Election week reflections - not evil, just wrong.
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
In my social media circles, sometimes there seems to be the perception that Conservative politicians are all uncaring, power hungry and evil. I don't think that's true. There are some like that, no doubt; but it's not been my impression of many of those I've met.
The other week, for example, I was at a hustings in Meriden constituency (where Stephen Caudwell is the Green Party candidate). I met Saqib Bhatti, who is replacing the outgoing MP, Caroline Spelman, as the Conservative candidate and is clear favourite to become the next MP.
He introduced himself to me, and mentioned that he'd heard I'd been a UFC fighter. We had a brief chat about MMA. He seemed friendly and pleasant, perhaps a little nervous, slightly younger than me. Like many of the Conservative councillors and activists I've met this year, I get the impression that he wants what he thinks is best for the country.
The hustings was taking place in north Solihull, in an area where there's considerable deprivation and life expectancy lags 12 years behind wealthier areas of the same constituency. The questions, predictably, focused on public services, inequality, and the impact that a decade of austerity has had on some of the most vulnerable in our society. As one person after another talked about their personal experiences as a result of the cuts made by the Conservative government, Saqib looked more and more uncomfortable, and his answers got shorter and shorter. Coming face to face with people at the sharp end of the policies that he was there to defend seemed to be a new experience for him, and not one that he was enjoying. Eventually all he had left was "I'm sorry that's happened to you. If I were your MP, I'd listen to what you're telling me and do my best to help". At the end, his election agent* hurried him out of the hall quickly, complaining that the questions had been "very biased".
I don't think he's uncaring or a terrible person. More importantly, I think he, and the Conservatives, are wrong.
I think they're wrong about economics. Running a national economy is nothing at all like managing your household finances (a comparison my Conservative opponent made several times during our hustings). Austerity was a political choice, not an economic inevitability.
I think they're wrong about Brexit, and the impact that this will have on our country; and especially on those who are less well off.
I think they're wrong about poverty and inequality, in seeing it more as a result of individual choices than systemic social conditions, and in believing that people need to be coerced with the threat of destitution into contributing to society.
I think they are wrong about crime and anti-social behaviour, in believing that it can be fixed by ever tougher punishments, without looking first at the social conditions which create the fertile ground for it to take root.
I think they're wrong about the environment, and that they underestimate the urgency with which we need to act to protect it for future generations.
I think they're wrong about what it takes to build a thriving community. In order to live together well, we must all have a stake in that society. When large numbers of people are marginalised, disempowered and disenfranchised, that's when communities become increasingly fragmented. Building the kind of society that I believe most of us want to live in takes investment: investment in people and investment in public services. Because when the rot takes hold and small problems turn into bigger, more serious problems, those of us fortunate enough to be comfortably well off may be able to shield ourselves from some of the immediate effects, but we can never buy our way out. The truth is that we have only one planet, and we all depend on each other.
And I hope they are wrong about voters. Conservative politicians may not always see the connection between Conservative policy and the consequences of that for people and for communities. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing; politics is tribal in nature, and every political party has its blind spots. But I hope that on Thursday, enough voters will see beyond the soundbites. We CAN do better.
[*Edit: since writing this, I've been informed that this was not Saqib's election agent but someone else. I apologise to Saqib's election agent for the mistake.]