“The British do not expect happiness. I had the impression, all the time that I lived there, that they do not want to be happy, they want to be right,” once remarked the actor and raconteur Quentin Crisp.
The fact Labour’s manifesto has been met by such steely incredulity is, by Crisp’s logic at least, not surprising at all. The British would rather extend their own misery than be wrong.
Rather than take seriously the manifesto’s bold measures to tackle the climate crisis, to reverse failed privatisation, extend nationalisation, and to give us all a four-day week, the focus of debate has remained squarely in the region of whether it’s realistic. Conversations I’ve had on the doorstep, squabbles over Twitter, heated discussions with mistrustful friends, too often hinge on the same questions: is it credible? is it possible? And that most pernicious line of enquiry: but how much will it cost?
Of course, many pundits and politicians bring these misgivings to the debate in bad faith out of fear of losing their livelihoods in the event of a Labour government. Take Jo Swinson on the Question Time leaders’ special, who actively enjoined the audience to suspect anything even slightly beyond the status quo.
“A lot of this stuff sounds good,” she said. “But can it actually be delivered? Do you actually in your heart of hearts believe that those sums add up?” The strategy is to make the audience doubt even their faintest instinct to demand more as being wholly delusional. Sadly, so many of those who would benefit most from the programme set out by Labour repeat these doubts as if righteous misery were preferable to taking a chance.
There seems to be something guilty in the British psyche that prevents us as a nation from accepting that a three-day weekend is a fair demand; that our trains should be on time; that properly funded health and social care is a right; that free broadband is both possible and well-deserved.
But perhaps the answer is not so hard and fast as all that. We continue to venerate the NHS – so why do we continue to swallow the Tory line that more good things are simply not possible?
The answer, in short, is austerity. Austerity has led to a general decline in life expectancy. It has led to an increase in poor mental health alongside a decline in services, as well as serious spike in child poverty. It has ushered in a rise in zero-hour contracts, as well as an attack on the threadbare benefits that pass as disability welfare.
But austerity has also been an attack on our self-esteem. We no longer believe we deserve good things.
Is it any wonder? Austerity is punitive and abusive. It tells us our lives are worthless. It tells us we don’t deserve decent jobs, schools, hospitals, community centres or libraries; we are not worth the basic things that make our day-to-day survivable, let alone bearable.
Like an abusive parent or partner, the Tory government creates suffering then tells the recipient it’s their fault for experiencing it. You are to blame for problems that are unequivocally systemic in origin. It was your credit card spending that got us into this mess, not a financialised system dependent on private debt. Austerity is the necessary result of your bad economic decisions, not the political choice of a class bound to the interests of finance and big business.
“We are all in this together” went the refrain: we each share an equal portion of the blame, therefore we all must suffer. Of course, the implication of such a logic is that those who have benefitted from austerity – the investment bankers, the vulture capitalists, the men who got us into this mess – are more or less exempt from blame.
After nine years of spending cuts and chronic underinvestment, it’s hardly surprising – though nonetheless distressing, that we as a nation talk ourselves out of genuine change. We have been ground down to believe that something as transformational and hopeful as the Labour manifesto is too good to be true.
Faith and hope may at times be overrated, but they are undeniably necessary – without them we get a hard Brexit and paltry pledges to scrap parking fees on hospitals that are only set to be further privatised. The Tories have a programme of cynicism and decay, their campaign a perverse inversion of Tony Blair’s relentlessly positive “things can only get better“: things can only get worse.
We have been taught that we do not deserve hope, that we do not deserve change, that we do not deserve good things. In this election, a vote for Labour is not just a vote for a set of policies; it’s a vote for the value of each and every one of us.