For ten years I’ve been knocking on doors – many thousands of doors – asking people what they want. The question is easy – and central to our democracy. But the answers are hard, and hard to act on.
Sometimes people don’t want to answer because they are in the middle of cooking, or sleeping after a night shift, or are not wearing any clothes. Most, although happy to talk, are uncertain how to describe exactly what they want – in their complicated lives where so much is simultaneously going wrong and right. Put on the spot, standing on the threshold, minds go blank.
Just recently, in Camden, north London, my conversation with a woman began with the damage done to the pavement by tree roots. And then slowly expanded into a discussion of the local school, of cycle superhighways and what makes a neighbourhood beautiful. Her central anxiety was about the division between rich and poor, between her street and the estate. She wanted to contribute to youth clubs and community action, and she wanted an easy way to do it, that connected her not to a national charity but to people living nearby. She suggested that she’d be happy to give up two hours to spend with an elderly person each week if there was an app that connected her to that person. But she wanted it to be local.
How is any of this captured in a political manifesto, with its unreadable pages of technocratic policy, wrapped in a three-word phrase; the manifesto that has on its cover “Get Britain working”, “Get Brexit done”, “For the many not the few”? And inside is a thousand-layered pastry of acronyms, new units, spending pledges, taxation changes, nudges, threats and promises; a million on this, a billion on that, more police, or debt financing for shared-ownership starter-homes.
There are two things we often want that are rarely brought together. First, action: new Piccadilly line signalling in London, the telephone number of a local policeman, clean streets; things that run well, politicians who don’t always blame someone else. But we also want something larger, which addresses our longer lives, touching on mental health and loneliness, and on why our lives so often feel less than we imagined. We don’t want politicians talking in highfalutin language; we want a sense of the changes they would bring.
We want to be helped to love our neighbourhood – but in another shyer and less political way, we would like to be better at loving our neighbours.
This article appears in the 04 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want