The drama in Westminster may be irresistible but real politics is happening elsewhere in Britain
The underlying source of today’s unrest is not to be found in Erskine May, the manual of parliamentary practice, or even the EU referendum
‘The disconnect between politics on the ground and politics as it is understood by the people who manage and interpret it long predates the current difficulties.’ Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
At this year’s London Marathon, a runner dressed as Big Ben got stuck under advertising hoardings as he reached the finish line. For the past couple of years, the real Big Ben has been clad in scaffolding, while business in the House of Commons has been intermittently interrupted by fires and water leaks. As the UK’s institutional politics crumbles, the gods are writing the metaphors for us.
How can we make some sense out of our current tumult – this feverish period in which an old politics is imploding before our eyes and we can feel the birth pangs of contested futures?
At moments such as this, the temptation is to seek the answers solely at the most visible site of all this chaos: among the parties, personalities and parlour games of Westminster. There is an important role for incisive lobby journalism that shows us the behind-the-scenes workings of the powerful, not least when the traditional structures of British politics are being detonated, and a prime minister has been forced by the supreme court to return to parliament after illegally shutting it down.
But – with some honourable exceptions – our obsessive attention to the SW1A postcode often comes at the expense of covering “politics” as a much wider and deeper phenomenon, something that fundamentally shapes the lives of people up and down the country. It is in this world, beyond Westminster, that our present crisis has developed – and it is out here that the most critical struggles to resolve the crisis will unfold.
The financial crash of 2008 transformed politics in the UK. An economy that prioritised markets, frictionless finance and relentless competition began to unravel. A political accord that trumpeted efficiency and prosperity smashed up against the longest period of falling incomes and wage stagnation in recorded economic history.
But despite all this, throughout the early 2010s the grammar and syntax of formal political power stayed the same, as did the lens through which the media tended to evaluate and report on it. Internal coalition squabbles made the headlines, and so did Ed Miliband’s eating habits. There was less space afforded to those at the sharp end of late-capitalist Britain: the young people spending three times more on housing than their grandparents did; the occupants of tents and sleeping bags that proliferated under bridges.
The underlying source of today’s unrest is not to be found in Erskine May, the manual of parliamentary practice, or even the EU referendum. It’s a consequence of the fact that three in five 16- to 25-year-olds are now overwhelmed by stress and one in four feels “hopeless”; that average household debt is at a record high; that two-thirds of those living below the breadline in the UK today have jobs, but jobs that do not pay enough.
A political paradigm that has dominated our world since the late 1970s is now collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions, leading millions to cast around for alternatives. But to many of those in power, and to the established pundits who analysed their movements, politics initially staggered on as if little had changed. For some, the first years of post-2008 disorder – marked by austerity, riots and the steady rise of the far right – are now even celebrated as a golden age of sensible governance.
That disconnect – between politics on the ground and politics as it is understood by the people who manage and interpret it – long predates the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership, or the divisions over Brexit, or Boris Johnson’s shambolic authoritarian populism. And it explains why, when institutional politics finally caught up with the turmoil below and our electoral landscape began erupting, so many political experts were confounded. “I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now,” observed Tony Blair in 2016.
It explains, too, why, for all the noise and breathless 24/7 news coverage currently emanating from parliament and Downing Street, viewers and readers rarely come away with a clearer idea of how we got here, or where we might be going next. Many have been glued to coverage of the government’s legal imbroglio and the factional machinations around it, but analysis of what precipitated all this is usually limited to a recap of the previous moves in a high-level chess game. There is little mention of new forms of political mobilisation that are being forged from the crisis, emerging from material demands that our extant political structures seem unable to meet.
In recent years I’ve been travelling all over the country listening to the stories of those who, a long way from Westminster, are reanimating politics in remarkable ways: from teenagers holding their own radical, grassroots education courses, to new unions of private renters taking on landlords, and insurgent labour movements led by those on the frontline of low-pay Britain. As Layla, a young woman in Manchester, described these eruptions to me: “All these experts say that people are ‘anti-politics’ right now, but what we’re seeing is the epitome of politics.” She is one of many for whom a traditional path – from university to a secure job and eventually a home of one’s own – has warped, and who is determined to fight against the cancellation of her future.
But narratives such as Layla’s get drowned out by MPs hurling insults at each other and the intrigue around special advisers. Politics is still being served up to citizens as something to be passively consumed from afar, other than during occasional set-pieces at the ballot box, rather than as an ongoing battle over what kind of country will arise from the rubble of a failed consensus.
So this is an appeal to all of us who write about politics: to do a better job of linking the bedlam in one decrepit building with the upheaval everywhere else. That involves proactively seeking out stories from those situated beyond the radar of conventional media coverage, including independent media outlets, and diversifying newsrooms – not just in terms of the racial, gender and class backgrounds of personnel, but also the prevailing thinking about what is politically possible.
There are concrete proposals regarding the democratisation of our media – more investment in local reporting, for example, as well as new taxes on tech firms to fund investigative and public interest journalism – that are worthy of consideration. But they must be accompanied by a shift in the way we conceptualise politics: not as a free-floating spectacle, but rather as something grounded in time and place, capable of altering all our lives, and capable, too, of being altered.
In the 1930s and 1940s, legions of baseball correspondents in the American South filed dutiful articles detailing the twists and turns of their game. Hardly any of them ever commented on the fact that US baseball leagues were racially segregated, or that segregation was being progressively undermined by a nascent civil rights movement that would go on to change the country’s history. They operated within the system they reported on, and rarely questioned its underlying structure or the wider social forces that were rendering it an anachronism.
A similar category error has characterised British political journalism in recent years, and our current troubles are – at least in part – a consequence of it. If we are to overcome them, that mistake needs to be addressed; at the moment, it is just being repeated. – Guardian
Jack Shenker is a writer based in London and Cairo. His latest book is Now We Have Your Attention