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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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