By Tim Hardy
“I’m really sorry to interrupt but I couldn’t help overhearing what you were saying. I’m genuinely curious. You seem like nice people. Why would you vote Conservative?”
On the London Underground, you don’t speak to strangers unless you’re looking for money. The atmosphere, however, is relaxed. It’s just past nine and we’re in one of those rare, almost empty carriages that pepper the otherwise rammed morning commute since everyone, rather than waiting for the one in its slipstream, piles frantically into the first overcrowded train to arrive. The man and woman greet my interruption with amusement rather than the normal, instinctive, cold revulsion of over-stressed Londoners.
Before I spoke, she had been telling her colleague about how she’d volunteered to campaign for the Conservative Party at the last election – even though she hadn’t been entirely sure what their policies were. This pricked my interest.
“Are you a politician?” she asks.
I shake my head and explain what it is I do. “We’re from different ends of the political spectrum but I’m not trying to make any kind of point. I’m just genuinely interested,” I assure her.
She responds to my polite request with a charming frankness. “I don’t know. There’s a pressure to vote, you feel stupid if you don’t. I don’t really know much about the different parties. I guess you just vote for the same person your parents and friends vote for. We’re not taught this at school. We’re taught about religion and sex education but not about our own political system.”
She’s a graduate, a professional – yet her education has not prepared her for how to participate in a democracy. It’s a complaint I heard voiced during the discussion after my session at the free school. Our education system is failing us.
That evening, I am running late after work and forced to take a taxi rather than walk in order to get to a meeting on time. The cab driver is ill, his voice a pained whisper. He apologises unnecessarily for it. I commiserate. I had laryngitis earlier this year and it’s frustrating. In spite of the pain, he insists on chatting and I’m happy to talk with him.
He works hard and is proud of it. “When I got the knowledge 20 years ago I thought yes, that’s it, I’m my own boss now. And you know what? I’m the hardest boss I’ve ever worked for.”
As we pass through the city I ask him what he thinks of the bankers. I’m curious. He’s a self-made man, hard-working and determined: the kind of person Conservatives like to hold up as their Stakhanovite ideal. I am not sure how he will respond.
“I get a lot of them,” he says, gesturing at the crowds of suited women and men jostling each other out of the way on the pavements around us. “You’d be shocked by what they say. Really horrified. The way they see us…”
He trails off. I push. “Tell me more!”
He points to the bulb and the sticker that explains “When this light is on, the driver can hear you.”
“They see the light’s off, and they think I can’t hear – or maybe they just don’t care. The things they say.” He pauses. “They call us plebs. No, not plebs. What’s the word the Russians use? Peasants! They call us peasants. ‘The peasants don’t like our bonuses, well fuck them‘, they say. ‘I don’t work hard just to be paid like any fucking peasant.'”
It’s a portrait of unrepentant greed. It matches the image presented by Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond when he refused to apologise for the unthinkable bills these charlatans ran up as they gorged themselves until they were sick, then, like a bunch of spoiled Bullingdon boys, did a runner leaving the rest of us to face the damage.
He starts to warm to the theme as we make our way along Shoreditch High Street and suits give way to asymmetric haircuts and elaborate, sometimes comical, facial hair. He is horrified by the coalition. “It’s like Thatcher again, only worse. Then it was the milk, now it’s the school meals. And some. The things they’ve done to the students, the disabled. It’s not right.”
But what is the alternative? He has no time for Labour. “They’re all as bad as each other. They had their chance and they did nothing.” He pauses. “They’re not as bad as this lot, mind.”
I tell him I’ve been really impressed by the Greens recently and he becomes animated. He doesn’t know anything about them and wants to know more.
“I don’t ever hear anything about them,” he tells me sadly. “The papers and the television just tell you about the same two main parties. They never talk about any of the others.”
We’re not trained by our education system on how to participate and our media conspires to keep us ignorant. Is there any wonder our elected representative hold their promises to us with such contempt? There are alternatives, we just never hear about them.
Has there ever been a more critical time to redress this than now? A minority Conservative government, propped up by Liberal Democrats, is using a crisis that was caused by the recklessness of their own backers to justify a vicious, ideological assault on society. The same pattern of the rich punishing the poor for their own mistakes is being repeated around the world.
Networked technology has many roles to play in the progressive cause. The possible fragility of the web is a concern. The relationship between providing information and driving real-world action is problematic and controversial. But, however much the cynics might sneer, the importance of the internet in keeping us informed and educated must never be underestimated.