The arrival of December naturally marked the excited countdown to Christmas but it also highlighted the vast divisions and pain currently permeating Britain. And they are not easy to hide.
Early in the month, a series of Conservative MPs tweeted pictures of donating at local food banks. It was supposed to play on Christian messages of generosity and neighbourliness but it was a political own goal they should have anticipated. A maelstrom of anger and outrage descended on them, correctly pointing out how their welfare cuts and austerity programme atomised communities, drove working families food banks and promoted individualism over the collective good.
Food banks, after all, are not a sign of a self-sustaining community but an utterly abandoned one, left to fend for itself against the brutal free market. To the backdrop of poverty wages, zero-hour contracts, extortionate rents and high energy bills, many families have found employment unable to steer them clear of poverty, and a government preferring to chastise them for not cooking properly or having too many children, rather than lending a compassionate hand.
To further illustrate the sense of Britain’s social fabrics now frayed too much, Andrew Marr later delivered a plea for the nation to fight the homelessness crisis. This is the social tragedy which has been rising and unfolding before our eyes for the past eight years. Every year it has risen, London seeing sharp climbs. The high streets line up with them, as do the stations and park benches. Beneath bridges and lonely archways. They are there but forgotten, except for when they’re being attacked. The rise in homelessness is an indicator of Britain’s housing crisis and astonishing private rent fees. But it’s also an indicator of how much the sense of community has been eroded over the years.
We’ve lost our sense of mutual generosity, of sharing a nation, a home; forgotten what it means to exist together, and the social bonds of sacrifice, reciprocity and responsibility it asks of us. We are outraged by the state of poverty but refuse to pay into the mechanisms that keep it at bay, like the welfare state for example. We support trade union movements but become extremely angry when the strikes affect us.
The sense of division has been captured by Brexit, breaking people into Remain and Leave. It feels like a mutation on identity politics that has gone too far. Whatever happens from hereon, faith in the power and value of democracy has been undermined. Remain voters are reading grim economic forecasts decided by a very narrow defeat. But on the other side, Leave voters are watching their vote count for possibly nothing. How do you unite a country divided like this?
The Conservatives cannot unite the country anymore. Their policies have stratified people and pushed the working class further down. They have done little to empower ethnic minority communities and instead institutionalised their disenfranchisement, be it through the anti-migrant rhetoric or the Windrush scandal. You cannot build a society when your policies create high records of homelessness and inequality. There is no sense of prosperity and opportunities being shared, and therefore the social fabrics do not exist.
Labour can but if they understand that the politics of solidarity applies culturally, like it does economically. Security matters immensely here but Labour understands it only on the economic sphere, ignoring it on the cultural and physical. As the Labour peer Maurice Glasman often says, it’s about the politics of belonging. This should be at the heart of how they respond to Brexit and general issues regarding international affairs. Localism and the institutions that preserve it matter to people. Countless working communities have seen their stakes in society wither away increasingly. The industries went and with it the sense of solidarity, identity, pride and dignity of work. Local businesses, things which have been the local lifeblood, like pubs and libraries, have increasingly suffered and needed more support. Labour are right to criticise how the Tories destroyed the sense of community and fostered division in its place, but it also needs to understand that people are not just materialistic. People will pay into the NHS and the welfare state if they believe they are sharing something with its recipients. Things like history, national identity and national security matter strongly. Is this something Labour under its current direction understands?
A Labour Party that is quietly patriotic, uncompromising on national security and takes an axe to austerity stands a chance of reconnecting with people and healing the wounds left by the Tories on a deeply divided nation.