A The previous version of me described myself politically as a “pessimistic optimist”. Oxymoron? Yes. Pretentious? Certainly. But it was the most accurate way to characterize a prospect always prepared for the worst, but able to endure it because things might one day get better. At the time, I invested my hope in mass political movements, believing that with the right campaign to strike agreement – or even the party leader – the country would be mobilized and sweeping, vaguely defined change would follow.
Unquestionably, “better” did not happen. During my lifetime, the material conditions of the British have deteriorated significantly. Working poverty has reached record levels; almost one in five poor children lives in a household where all the adults work. Ignore the government’s protests about increased public spending and look at the reality: for millions of people, the standard of living is the worst it has ever been. In real terms, incomes have remained flat or fallen, while the cost of living – or more precisely, the cost of survival – has soared thanks to a sharp increase in almost all basic expenses.
The marked atrophy in our quality of life and the collapse of anchor institutions – local government, higher education, NHS – have contributed to increasing disillusionment about the ability of party politics to create change. Trust in politicians has fallen to its lowest rate on record. In 1944, only 35% of Britons considered politicians to be “outside themselves”; in 2021, a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 63% of Britons now shared this view. Since 2001, voter turnout in general elections has remained consistently lower than in all elections since 1918. Partisan misalignment means that the number of people who once identified strongly with a political party has declined. In 2018, only 9% of the electorate “identified very strongly” with a political party, compared to almost half of the same demographic group in the 1960s.
I’m one of them: I’m not a member or supporter of any party. Previously, I was a Labor supporter, automatically, since I was old enough to understand the basics of the two-party system. At first it was hereditary, as those early political forays often are. Later it was with all the blazing passion and fierce hope a 21-year-old can muster. With the slow erosion of this aspect of my political identity came a crisis of optimism – and the beginning of an internal questioning that would force the formation of my own opinions, rather than simply following what seemed right. just what have been my politics, now I no longer had any parliamentary roots? What did I really believe in? I wanted things to get better – but what did it even do mean? Where should I put all this hope if I didn’t want it to turn into apathy and nihilism?
What I realized is that if you spend too much time zooming out, your vision gets blurry. The necessary optimism that keeps the political self moving seems nearly impossible if you are painfully and obsessively aware of every social ill that needs to be corrected. You can’t care “too much” about it, but you can be rendered immobile by the magnitude of the work ahead of you. Journalist and ardent activist Sarah Woolley once gave me advice that I’ve been swirling around in my head ever since: “Find three causes that are close to your heart,” she said, “and focus you on these.
Amid the muck of our current circumstances, I notice a few green shoots sprouting, in the form of increased nonpartisan political activity from the people around me. My 65 year old mother, retired and living in rural Herefordshire, recently joined a very dynamic local group for women’s equality. Their current struggle, she tells me, is over the critical lack of local sexual violence services, with providers forced to turn away survivors due to lack of resources. Someone messaged me the other day to report that they had joined a tenants’ union, a growing trend: independent tenants’ union Acorn was founded in Bristol in 2014 and has grown significantly since, now having several branches across Great Britain. Localized tenant unions are also gaining popularity; between 2019 and 2020, the London Tenants’ Union doubled its membership, while the Birmingham University Students’ Guild recently launched a Tenants’ Union initiative for 2022.
Elsewhere, I see people volunteering, campaigning, helping out. Most of them do not consider these acts as explicitly “political” (although grassroots is the foundation of politics) because they are not linked to traditional parliamentary parties. Instead, separate goals are attached: a meeting with the West Midlands Police Commissioner; protect a resident from eviction; respond to calls from an evening shift to a debt counseling service.
Is it limiting? Think “small”? Nope; that’s what it takes. “Thinking small” means rebuilding local communities, fractured over years of budget cuts, demographic shifts and divisive rhetoric. It means achieving goals that allow you to move on to the next one, without ceasing to be completely overwhelmed by the big picture. It’s not naivety or denial, but an understanding that sometimes tunnel vision will accomplish more than a mole. A long-term strategy can – and should – go hand in hand with shorter-term goals.
These budding engagements with community action give me a dose of optimism. I’m not unrealistic; it’s hardly a tsunami, or even a sea change. But people are getting involved who weren’t before. They are always invested in this promise of better. For too long, fear has been the main motivation of British politics, driving patterns of disunity and disintegration. Maybe that will never change nationally. Yet those with the ability can always try to make a difference, whatever it looks like, on their doorstep, otherwise it certainly won’t. Maybe hope is just an illusion. So what? Why not give it a shot anyway? We have tried misery and apathy. They bore only rotten fruit.
“Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me,” Lana Del Rey sings at the end of her 2019 album Norman Fucking Rockwell! “But I have it.” I think, against all odds, I still am too.