I opened my copy of the New Statesman last week and realised there had been a terrible misunderstanding. It promised, as part of its election coverage, “Jenny Diski on the campaign trail”. When the Poet saw it, he came to find me, because by then I was lying down with a cold compress on my head, moaning softly. “I’m sure that what I said yes to was: ‘Jenny Diski on the campaign sofa.’ I thought I was going to be the election apathy correspondent.”
The Poet agreed that it didn’t seem likely I would have signed up for anything that meant I had to go out. He knows me quite well by now, since middle-aged passion swept over us and I threw over the giddy life of suburban London to buy a house directly opposite his in Cambridge – or Not London, as I call it. Six months on, builder-free, all money spent, we continue to be love’s antiquated dream, still excitedly anticipating our first row, the tarmac between us beginning to show signs of a well-worn path. But romantic soppiness notwithstanding, I have retained my essential character by reverting to type so far as a social life or outside world is concerned, and go out as little as possible. Beyond the carpet and blinds departments of Robert Sayle, my new city remains a mystery to me. I’ve given up my car, and I certainly don’t walk anywhere. After the exertions of uprooting, I planned to stay home. Love and work; work and love. No need to go out. So, you will understand my alarm at seeing the words “trail” and “on” so closely associated with my name.
However, it is true that I have been a little worried about representing myself as one of Blair’s apathetics. “Angry on a sofa” would better describe my state, both now and in the past four years. Perhaps the Chinese have a single word for it. Passive-aggressive almost does it. Sullen is closest of all. There is little at the moment that stokes my recumbent rage as much as Tony Blair’s sanctimonious, self-serving misrecognition of anger and helplessness as apathy. His contempt for his electorate is, I suppose, no different from any other politician’s, but it is so badly concealed, so ineptly spun. When, for example, did you ever hear a genuinely humble person describe himself as humble? I object as much to the crudity of the deceit as I do to the deceit itself. I understand that politicians lie, but please, lie better. So when I don’t vote in this election (the first time I haven’t voted, and the first time I haven’t voted for Labour), I would like it to be clearly understood that, apathetic though every bone in my body is inclined to be, my failure of civic responsibility is, in reality, a symptom of chronic disgust.
Actually, it’s not true to say I never go out. Not long before the 1997 election, I went to a dinner party. I found myself seated next to a minister in the shadow cabinet. Back in the 1980s, during the glory days of the GLC, he had been a right-on right-hand man of Ken Livingstone; now, in 1997, he was a pooper-scooper-carrying Blairite with the scent of office powerful in his nostrils. He asked if I was excited by the expectation of a Labour victory at long last. I said my feelings were mixed. I rejoiced at the prospect of an end to Tory government, but even then dismay had already set in about new Labour. We had heard nothing from the party about dealing with child poverty, about poverty in general, what it was going to do about the loss of council housing stock, the deterioration of the National Health Service, the demoralisation in schools – that is to say, nothing that sounded remotely like a commitment, nor even the will to remedy these catastrophes; nothing about a redistribution of wealth and financial priorities; nothing about the necessity of raising income taxes to fund the recuperation of the welfare state.
The soon-to-be Cabinet minister looked at me and nodded sagely. His eyes were quite moist with sincerity. “Trust us, Jenny. Wait and see. There are things we can’t say in public now. We must get elected, and we won’t if we frighten the electorate with talk of raising taxes. Believe me, we care profoundly about the poor. But, for the time being, we have to keep our counsel. Once we’re in power, everything you talk about will happen.”
I queried this. Surely, if getting into power was so important, wouldn’t staying in power be just as imperative? When would it finally be OK for new Labour to come out as socialist? My dining companion’s mood changed. The eyes went from moist to furious, the sincerity from apparent to real.
“We will do whatever we have to do to get elected. We must never, never, be publicly humiliated again as we were in ’83. Nothing like that must happen to us again.”
That was authentic. Excuse me, I said, but your humiliation, unpleasant though it must have been, is not the point. The point is decent social policy. I couldn’t care less about the bruised egos of the party and its officials; what I really wanted was to hear someone saying what is right, someone holding to the idea of social justice firmly and rationally so that they gained people’s trust, and then doing what needed to be done. He looked at me as I guess I once looked at a 15-year-old pupil who asked me whether the Second World War was before or after the 18th century – that is, with hopeless pity at my irremediable condition. He gave it one last try.
“Listen, we’re living in the real world, even you creative types know that. When you write a book, you consider what your readers will want, don’t you? You’re no different from us. We want votes, you want to sell as many books as possible. You write your novels with the market in mind so you can have a bestseller, isn’t that so?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, no . . .”
But the upcoming new Labour government minister had quite lost interest in me, and was already deep in conversation with the diner to his right.
So here we are, four years on, four years of new Labour government later: two million children are living below the poverty line, 250,000 children in the poorest households are worse off than in 1997, lone-parent benefit has been abolished, a single parent who can’t work gets £53.05 income support and £17.55 in child benefit, and the only taxes that have been raised have been those hitting the poor harder than the rich. Rather than supporting the very needy in our society, public money has been spent on socially divisive advertisements against benefit fraud and the setting up of a shop-your-neighbours hotline, while government figures acknowledge that between £2bn and £4bn of benefit entitlement remains unclaimed. Oh, you know. Gordon Brown intones that child poverty is “a scar on the soul of Britain” and Blair whines that he can’t be expected to do everything in just four years. Give him another four, he says, and we’ll see how much better things get.
It seems that the buzzword for this election is going to be “meritocracy”, as in the Prime Minister’s speech at his constituency last weekend: “We are meritocrats.” Fine. And those unfortunates without merit? Those unable to shape up to Blair’s vision of personal achievement? Those who, brought up in poverty, suffering lower standards of health, housing and education as a result, cannot rise to the top of the heap, and those who just don’t fit the mould of new Labour civic worth, what of them? Are we back with the deserving and the undeserving? Is the ghost of Samuel Smiles wisping around our heads as we boldly go where we have been before but under a different name?
And if you think I’m pissed off, you should hear the Poet, who can work up a rant against new Labour worthy of an old-time firebrand preacher. “So you’re not going to vote, either?” I slide into a brief lull as he takes a breath. There’s a sigh, a terrible sigh, and he joins me on the sofa. “I’m going to vote Labour, of course.”
“Because everything else remotely electable is worse.”
Which is what I call apathy. It’s beginning to look to me as if us apathetic stay-at-homes are the nearest thing to a radical movement (or lack of movement) we’re going to get. Indeed, if someone were to form an Apathy Party, I’d be out there on the hustings, campaigning with all the insufficiency of energy I could muster. In the meantime, I am so discouraged by the Poet’s despondent voting plans that I am moved to rise from my sofa, and find myself, after all, most reluctantly shuffling towards the dreaded campaign trail to find out if the dismal truth is that the least worst is as good as it’s possible to get.