some friends of friends set it up. They’re trying to stop climate change, or something. I am a little hazy on the details. Whatever it is, it sounds like a Good Idea. An idea I should support. I just haven’t had much time for changing the world lately. It’s been difficult enough to get my shoes on the right feet in the morning.

Jules spreads his Rizla carefully on the table and fills it with baccy. Jules runs the Squat, in a totally non-hierarchical and collective way. I’d never chatted to him properly before. Perhaps it was the moustache that put me off; I have a thing about ironic facial hair. But I am getting past that. It’s too easy to dislike people who are trying to do things differently. Their very existence can feel like a reproach to those of us who have been resignedly going along with it all.

“I don’t know,” he says, as he lights up. “You never know what’s going to be the tipping point. We can only do what we can. And if it doesn’t work, at least we can say we tried.”

We spent the morning looking around. Larry loved the urinal made from a bale of hay, the shower heated by an old radiator suspended over a bonfire and especially Jules’s little wooden house, which he had built himself, just like Bob the Builder.

I was surprised how much I loved it, too. I’ve never been much of a radical. I’m too nervous. I don’t like any kind of upheaval. I’ve never thought the system was perfect – just that it was probably good enough. Recently, though, I have started not only to notice the flaws but really to feel them.

It’s not good enough that our great leaders are doing nothing to limit climate change. It’s not good enough that an ordinary job does not pay enough to buy an ordinary home. It’s not good enough that greedy fat-cat companies control the resources that we need to survive, such as water and heating.

It’s not good enough that I can’t imagine a calm and secure future for Larry and Moe. It’s not good enough at all. That’s why I have driven right across London to look around the Squat. If anyone out there has an alternative, I want to know about it.

Jules finishes his cigarette and goes back to his gardening. I sit on a rusty water tank, looking out over the battered landscape, and think for a long time.

I think about Larry and Moe, these small beings I have brought into existence, and what kind of world I would like for them. I think about how much I would like to look them in the eye when they are big enough to understand and to tell them that I tried.

Squeezed Middle goes to visit the Squat. Photo: Getty

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 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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