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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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.