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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.