Spaceships and a simple plan

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘Are there any drugs you can give me?” I am begging my GP, Dr Ibrahim. I’ve had enough of feeling like crap. I can’t wait another five weeks for my appointment with the mental health nurse – I need chemical intervention, and I need it now. “Do people still take Prozac? Or was that a Nineties thing?”
 
“Not while you are still breastfeeding. There is another drug I could prescribe. But darling, are you sure you can’t wait to see the specialist?”
 
Dr Ibrahim always calls me darling. It’s an acquired taste in a doctor, but I like it. Her consulting room has a heavy, perfumed smell, with a faint undertone of cigarette smoke. I can tell she is a mother herself by the way she deftly moves her cup of tea just before Moe succeeds in tipping it all over the blood pressure machine.
 
“I feel terrible. I can’t stop crying. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep for months. We haven’t got any money. And my boyfriend hates me.” As if to illustrate my point, I burst into tears, again.
 
“Daaarling. But this is all very natural. You’ve just had a baby.”
 
I notice a packet of red Gauloises peeping from the pocket of her blouse. God, I would kill for a cigarette right now. Would she give me one? No, I daren’t ask. I’m sure that would be against the rules.
 
“What you really need is rest.”
 
This is indisputable. I can feel the pressure of sleeplessness on my brain, reducing everything to a dull grey pulp. Outside, summer may be in full swing, birds may be tweeting from the blossomy trees, children may be frolicking in the park . . . but inside my head everything is dark as a December morning. It feels like my brain has stopped absorbing any of the nice stuff, while it sucks up doom like a sponge.
 
Dr Ibrahim won’t give me any drugs. She tells me to leave the children with Curly for a night, get some rest, and come back next week if I’m still feeling low. As I push the buggy back through the sun-baked park I force myself to look up at the trees, and the birds in them. Then I force myself to stop at the café for an ice lolly. It’s tough, but I think I can hack it.
 
Can I force myself to feel better? Perhaps I can. I sit down on a bench and come up with a three-point plan:
 
One: I will get some sleep.
 
Two: I will stop reading or listening to the news. Responsibility for two very small humans is as much as I can handle. The rest of the world will have to wait.
 
Three: I will stop working. I will stop caring about houses or bills or breaking even. The only things in the world I’m allowed to worry about are Larry and Moe.
 
It’s a simple plan, but I feel encouraged by it. I put the lolly stick carefully in my bag so Larry and I can make spaceships later, and start for home with the tiniest trace of a spring in my step. 
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

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 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.