Elections and weather disasters. There can be few things the Prime Minister fears more. Both require him to step outside the Westminster bubble and make for regions where the great, varied, complex British public appears to roam freely.
There are so many of us out there, awkward and restive people with our own ideas. Many of us show no respect for the grammar of austerity; we regularly break its rules or argue against it. We've stopped listening to Cameron and Osborne in favour of economists who point out that austerity is not working and is, in fact, making things worse. Our uncooperative questions continue to mount, questions about tax justice, drastic and unfair spending cuts, child poverty, the lack of affordable housing, the erosion of trade union rights, the stealthy privatisation of public services. And to take us into 2016, flood defences and the environment.
So there stood David Cameron at year's end, knee-deep in northern flood waters, wading through an uncomfortable series of stage-managed appearances. Mostly, we saw him shaking hands with small groups of rescue workers. The water served as a convenient moat between Castle Dave and the public, allowing him to speak to camera from a familiar and overly rehearsed script. But in York, somewhere in the distance, off-camera, a lone voice could be heard calling out: "No more cuts to public services!" Where was the owner of this brave voice? I imagined her locked up, somewhere along the wall, or one of its gates.
It was a tiny incident, but it underscored the dangerous separation between leader and people. In what Ricardo Blaug has called the "penchant for insularity" that comes with power, the "progressive isolation" of our austerity Prime Minister is all too apparent. Perhaps recalling those freak incidents in which a member of the public got close and told him, on camera, something of life in austerity Britain, Cameron is now visibly wary of us. The result is - for Cameron, Osborne and the other ministers - a "shrinking knowledge" of the effects of Tory policy on the public. This, according to Blaug, is what corruption by power looks like: our leaders come to inhabit a "sealed and self-confirming world; they become aggrandized, dismissive, isolated and unaware." (see Blaug, How Power Corrupts) We struggle too, to spot our own oppression and make ourselves visible. So, we are thankful for that determined voice calling out to Cameron in York.
Still worse for the Prime Minister is that we now have a spokesperson in Parliament. Every Wednesday morning, Jeremy Corbyn stands at the dispatch box and actually asks questions on our behalf - in Parliament of all places! In a startling outbreak of democratic practice, Corbyn gathers questions from Labour members in order to make his own party and the government more accountable to us.
Even some on his own benches are thrown by Corbyn. MPs on both sides have been operating under the illusion that most of us are content to leave the business of politics to our elected representatives. Some MPs, no matter how they voted, were unsettled by the numbers, passion, and outright anger of people calling upon them to vote against tax credit cuts or against air strikes in Syria. On the latter vote, Jess Phillips betrayed this mindset perfectly when she wrote for this paper, "We were elected to do it so other people didn't have to." Forgive us, Jess, for preferring that you not do our thinking for us, for believing you were elected to engage with your constituents and represent their views as closely as possible. That any MP should display such a glaring anti-democratic impulse should give all of us pause next time we enter the voting booth.
If a few Labour MPs are unnerved by Corbyn, the Tory benches have oscillated between smug silence and nervous guffaws when he introduces his weekly questions from the public. Never mind. We, watching at home, can see that they are red-faced with anger. They have long been used to a Chamber in which they felt safe and free, unencumbered by reminders that there are people out there living with the effects of their decisions. We send our questions to Corbyn because we dare to dream of a government that has not forgotten us.
So take heed, Mr Cameron. There are more floods to come. When your appearance in our towns is designed to bolster your poll ratings rather than listen to local people, don't imagine we are fooled. Some of us will call out from behind the visible and invisible walls you have built around you. And some of us will be a few streets away, talking to Jeremy Corbyn, giving him our questions to take back to Westminster.Suggest a correction