No escape from Mammon? London is increasing in power as a money magnet but we are not planning for more people with better quality of life. Image: Cityscape Digital
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The London problem: has the capital become too dominant?

The dominance of the capital threatens to choke the life from the rest  of the United Kingdom. We must act before it is too late

The referendum on Scottish independence is, at heart, not a vote about Scotland. It’s a vote about London. The choice facing Scots is whether they trust each other enough to sever the umbilical cord: London largesse, London-based decision-making, London hegemony. London divides the UK in a way that no other country in Europe is divided.

Indeed, London is a divided city in its own right: it is home to the greatest concentration of poverty in western Europe. At least two of its boroughs – Hackney and Tower Hamlets – are among the ten most deprived in England. And yet politicians such as Greg Clark, the minister for universities, science and cities, tell us that Londoners are 69 per cent more productive, in GDP generated per head, than citizens elsewhere in the UK.

It is worth dwelling on Clark’s figures (below), both for what they reveal and for what they hide. Clark used the figure of 69 per cent to try to demonstrate that London was not so different from other capital cities in terms of economic dominance. But he did not take into account the size of London’s population relative to the rest of the UK. London is small compared to, say, Seoul, or Tokyo; consequently its economic dominance is even more pronounced.

The only city that takes a greater share of national product than London is Moscow. Paris takes a large but slightly lower proportion and so, for well over half a century, the French have referred to “Paris et le désert français”. The English talk about their own division simply, and less dramatically, as the problem of “the north”. A plan is needed for the north, we are often told; but that is impossible if there is no plan for London.

There is nothing inevitable about living with high rates of national inequality. We are not in some imaginary global race where everywhere is becoming similarly unequal. At the lower end of Clark’s list is Vienna, whose citizens were apparently only 30 per cent more productive than the average Austrian; even more equitable is Stockholm, at 23 per cent; and Tokyo and Seoul, each with a rate below 15 per cent. Of course, almost all that extra London money flows into the pockets of the richest residents. The median Londoner is not much better off than the average citizen of the UK.

What exercises many Scots right now is that the rich Londoners they hear most from appear to believe that there is no alternative to these inequalities and that the rest of the UK may even benefit from the trickle-down of some of the wealth of an ever richer capital. Growing inequalities undermine the case that Scotland is “better together” with London and the idea that Scots might moderate the arrogance of London’s elite should they remain in the Union with England.

It is taking a long time for the English chatter to turn towards the realisation that the Scottish vote is a judgement on London – and on the desirability of being linked so closely to what can appear to be a selfish, often stupid and always dominating force. It is hard to think of a scenario that would shake London from its trajectory of growing inequality and drift towards being a tax haven for the world’s super-rich.

Of all the scenarios I can imagine, and each is unlikely to occur, it is Scotland voting Yes to independence that might most obviously dent the English capital’s prestige. How will Londoners explain why, if being attached in some way to London is so beneficial, the Scots chose to leave? What other event, more than such a rejection, would encourage the introspection needed among the English about where they are heading?

Other scenarios are easy to imagine but are more unpredictable in outcome, and not necessarily desirable in the short term. A run on sterling is seldom mentioned today, but sterling is a weak currency backed up by an indebted set of one small and three very small nations. A second banking crisis is far from impossible and would hurt London more than anywhere else on the planet. Or think of climate change bringing persistent rain, followed by the flood waters of the Thames meeting a particularly high spring tide coupled with a storm surge. You can begin to imagine some of the scenarios that the cabinet’s emergency Cobra committee might find a little tricky to deal with.

So what would a serious “London plan” be? What could offer a more sustainable future for the English capital and English regions, irrespective of the choice being made north of the border in September?

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Technically, a London plan already exists in the form of the Mayor of London’s Spatial Development Strategy. In many ways this is a laughable document; though mostly tedious, it serves to demonstrate that there is no plan. To save you the trouble of searching for the best jokes it’s worth knowing that paragraph 3.22 of the latest version (October 2013) states, on provision of housing, that: “The probability-based approach adopted in London to address this has already been tested and found to be robust.”

In truth, there hasn’t been a proper London plan for some time. The Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) studied regional trends in the UK under New Labour and came to the conclusion that London stood out in stark contrast: “There was no autonomous private-sector job creation in decaying regions like the North-East or West Midlands during this period; and precious little full-time job growth anywhere outside London. Between 1997 and 2010, London on its own accounted for 43 per cent of all extra full-time jobs created in the UK, and London is now the only region of the UK capable of creating new full-time private jobs. And, again frighteningly, there is no movement of surplus population from the periphery to the centre.”

The CRESC researchers explained that London grows through immigration from the rest of Europe. It does not soak up surplus labour from the rest of the UK but, instead, sees more people leave it to settle in the rest of the UK than those who come in. And it is not just for jobs that people are coming to London. It is now thought that in a good year for overseas recruitment London universities may admit more students from outside the UK than from places in the UK outside London. The more frequently people move across borders and the longer the distances they travel, the less closely tied the capital becomes to the rest of Britain.

By early this year, the trends identified by CRESC had become embedded with the help of the coalition government after the 2008 crash. The Centre for Cities reported that London had accounted for 80 per cent of private-sector job growth between 2010 and 2012. That was ten times more than for the second-fastest-growing city in that period, the UK’s second city of finance: Edinburgh. Whereas there had been public-sector job cuts in most cities, the national government was increasing the number of state-funded jobs in London by 66,300. By contrast, Edinburgh lost more than 3,000 jobs of this type over the same period.

The north-south divide widened more rapidly after 2010 and started to become a stable feature of many British maps. This is evident from the geographical patterns seen with so many trends, from the rise in shoplifting (see Figures 2 and 3 below) through to the proportion of people who had bought a home for the first time in 2007 and who were still in negative equity seven years later. In the early 1990s, negative equity was worse in London, not in the north.

As London moves away from the rest of Britain economically, other areas begin to drop off the map. Scotland is often missing from the most recent maps used by social scientists, because data is no longer collected in the same way there.

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What can be done about London’s economic dominance? The first thing might be to accept a few truths. The second is to act on that understanding. The third is to speculate on what might happen if we don’t act.

What happens when one does not plan? It is worth looking at the more laissez-faire attitude in some US cities. Look at the low-density sprawl and absolute car dependency of Los Angeles and the power blackouts of California. Look at poorly planned megacities in poorer parts of the world to see how bad crowding on pavements can become and how long a commute can get, and look to all the worst-planned cities for where ordinary people pay the most simply for the right to live and work in the city.

The truths we must accept in order to avoid this future are not unpleasant, but certainly many of us do not want to accept them. London is growing and poised to grow quickly. It is Europe’s only megacity, though in less than a century it has dropped in rank from the largest city in the world by population to 25th largest. Its nearest competitors for megacity status, Cairo, Istanbul and Moscow, lie on the edge of Europe and are not getting that much closer politically or demographically.

It is not so much the success of London’s financial industry that is causing its wealth and influence to grow as the curiosity and aspiration of a huge number of mostly young adults from around the world. These youngsters have set their heart on living and working in London, at least for a few years. Forty years ago it was the Irish, Welsh and above all the Scots who came to live in London in unusually high numbers.

From Danes or Frenchmen who believe their country is holding back their entrepreneurial zeal, through to the nouveaux riches of China and India looking for a luxury second home, and even refugees without papers who need somewhere to work for a pittance but have a chance, London is attractive to millions. London speaks the world’s second language and the first language of the internet. No matter who you are, you won’t stand out as odd in London. It has surpassed even New York and Singapore as the favour­ite global bolt-hole of the super-rich.

London will grow; the only question is by how much, and how well-planned that growth will be. Government rhetoric suggests that nationally we will soon be building 200,000 homes a year but will have zero net migration. Given recent trends, both claims insult the voters’ intelligence. Nor, together, are they tenable. There is one good reason to build houses and it is for the immigrants we should expect to come, those who have been coming for many years now and whose numbers were boosted by the financial crash. If emigration were greater than immigration in future years there would be very little need to build new houses. Soon, given the age structure, many more people will die each year than will be born in England, even if fertility rates do not fall further as they have done across the rest of Europe. Simply refurbishing the old stock would result in enough homes for all of “Generation Rent”. And so many would not have to rent if they did not allow their elected politicians to help landlords evade so much tax, and make it desirable to be a private landlord. England has enough homes for everyone living here but not enough to cover those whose likely arrival we should plan for.

The last time the UK had a recession and net inward migration was in the 1930s, an effect of the 1929 crash. It was then that we built many of London’s suburbs. Partly we built them as fewer people emigrated from England: there were fewer opportunities abroad during the Great Depression. We built them also because migration from even more depressed Scotland, Ireland and Wales, as well as immigration from further afield, was increasing demand. Today is similar, except people are travelling from further within Europe. Policymakers in the European Commission refer to this internal movement of people as “mobility” across the EU rather than migration, but it will be some time before such language from across the Channel permeates our thinking.

Without immigration, there is no sensible reason to build new homes rather than renovate old ones – unless we want to see our existing housing stock shared out even more unfairly. We need “Pocket homes” for singles and couples without children. We need to time our building of homes in London to fit in with expansion of public transport and cycle routes. We need to encourage the value put on walking so as not to increase our levels of air pollution, already the highest recorded in western Europe. (Some argue that levels are higher in central Paris.) But all this would require a decent plan. The free market does not co-ordinate spatially and temporally; it reacts rather than instigates.

Acting on the understanding that London is going to grow requires recognising where London’s real boundaries lie. Oxford and Cambridge are de facto outlying suburbs of the capital. Oxford’s soon-to-be-opened second mainline rail station will be just over an hour’s commute from central London. If we do not provide better housing closer to the centre of the capital, the effects will be felt a very long way out. London relies on far too much long-distance commuting, to the detriment of many people’s lives.

We must build high-density, high-quality housing that is affordable. The smoke and mirrors of those with a vested interest in house-price inflation and high rents makes this sound impossible. Given that so many people are willing to pay so much to live in London, couldn’t they all be housed there a little more cheaply, yet still have the actual costs of providing that housing more than adequately covered? They could – but not at rates of return that would allow the richest 1 per cent to carry on getting richer as quickly as they do now. London needs both rent regulation and enhanced housebuilding.

But where are we to build? Our greenbelts were designated at a time when we did not understand the extent of the floodplain. Existing greenbelt land needs to be swapped, acre for acre, for land that really should never be built on; land where we should expect more floods as rainfall becomes more erratic. We should protect ecologically valuable land that is under threat. All that should become true greenbelt, not uninspiring farmland. As London expands, it should build not only upwards, but also on some of the higher land on the edges – but only where there is an environmental argument to do so; and not in small, car-dependent towns further away from the centre of London.

At present, the policies set out by the coalition government’s “Ecosystem Markets Task Force” allow builders to offset the destruction of Sites of Special Scientific Interest by, for instance, planting a new oak wood if they build over an ancient one. This has to be stopped. Greenbelts don’t prevent urban sprawl; the sprawl just hops over them, increasing commuting times outside them and house prices inside. Good-quality, high-density living prevents sprawl.

Much of the building that will be needed for the new migrants who will come (and help reduce our national debt) should be within the present boundary of Greater London. Many people argue that there is little justification for giving planning permission for new buildings within London with fewer than five storeys. At these densities, enough people arrive to sustain local street life. Cafés and local shops are found across Barcelona, a city that is four times as dense as London in its heart. But London also needs wider pavements, more cycle lanes, more one-way streets with just a single lane for cars, and far fewer lorries and taxis trying to squeeze through its streets.

Far more imaginative policies than better traffic control can be thought up to make the capital more liveable. There is no need to try to pack every last national institution into London. Why not move parliament somewhere more affordable, to a place where MPs won’t need huge housing allowances to be able to live and work while distancing their lives from those of their constituents? But if parliament were to be relocated outside London, where would that be?

One obvious answer is the first stop from London on High Speed 2, Birmingham. Members of the House of Lords, such as Norman Tebbit, who complain that they couldn’t live anywhere near their workplace could easily find a home in Coventry, or nearby Sparkhill, with perhaps more homes built on brownfield sites there, relieving the pressure on London. The old buildings in the capital could be kept for ceremonial occasions and as tourist attractions, but there is no need to require our elected representatives to battle their way through to the neighbourhoods least representative of the lives of almost all of their constituents.

There is much else in London that does not need to be there. Much can move out to make way for the almost inevitable influx. (It is worth remembering here that there are at least two possibilities that would make that influx not inevitable. The first would be Britain leaving the EU and revoking the free movement of labour. The second would be an economic crash in London that was not part of a worldwide financial meltdown – due to a generally unforeseen run on sterling that required sharp hikes in interest rates. The effects of either would be similar.)

Finally, what might make for a better-planned future? We seldom consider the most liveable megacity in the world, the one with the lowest crime rate and highest life expectancies: Tokyo. What helped Tokyo become what it is today? Very equitable income distribution certainly helps, but that was not all. It was after the great property crash of 1992-93 that Tokyo’s planners were able to say, with some force, that following the money and doing what the market suggested did not result in the best overall outcome. Satisfying the wishes of innumerable pairs of buyers and sellers never results in an equilibrium. Only someone as mathematically unimaginative as an orthodox economist could believe that.

The great London residential property-value crash may be years away, but what is our plan for its aftermath, if indeed it happens? A Japanese colleague sent me data showing how the average price of residential land in Tokyo more than doubled in value in the year to 1987, stayed very high until 1990, but then fell back to 1986 prices by 1996 and has remained low ever since (see Figure 4, below). Life as they knew it did not end in Japan when the value of land in Tokyo plummeted. The following two decades weren’t actually “lost”. It just became easier and cheaper to live, and far more obviously necessary to plan.

Without a plan, life in cities becomes chaotic, prices surge, congestion rises and dissent grows to the point where parts of the state begin to calculate that it is in their interest to leave. Not planning for London to grow in a world that is ever more urbanised is planning to preserve a living museum, one with aspects of Dickensian-level inequality. Planning to allow almost anything the markets and overseas investors desire is planning for a Blade Runner-style future.

Between these two extremes lie many other possibilities. But if you were living in Scotland now would you trust the English elite to have the sense to consider them? 

Danny Dorling’s “All That Is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster” is published by Allen Lane (£20)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

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Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

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 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser