For this, our second week of election campaign ThinkIns, we returned to Birmingham and Grimsby, and held our first gatherings in Glasgow and South Cambridgeshire. Though many other issues and anxieties arose, the thread connecting the four discussions around the country was one of Tortoise’s five main themes, Wealth: work, tax, inequality, property, and the role of government in the nurturing – or destruction – of prosperity.
Although our editors were there to listen, they also had something on their minds: a recent report called Feel poor, work more by the Resolution Foundation think-tank. Its argument is multilayered, although the short version is that Britain’s recent employment boom is explained in large part by need – for money. As the graphics below show, people are working longer hours in order to make ends meet. This is particularly true of certain groups, such as mothers in couples.
Why do we mention this? Because it was striking how often the same story was told at our ThinkIns. Voters are feeling poorer, they are working more.
Last week, we were in Birmingham Yardley. This week, we visited Ark St Alban’s Academy, in the nearby constituency of Birmingham Ladywood, where Labour’s Shabana Mahmood is defending a majority of close to 29,000.
There were 40 pupils aged 16-19 gathered in the school’s library; articulate, intelligent and full of ideas for the future – though conspicuously less interested in Westminster politics, which they regarded with general disdain.
- Jobs. There was no shortage of impressive professional ambition in the room: these teenagers want to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, medical researchers and technologists. Interestingly, they were not perturbed by the march of AI and automation, confident that advanced tech would generate new forms of value and new forms of employment.
- Working hours. The pupils expressed much concern for their parents – and anxiety about their own futures – on this front. One girl said that her mother had been forced to take time off her job as a primary school teacher because of overwork and associated mental health problems. Another had done work experience with an A&E doctor and was appalled by the hours she was expected to work. Naturally, there was a general sadness that these sorts of demands meant less family time – prompting the hope that the living wage would be raised so that employees did not need to work so many hours to make ends meet.
- Property. This was probably the liveliest section of the debate, as the students expressed anger at the “hoarding” of wealth in bricks and mortar by previous generations and the corresponding failure by successive governments to replenish the housing supply. Some expected not to be able to afford to buy their own homes until they were 35 or 40. They had no faith in the routine promises of the main parties to build new housing.
- Inequality. There was near-unanimity that it was morally indefensible that the numbers of billionaires and food banks in the UK had increased simultaneously. Alongside their anger at tax evasion by the rich, the students identified the Grenfell Tower tragedy as a symbol of general indifference to the poor. They were no less appalled that plush hotels in Birmingham had installed spikes outside their premises to prevent the homeless sleeping nearby.
- Taxation. As they looked ahead to life in the workforce, the pupils expressed a general readiness to pay higher tax if and when they found themselves in well-paid jobs (though one argued for flat taxes and said that entrepreneurs should not pay the price for the “bad decisions” of others).
- State intervention. There was a striking level of disdain for all the “free stuff” being promised by the main parties. “They make these pledges,” said one student, “but you know they won’t deliver.” These young people were well aware that “more debt means more tax for our generation”.
A final point: not surprisingly, climate emergency was a high priority for this group of teenagers: interestingly, however, they expressed little enthusiasm for Extinction Rebellion (XR) or Greta Thunberg, comparing XR unfavourably to the civil rights movement of the Sixties.
We’ll be returning to Birmingham Yardley before polling day – do please join us.
3 December, 6:30pm, Arthur Moore Hall, book here.
In the upstairs room of a pub in the carefully manicured village of Grantchester, just outside Cambridge, we might have felt as far as it’s possible to get on this small island from Grimsby or inner-city Birmingham. Instead, what was most striking was how connected we felt.
Grantchester is in the South Cambridgeshire constituency where Heidi Allen has been the MP since 2015 (she is now stepping down). Though this has traditionally been a safe-as-houses Conservative seat (and Remain-voting), the question in this election is whether it will go on the same spiritual journey as Allen herself, away from the Conservatives towards the Lib Dems.
- Effects of Brexit. We could have talked only about Brexit. It was front of mind for many of the people in the (strongly Remain) room and there’s still heat in the argument. For those connected with education or the NHS there was a real sense of impending disaster.
- Wealth. We talked about what keeps people in South Cambridgeshire awake at night: running to stand still, financially; the prospect of their children’s lives being less secure and fulfilling than their own; the stress of daily life in a part of the world which has boomed economically but where transport and public services have failed to keep up.
- Inequality. A significant issue, not because of visible poverty in the area but because of a sense that there used to be safety nets to help people who aren’t well off – affordable housing schemes, for example – but they’re not there any more.
- Declining support networks. There was a strong smell of decay from the top. Terrible political leadership; local authorities starved of cash; bucks being passed down to layers of government or voluntary organisations not equipped to deal with them; the Parish Council asked to pick up the pieces.
- Community breakdown. How did the fabric of life get so torn? Why are there no Post Offices in villages which used to have one? Why have bus services stopped running? A million disconnected decisions have left South Cambridgeshire feeling slightly economically poorer, but hugely worse off in ways that count for more.
We’ll be returning to South Cambridgeshire twice before the election. Please come along.
26 November, 6:30pm, The Hub Community Centre, book here.
10 December, 6:30pm, The Blue School, book here.
Grimsby is often seen as a bellwether of the strength of political anger: will a Labour Leave-voting constituency forgo its traditional party loyalty for the sake of Brexit? It is a question which misreads the complexity and depth of people’s discontent.
On Tuesday, in the corner room of Grimsby Holiday Inn, the word “Brexit” was uttered once, in passing, and never repeated. Many faces of the town were in the room – sixth formers, community organisers, retirees, volunteers, workers – and nearly all felt let down. The economy, the council, government: very little up there worked for them.
- Decrepit houses. This part of the discussion naturally focused on East Marsh, one of the most deprived areas in the whole of Europe, let alone Grimsby. The lack of leadership in the ward is typified by its housing: old, uncared for, and of poor quality. A local architect was commissioned by the council to write up a plan, praised by others in the room, to refurbish 15 housing blocks in the area. As far as he is aware, the plans still sit, untouched, in a council drawer somewhere.
- “Running in treacle.” The Resolution Foundation diagnosed people’s experience of the job market in four words: “Feel poor, work more.” In the room on Tuesday night, a local seafood employee gave his own four words. They amounted to the same: “Like running in treacle.” A young couple who work 78 hours a week and can barely afford to keep a roof over their heads, and certainly not start a family, is a sign of sickness in the economy.
- No recovery. The financial crash still weighs heavily on the town. “Things have just gotten worse and worse since the financial crisis,” said one attendee. Many others agreed. Poor job security, wages that can’t keep up with the rising cost of living, bad prospects particularly for working women. It is no wonder that many young people want out. “There’s this idea,” said a sixth-form student, “that if you come back to your hometown you’ve failed.”
But there is hope, as well as a pride and energy in the town. Local initiatives, such as East Marsh United, want government support to flourish but are not waiting on it to make a start. “This is where we live, this is our home,” said the chair of East Marsh United, a community group trying to renovate housing in the area. “Pensioners shouldn’t have to suffer, young people shouldn’t have to suffer, and, when it comes down to it, us humans shouldn’t have to suffer. That’s it. Full stop. No argument.”
We’ll be back in Grimsby twice before the election. Please join us.
3 December, 6:30pm, Holiday Inn Express, book here.
10 December, 6:30pm, Grimsby Telegraph, book here.
Polly Curtis and David Taylor
It started with a show of hands. Who wants an independent Scotland? Almost every one of the dozen-or-so people gathered in a side room of the Crookston Hotel in Glasgow – or, if we’re going to be all political about it, in the constituency of Glasgow South West – raised a palm. Who wants to remain in the European Union? Likewise.
But, as the ThinkIn progressed, any lazy presumptions of consensus in Scotland were thoroughly dismantled.
- Scottish complexities. Everyone emphasised the complexity of Scotland’s political map. It may seem as though the indy-lovin’, Remain-longin’ SNP are sitting pretty, expected to win more than the 35 (of 59) seats that they secured last time, but we shouldn’t forget some of the undercurrents that could affect the vote. There were stories of shifting allegiances: friends-of-friends who used to vote Labour but are now turning Tory. Tactical voting: Green Party members who are likely to vote SNP. And even living proof of different political priorities: one of our guests, Danyaal Raja, is a young student and a candidate for the Brexit Party.
- Different types of nationalism. This complexity is worth highlighting, not least because, as several people said, it’s often covered up. Take support for Scottish independence. This is not a single mass movement. There are those who want an independent Scotland that’s open to the rest of the world, and those who want an independent Scotland that’s more closed, as well as a thousand shades of belief in between. And yet, having the SNP so prominent in Westminster can mean that one vision of independence gets more attention than the others – and that other, non-constitutional Scottish issues don’t get as much airtime as they should, either.
- Praise for PR. It was strange, I must say, to be in a room where people talked about proportional representation and alternative votes and boundary changes quite so readily and enthusiastically. But this is a feature of Scottish politics: voters have had a taste of proportional representation – through elections to the devolved Scottish Parliament – and find that it contrasts sharply with the first-past-the-post system used for the UK’s general elections. Almost everyone agreed that the complexities of Scottish politics would be better accounted for by some sort of proportional system.
- Persistent sectarianism. Many of Scotland’s divides are enlivening its politics, adding to the sense of excitement and import around this general election. Some, however, are more destructive. One of our guests, Nehal, talked about the persistence of sectarianism in Glasgow – which is, in her words, a “daily” problem. Office banter about Rangers and Celtic can quickly spill over into arguments about religion, Ireland and even Palestine.
We’ll be returning to Glasgow twice more during the election campaign – to continue the conversation. It’d be great to see you there.
26 November, 6.30pm, Crookston Hotel, book here.
10 December, 6.30pm, The Lighthouse, book here.