As last night’s election results flickered onto my television screen late last night and in the small hours of this morning, I started to recite Neil Kinnocks 1987 election night speech to myself out loud. I warn you that you will have pain, when healing and relief depend upon payment… I warn you that you will be cold, when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford… I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to grow old. I wasn’t even born when he gave his famous, damning indictment of the incoming Thatcher government, and yet, history is coming back to repeat itself all over again.
In some ways, a landslide majority seems so final. Well that’s that, then, I wrote on my personal Facebook profile at 7am. It’s clear, decisive, brutal, and for those of us who have suffered at the sharp end of nine years of Conservative austerity cuts, it’s terrifying and bewildering to realise that we now face five more years of the same.
130,000 disabled people dead. 11,000 fewer firefighters. A 40% cut in the number of Police Community Support Officers. 800 libraries closed. 894 childrens centres, closed. Domestic violence refuges defunded and you guessed it – closed. Social care services stripped to the bone. Teachers setting up GoFundMe pages for toilet rolls, pencils and exercise jotters. Post Offices closing, and youth centres, and community centres. Amazon wish lists being sent home in school bags for books for the school library. A sharp rise in the increase of racist and homophobic abuse, violent attacks, and other hate crimes. The fabric of our society is threadbare, straining at what little is left of the seams, struggling to contain the weight of the weary, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden and the disparate.
What can we do? The cry echoed across social media on Friday morning. People are angry. ‘I don’t have any fight left in me any more’, they said again and again. It’s not enough to simply ‘warn you that you will have pain’; after nine years of ideological austerity, 4.2 million children in poverty, thousands dead, countless many more cold and hungry and sick and suffering, the warnings will come too late. We need to do more than soothsay, or wry proclamations about how awful it will all be. We need a manifesto for rebuilding a truly broken Britain.
It’s natural to take time to grieve. Grieve for those we have lost, dead just weeks after being declared fit for work by a cruel system of gaslighting by the DWP. Grieve for David Clapson, the former soldier who died as a result of his life-saving insulin being stored in an unplugged fridge. David died with just £3.44 in his bank account, a can of sardines, and a pile of CVs. He fought for his country, but his country didn’t fight for him.
Grieve for Stephanie Bottrill, the mother who deliberately walked into the path of an articulated lorry, after telling friends she felt under pressure from her local authority to move house as a result of the Bedroom Tax.
Grieve for Stephen Smith, who weighed just six stone when he died, emaciated and destroyed. The DWP had declared him fit for work mere weeks before.
Grieve for the cancer patients, sanctioned and stripped of their paltry benefits for missing a Job Centre appointment to attend lifesaving chemotherapy. Grieve for the man who was blithely told by DWP assessors that his amputated foot could grow back, and the onus was on him to prove otherwise. Grieve at the headstone of our common decency, the agonising slow demise of community and solidarity.
And then, when the weight of grief starts to subside, we can make a conscious decision to help the vulnerable in our country and our communities, in any way that we can. Charity is no more than a sticking plaster for the cuts made to the welfare budgets, public services. We shouldn’t need to be spontaneously bailing out cruel austerity cuts and defunded vital services, and yet, here we are. Like military medics on a battlefield, we patch our comrades up with whatever we have to hand, ducking the fire and heat and flying shrapnel and doing our best, not knowing when the next blast will come or who it will hurt, nor from where.
Donate to food banks. The easiest way to do this is to visit the Trussell Trust website, and type in your postcode to find your nearest one, and the opening hours. There will also be food banks in your community that are not affiliated with the Trussell Trust network, and they’ll need a hand too. You can donate money online, or food and toiletries in person or at many major supermarkets. In an ideal world, foodbanks would be consigned to the history books, as it is truly a scourge on our society that in the sixth richest economy in the world, men, women, children, families, are at risk of starvation were it not for the kindness of their neighbours. First we feed the people, then we solve the underpinning reasons why they ended up there in the first place.
Then, campaign for living wages. Sign any and every petition that you see, and seek out those that you don’t. Put pressure on big businesses to pay real living wages; join a union if you have one at work, and fight for your worth and to be able to have a decent standard of living.
Fight for our NHS. Turn up to the picket lines at your local hospital in solidarity. Attend the local council meetings if you are able, and scrutinize the minutes to see what is trying to be slipped through the back doors at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon when nobody is paying attention. Check who your MP is, and then cross-check their Register Of Interests against any shares in private healthcare firms, to see what you’re up against. Stay engaged, read the news, keep abreast of proposed changes in your area. Visit your MP at their surgery and discuss your concerns – even more effective if you manage to cobble together a group to do so. Ask them to defend the NHS in Parliament, to represent you as their constituent. Join a local campaign group – 999 Call For NHS is a non-partisan group with an interactive map to help you find campaigns near to you. Follow NHSMillion on Twitter to connect with others, stay focused and keep informed.
Get to know your neighbours. Pop round for a cup of tea, give them your mobile number for emergencies, or ask them to pop in to you if you can’t get out so easily. Reconnect with your community – I moved into my home 9 months ago. Despite my online bravado and torrent of words, I’m unbelievably shy, with autism, and severe anxiety. Years of hiding from bailiffs makes it difficult for me to answer my own front door, but I realise that now is the perfect time of year to attempt to break the ice. I’ve written Christmas cards to everyone in my street, introducing our family, adding my phone number, and inviting people to pop in in the evenings and introduce themselves. I’ve been posting a few at a time, holding my breath, hoping simultaneously that everybody and nobody takes me up on it. But when I was poor, and starving, and sleeping on a floor with no heating and no lightbulbs, my neighbours had no idea. Nobody did. So get to know your neighbours, and keep an eye on any who might be vulnerable, unwell, struggling to carry their shopping, and if anyone suddenly retreats, isolates themselves or starts behaving oddly, ask them if they’re okay. Poverty is isolating; I sometimes spent several days in a row sitting at home alone, staring into space wrapped in my coat in the cold and the dark, willing myself to disappear. Nobody noticed, because nobody came round to see how I was.
In an increasingly selfish and polarised world, we need to take care of one another. And not just people we agree with, but everyone. Fighting for what is right and decent means doing it for everyone, not just those whose worldview matches our own. ‘But why should I try to make the world better for people who have made it so much worse for me?’ a friend asked me this afternoon. ‘Because that’s the only way to ensure it gets better for all of us’, I replied. Hatred is consuming, distracting, and draining. Don’t waste your time and energy on it.
That’s not to say don’t be angry. I’m angry. I’m apoplectic, despairing, furious, and afraid. So take that anger, the burning injustice, the white-hot apoplexy, and use it to fuel social change. For everyone, not just the many, and certainly not just the few.
But first, we rest. We recharge. We reconnect with one another. We hold one another up, and steady, and put one foot in front of the other. We make sure that along the dark and dangerous path that lies ahead now for so many of the most vulnerable in our society, nobody has to walk alone.
This is an extended version of an essay I wrote on Facebook, asking people to donate to the Trussell Trust. At the time of writing, I have raised over £26,000 on the first day alone – you can donate at facebook.com/bootstrapcook – and if you don’t have anything spare to give right now, please consider sharing the link so others can help out.