From the archive: Doris Lessing's London diary

The girl at the laundry is getting married next week. She says she found him at the marriage bureau.

An American friend is absorbed in that occupation so fascinating to all us foreigners when we first arrive in this island – an empirical study of the class system. Engaged in painting the Universities and Left Review coffee house, he often travels in paintstained clothes, when he is treated with camaraderie by workmen, and as if he does not exist by the well dressed. Back in respectable clothes, he is a sir, another person. I once wrote in a book review that the caste system in this country was as complicated as that of India. I had 37 indignant letters saying that class distinctions had been killed in the Second World War. They were all from middle class people.

A man told me this story of the last war, when he was simultaneously one of the managers of a large factory outside London and Communist Party organiser for the area. Three times a week he changed into workmen’s clothes and stood at the factory gates speechifying. The other managers, beside whom he worked all day, would drive out past him at a couple of yards’ distance, but none of them ever recognised him: they simply didn’t see him because he was wearing different clothes. And it was the same with the workmen who saw him every day in his capacity as boss. One of them did once remark that he could swear he “knew his face from somewhere”. My friend, torn apart by this Jekyll and Hyde existence, tried to explain, but the man would not believe him.

***

The girl at the laundry is getting married next week. She says she found him at the marriage bureau – he fits her much better than those boys she used to pick up at the Palais. She tried out seven applicants before she found one to suit. But marriage bureaux work in more devious ways than perhaps they know.

I once lived in the next room to a girl, waitress at Lyons, who was in love with the manager of the restaurant across the street. He had been playing her up, so she decided to make him jealous. She visited the bureau demanding “a handsome dark man, aged 25, five foot ten”. The lady at the bureau was distressed at Betty’s frivolous attitude, even came to visit her at home so as to explain that happy wedlock did not depend on good looks. Betty was tolerant about this, conceding that she meant well. Meanwhile, handsome dark young men came to tea with Betty on those afternoons when Steven the manager was due to pass by. Everyone’s plans miscarried. Steven was jealous, but too much so: Betty turned him down because she couldn’t be happy with a man as unreasonable as all that. Two of the bureau’s candidates took to her, but she couldn’t fully take to men who had to go through an office to find themselves girls. She married a boy she had known since childhood – tall, dark and extremely handsome, but because, she said, she was “used to him”.

***

My son has flu, rather too intensely. He, like myself, is accomplished in the pleasures of hypochondria and has decided his temperature is too high for real enjoyment. “About 100° is what I like,” he says, and I agree with him. While we wait for his temperature to fall to a pleasurable level, his remarks hover on the borders of sense.

Do I agree, he asks, with the man who says that the Tube is like a pea-shooter?

“What tube?” – my mind being full of bronchials.

“The Underground – all those people like peas blown in at one end and flying out the other.”

“People,” I say, severely maintaining the humanist position, “are not like peas, not ever. They are people.”

Meanwhile the Warwick Road, grey and damp with winter, roaring with great lorries, remains sulking outside. A red fire engine gongs its way past.

“Is it true that lions would live in England if it was hot?”

“Who said so?”

“The man at the bus stop.”

“What makes you think of lions now?”

“The fire engine, it makes me think of lions, when I cough I sound like a lazy lion. I like the thoughts I have when I’m sick. What’s going to happen to the thoughts I’m having in this room when we leave? Will they stay here and get into the minds of the people who come?”

“Certainly not,” I say, delivering a short but unprincipled anti-idealist lecture.

“Well, then, they’ll go rippling out over London into the sky and out and out . . . What happens when they collide with the waves that come from the hydrogen bombs?”

***

Like every right-minded woman I disapprove of Dr Johnson, and even the one remark he made I do like is hard to hold fast to in March. Yet the streets of London can always be relied upon for entertainment. It was snowing, so I tied a scarf over my head to go shopping. In the supermarket I was stopped by a couple of girls who announced themselves as members of an association to brighten Britain, particularly in its standard of dress. If I didn’t mind them saying so, I was fine as far as the shoulders, but would I please give them my word I would never again, in the national interest, wear a headscarf?

Last year a visiting Russian writer borrowed an umbrella for a visit to Hyde Park, and was approached by a couple of men from the League for the Correct Furling of Umbrellas – or some such title. The Russian said that he deduced from this incident that Engels’s estimate of the British character was still valid.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in the NS on 22 March 1958. Doris Lessing died on 17 November 2013, aged 94

The Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing in the 1970s. Image: Godfrey Argent/Camera Press

Doris Lessing is a novelist, poet and playwright. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.