People have often told me to keep a diary – how much they regret not having done so and how wonderful it would be in old age to be reminded of the past. And I have tried, dutifully. There must be a dozen glossy notebooks each beginning on 1 January with a five-page entry, and finishing a few pages later. It is a real waste of a notebook.
You’d have thought it could be useful – particularly since I remember so little. I live in the same house in London that I lived in when I was one. My four-year-old son’s school in London was once mine, and I walk him to school by exactly the same route my late father walked with me 43 years ago. That ought to provide material for the analysis of change. Except I don’t know whether that horse chestnut tree on the edge of the square existed then, and whether I too once collected conkers from it. I have to take it on trust that my son’s uniform is the same as mine, and when the teachers ask me how the school has changed, I have to admit I can remember essentially nothing before I was six. So I should keep a diary.
How we became so bland
For a politician, there is a particular point to the kind of anecdotes you put in diaries. Our political language has become ever blander, more abstract, because this is safer. It is safer to write about food banks, or the general idea of “service-users”, than about this particular person in a food bank. Safer to write about relationships in prison than this particular prisoner; to talk about poverty, than sift through the issues of debt and addiction, literacy and employment.
Yet individual lived experience is what allows a politician to test a policy against a real person. Is this addiction course, for example, something that this person I know would actually go on? In fact, is Ben’s real problem addiction – or literacy? And how can you ask those questions if you have not spent many years, carefully focusing on individuals like Ben?
The bland way we talk about people and policy is also one of the reasons the centre-ground of politics is losing way. We are losing out to those politicians who are prepared to offend with blunter language – and abstract concepts can never generate the compassion necessary for the public to support. We are more likely to believe in someone’s misery if we see them in detail, as flawed beings like ourselves.
When I was the prisons minister and talked about sentence reform – how short sentences led to reoffending – I got nowhere. The Daily Mail simply ran the headline: “Minister gives Green Light to criminals.” It was only when I was able to describe a particular prisoner, sitting in his cell with heroin tracks down his arms, back in prison for the eighth time in a year, that I began to convince people that short sentences were not a solution.
Democratic politics requires politicians able to communicate the complexity of life, the ever-present truth in all policy of ignorance, and the risk of failure. And if the politician cannot shape a story, be engaging and even sometimes funny, they will not be able to move an audience. All this is dangerous ground as it involves risk – risk of offending, of betraying confidences, of being misquoted; of discrediting rather than reinforcing the policy.
A deeper kind of experience
I was with a brilliant charity in south London last week (I’m not going to mention them because I suspect they could do without being quoted by politicians). They introduced me to one of their mentors. He had one gold upper tooth and one gold lower tooth. He had been, he said, involved in a gang from the age of 12, and had been arrested and charged – among other things – with murder at 18. He had served time in five prisons and had then decided, when released, that he didn’t want to be involved again. He went on to work many painful hours in jobs – initially at Asda – that paid him much less than he had earned dealing.
We talked for just under an hour. He answered every question, precisely and patiently. He discussed bravado, and friends whose knife wounds had left them with colostomy bags; his mother’s three jobs and how he as a father would try to keep his own son away from crime. And I felt the 30 years of deeper experience on which he could draw – an experience I could never touch and which it is impossible to describe except as wisdom.
But how do you distil that encounter and a thousand others into something that can be communicated as part of democratic politics? How do you move the conversation on from the practical problems of management and delivery – changing models of neighbourhood policing, for example – to advocate for a new model of more active citizenship, of community and democracy. How do you harness the strength of that young man on behalf of his city? Can you lead people in a joint project that transforms a city without getting lost in the details of how to organise citizens’ assemblies?
Dom and the dim sum
Here we come to Dominic Cummings, who managed to reduce anxieties about the NHS, immigration and sovereignty to the three words “take back control”. I met him only once when we had a dim sum lunch in Chinatown during the leadership race. He advised me to say that “we need to do three things: get Brexit done, defeat Jeremy Corbyn and unite the country”. So crisp and compelling was the pitch, and the advice given so freely, that within two days I saw Sajid Javid tweet: “Here are three things we need to do…” And then Jeremy Hunt, and then Boris Johnson, and the rest. I have Cummings to thank for the fact that I am now an Independent, trying to run for mayor of London – and I don’t think I will be the beneficiary of his advice again soon.
This article appears in the 30 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone