Trauma and the return of hope

I wanted to write something about the recent traumatic events including the Manchester arena bomb, the London Bridge incident, the Grenfell Tower fire. These are very painful and raw events that have been quite distressing to learn about, and I am aware that we still don’t have the full picture. I also wanted to touch on the reaction to these tragedies including the One Love concert, and to give my reaction to the election results. I hope it doesn’t seem disrespectful to connect the two, but to me they represent both the fear and sadness of recent events, and the compassion and hope that have followed them. I should warn you now that the second half of this blog is less psychological and more political than usual. That probably isn’t surprising when I am writing about the election, but I know that type of content is not for everyone so I’ve marked where you might want to skip to the end.

Barring 9/11 I can’t remember a month in my lifetime with more traumatic events. The Manchester bomb killed predominantly young people and parents, and felt very close to home for me. The idea that innocent young people and families going to a concert could be the target for terrorists was unbelievably horrific, and the ages of the victims made the story identify with people of all life stages around the country who could imagine it being their child, grandchild, sibling, friend or parent who was affected. This wasn’t some far away event in another country, where people speak another language or have different culture or appearance that can let us abstract the horror away from ourselves.

The impact of the explosion was felt in ripples that spread far wider than just those who tragically died or were injured in the blast, to those who lost friends, relatives and loved ones, and wider again to those at the concert who witnessed the horrific scenes and felt scared by the situation, the emergency services and NHS staff who responded to it, and those who were peripherally involved in the aftermath of helping people find ways home or places to stay, or in looking for people who were missing. As well as the terrible loss of life, and lasting physical injuries, psychologically these events will have changed the course of people’s lives in various ways and to various degrees.

The same was true of those involved in the events on London Bridge and Borough Market. These were ordinary Londoners and tourists going about their daily life. On another day, or with another roll of the dice this could be any one of us or people that we know. Again, the ripples spread far and wide.

And now we have another unspeakably awful tragedy, where the Grenfell Tower fire has killed and injured large numbers of people representing the full spectrum of age and cultural diversity. What they had in common was living in a tower block built by the council in the 1970s. Preliminary commentary suggests that the decorative and insulating cladding used in a refurbishment of the block was highly flammable and caused the fire to spread rapidly and the compartmentalisation system to fail. If that is true, and it was cost-cutting and a delay in updating the fire regulations that was to blame, then that is unforgivable and needs to lead to legal consequences for those responsible, as well as learning that prevents similar tragedies occurring in the future. I can understand the level of anger that is being expressed by the local residents whose concerns were ignored, and by those who feel that the balance of power in the current political situation means that the lives of people with below average income are given little value compared to the profits of the rich.

Here too the psychological consequences will ripple out widely beyond the horrendous loss of life and physical injuries to those who were bereaved, traumatised by what they witnessed, those who tried to raise the alarm but couldn’t reach everybody, the emergency services who responded so admirably against insurmountable adversity and those more peripherally involved. There will be complex feelings for those who survived when others perished, and I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel for the person whose flat the fire started in. If it is true that a faulty washing machine started the blaze, they must be wondering whether there were any choices they could have made differently that would have prevented or reduced the terrible outcomes that followed. Likewise those on lower floors or adjacent buildings who escaped early on and had to watch others jumping from windows, throwing out children, or being trapped too high to do either. I can’t begin to imagine how that will impact upon them over time, as it was overwhelming to even watch on the limited TV coverage.

Yet, everywhere there is tragedy, we see good people come out to try to help. From the emergency services and NHS staff, to those running charities and organisations to help those affected to those doing practical things on the ground because they happened to be there and felt compelled to do something. The One Love Manchester concert had the highest viewing figures of the year and the fundraising for Manchester victims and charities has topped £11 million. Likewise the fundraising for victims and organisations that can provide support in relation to the London incidents and the Grenfell fire have been astronomical (last figures I read suggested there had been donations of over £1.5 million in 24 hours to causes related to the fire). Overall, following these tragedies we have seen an outpouring of love and kindness on an unprecedented scale.

So perhaps in that context it is not quite as surprising as the political commentators think that the election results suggest the tide is turning against austerity. Public sector workers with frozen pay are those who have been responding to these crises, killing and arresting the terrorists and identifying their networks, fighting the fires and patching up the injured. That means that the public have remembered what heroes they are, and look in a different light at the cuts to the public sector that are preventing them from doing an effective job and mean we are not rewarding them adequately for the essential work that they do. We have also been roused into action to prevent further victims. We can no longer ignore the fact that the NHS and fire service are warning of their inability to provide sufficient cover to meet the need with budgets cut to the bone. Hospitals are struggling to sustain staffing, let alone recruit, without nursing bursaries and international staff. Children are being harmed and dying because of insufficient social care services, and people with disabilities and health problems are suffering and dying because of cuts to their benefits and support packages.

In short, as events have awakened our empathy it has become clear that the government’s policies are without compassion, and are all about protecting big business and the super-wealthy. They are making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and the vulnerable are dying as a result. Tough talk about immigrants and scroungers has been used to justify a lack of public spending coupled with policies that harm the most vulnerable in society – yet the sudden change away from austerity when their electoral majority was lost confirms that these were idealogical rather than economic choices. The negative focus on blaming disadvantaged groups in society has turned the spotlight away from much bigger abuses of the system by international corporations who manage to pay little or no UK tax, and who exploit staff on zero hours contracts, or even force them to work for their benefits through work fare schemes. The wealthiest in society are able to pay accountants and lawyers to help them avoid tax the most, and to hide income in off-shore schemes for tax avoidance purposes.

So at a time when compassion is so needed, and so evident in response to terrible events, there has been a political shift. It hasn’t happened in isolation – we have seen increasing unpredictability in public voting over the last year. I can only make sense of this in terms of a desire for radical change. Young people and those who have felt disempowered and disenfranchised by a political system that seemed to occupy only the middle-right and work only to sustain the vested interests of those who are already wealthy and powerful have been voting for the option that they think will upset the establishment. Sadly, the only options for rebellion available last year were to vote for Brexit and for Trump, or to not vote at all. But this year, as the government has moved the Overton window further right since the Brexit vote, clear blue water has emerged between the parties. And to the surprise of many, the Labour Party has moved left from their centrist policies and candidates of the last decade. Somehow a genuine socialist candidate has been voted into leadership in the form of Jeremy Corbyn, and despite all the efforts of the press and his own party, he has stuck in there stubbornly, growing support from the ground up, and now he seems to have popular support and the potential to be a future Prime Minister.

[If you aren’t a fan of politics, feel free to skip to the last paragraph now, because the second half of this blog is about the election results and what they might mean].

Corbyn might be an unlikely leader following past templates, as he does not use glib press-friendly soundbites. But he is a man who has stuck to his principles throughout his political career, and has been a voice of reason and negotiation when others have been shouting. From day one he has been an authentic voice in a world of spin. Although he was damned for it at the time, he acknowledged the complexity of the issues and did not ally himself fully with either of the polarised sides of the Brexit debate (though he said on balance he would prefer to remain). He has subsequently been able to make a positive campaign in a time in which the fashion is to blame and ridicule. In the words of Michelle Obama that I like so much “when they go low, we go high“. It doesn’t mean not being outraged or angry. It means choosing to focus on how we can solve problems, rather than on denigrating opponents. Corbyn was not only an underdog that would upset the establishment but an opportunity to say enough to austerity. That message has connected with people whilst Theresa May was curiously defensive and robotic, repeating the same soundbites over and over again and refusing to engage in the debate.

Corbyn’s politics roused a new generation of political campaigners (Momentum) who fought a savvy campaign on social media, where it is said a budget of just £2000 reached more voters than over a million pounds spent by the Conservative party. Over 12 million voters saw a facebook post started by a Momentum member in the week before the election. Partly as a result of this, 622,000 people registered to vote for the first time. This image of Facebook reactions to a live stream of the Prime Minister made me smile:

It is obvious to anyone that knows me or anyone who reads what I write that I identify as being on the left of the political spectrum. I was alienated by Labour’s move to the centre, and have become a lifetime member of the Green Party, despite being pragmatic enough to recognise that whilst we have a first past the post voting system the UK will be a two party political system. So I have been quite interested in the rise of the left within the Labour Party, and a fan of Corbyn as an individual politician for some time (I wrote about Corbyn on this blog a year ago).

So, unsurprisingly, I saw the election outcome as a great result. I was afraid that the Tories would get a landslide victory and use it to push through ever more austerity, and channelling of wealth to the super rich. So to see them lose their majority was a brilliant outcome. I’m delighted, and the more I have thought about it the more I think a hung parliament is about the best possible result.

First off the Tories have lost the mandate for their hard right, hard Brexit plans. And young people have been engaged in politics. Hopefully we can prevent repugnant policies like the dementia tax and fox hunting and cuts to education because the majority is so slender and these policies haven’t played well with the public. But I like that brexit will be a Tory problem to resolve, because when it gets messy they will have nobody else to blame. There is a stronger position to oppose boundary changes and to press for electoral reform. Maybe we can improve the terrible cuts to benefits and the regime of sanctions whilst their focus is on damage limitation and Brexit. And the next election might be one in which change is possible.

I don’t think it is a panacea. After so many cycles of hope and disappointment in recent politics, I’m cynical about whether this is the beginning of a sea change, and worried there is still a lot of conservative thinking about the economy and UKIP influenced blaming of foreigners around. I’d like to believe that things will get better from here, but I don’t think we should expect too much too soon. Some of the optimistic predictions of having a Corbyn government by the end of the year, and reaching a point at which the populace don’t want to go through with Brexit by the two year deadline seem just too good to be true. However, I am optimistic about the long game, because of what the analysis about voting patterns shows. Corbyn’s support is younger and more educated than that of his opponents. That is supported by this chart from the Financial Times:

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You can see that over 65s were 35 points more conservative than the UK average, whilst under 45 year olds are more prone to voting progressively. That split by age is a relatively new thing and it has been much more marked over the last two elections. Then I think about what the five year interval between elections means to the population. With half a million older people dying every year, and half a million younger ones becoming eligible to vote, surely over time that will tip things in a positive direction. The only question is whether the tendency of people to swing right as they get older will continue as the current population ages and/or whether the Tories can start to market successfully to these new voters.

I’ve been trying to understand the reason for these demographic shifts, to judge whether the current middle aged moderates are the retired conservatives of the future. From what I have read I’m not sure that the fade from red to blue is inevitable. I think a lot of us who will be entering the top half of that graph soon age-wise grew up under Thatcher and have much more reticence for those kind of policies than the current over 65s who grew up during and soon after the war. We are also more educated (and education is associated with more progressive values) as well as growing up in a more socially liberal world, with greater exposure to diversity. As this article puts it “When my parents first voted in the 1960s, homosexuality was illegal, abortion was largely illegal, the death penalty was still in force and openly racist attitudes were widely acceptable. Now, the death penalty is a distant memory, abortion rights are firmly entrenched, gay marriage is legal” and (perhaps with the exception of the Brexit effect and islamophobia) racism isn’t socially acceptable. Environmental issues are really embedded in the values of young people, and the scientific consensus for climate change and the need to preserve our limited resources has become overwhelming over the last decade or two. Every school has recycling bins and anti bullying policies, every home has energy efficient light-bulbs and lots of products market their green credentials. There is an increased focus on making healthy choices for ourselves and our planet. Anyone under 40 is also growing up immersed in social media, and with the perspectives of the whole world available to them immediately, rather than just the opinion of the local community and the newspapers. The media barons have less influence, and the circulation of the tabloids is decreasing (and there is increased coverage of celebrity “news” within them, and less coverage of the more serious topics).

So I’m optimistic. Despite all of the things in the world that are upsetting people and setting them against each other, I think the march of time takes us towards an increasing prevalence of progressive values. I hope by the time my children are voters the world will be a nicer place, and the Overton window will have moved back to the left.

 

Hope out of chaos

I’ve written a lot about how distressing I’ve found the vote to leave the EU, the increase in overt racism, and the move to the right politically. In fact I’ve been quoted more widely than expected on this topic, with my letter published by the Psychologist website, a quote in a fantastic column in New Scientist and even this blog being quoted on Buzzfeed because I used to work with one of the Conservative Leadership contenders. Theresa May has just become Prime Minister, and my feeling is that she was the best of a bad lot. However, what saddens me at the moment is all the in-fighting in the labour party.

Let me nail my colours to the mast. I consider myself to be political, but not party political. I’m significantly left of centre when it comes to the political spectrum, and believe in progressive policies. I’d like to reduce the wealth gap, strengthen public services and reduce inequality through improved education and opportunities (including properly funded legal aid). I want to remove donations and corporate lobbying from our political system, and replace them with a fixed fee for membership and proportionate central funding. I believe in taxation on inheritance and property, bonuses and the top 1% of wages, but also the Robin Hood tax on financial transactions. I don’t believe in taxing sanitary products, heating, e-books, or any services provided to support free-at-the-point-of-access health or social care.

In terms of current political parties, I have a lot of admiration for the Green Party and the SNP, but I’ve never been in a location where there is an option to vote for either of them. In fact, I have always lived in safe Conservative seats. Until the death of John Smith I would probably have considered the Labour Party as my closest match politically. After that I felt homeless. I voted for the Lib Dems once, but felt betrayed by them entering the coalition with the Conservatives and supporting tuition fees.

Authenticity, empathy/mentalisation and reflective capacity are skills that I look for in the parenting assessments I do for the family courts. I consider them to be essential attributes when it comes to forming human relationships, so whether or not I see them in a politician really is make or break for me. And they are much rarer than you would hope.

John Smith was the last place I saw authenticity in the Labour leadership. I never could trust Blair, because his smile never reached his eyes, and his body language never seemed congruent with his verbal content. It was as if he had been so carefully schooled not to give away his true feelings that there was a hint of the uncanny valley. Likewise, Brown looked as forced when he smiled as May and Leadsom’s recent grimacing contest, like early models for Blade Runner style replicants. Milliband was so socially awkward that he was hard to feel any connection with (though in the pre-election interview with Russell Brand he seemed to relax a little and I saw a glimpse of something likeable and real that I’d not seen before).

The millionaire cabinets filled with chums from Eton and Oxbridge that have formed the last two governments have all looked to me like posh teenage boys that had teleported into adult bodies and, like the plot of a formulaic film, were trying to pretend to be grown ups doing responsible jobs and hoping they got to have sex before the switch was discovered. Bumbling Johnson and Trump have both learned to mask the threat they present by modifying their body language to appear ridiculous enough not to be taken seriously.

In short, politics has become a world full of phonies. The exception to this has been Barack Obama. His election gave me hope for the world, and I think he has been pretty authentic throughout his two terms (though any real power to create change, such as gun reform, has been leached away by the broader politics around him). I have particularly enjoyed him as he has become less guarded and shown his sense of humour more as he reaches the end of his term in office. His books are high up on my list of reading material next time I go on holiday, or if I ever have more time available.

And now there is Jeremy Corbyn. Since the death of Tony Benn, I see him as the one authentic option amongst a sea of vested interests and spin.

If I’m allowed to metaphorically liken the political changes around Brexit to a flood, then it has felt like we are wading through knee deep brown water contaminated with the sewage of repulsive opinions that is pooling in the homes and buildings all around us. Much of the established political road network has been flooded or washed away. My every instinct is telling me to get as far away from the mess as possible. However, the only person not being swept along with that tide has been Jeremy. He’s just been quietly organising teams that are going around door to door checking if people are okay, and trying to plan what needs to be done to clean up and repair the damage. He doesn’t have the uniform or back-up of the emergency services, but nobody has really seen them doing anything beyond trying to divert the water around the corporate skyscrapers, so he’s become something of a local hero. The news is blaming excessive rainfall up river, and congratulating the emergency services for keeping the businesses dry, whilst criticising “have a go heroes” for interfering, and saying it will take many years before flood protections or repairs can be organised.

Some people say Corbyn is too far left, and unelectable. To that I’d say you don’t need to be electable to be an effective opposition, and to change policy and the scope of discussion. UKIP have demonstrated that brilliantly over the last five years! Opposition has changed policy in a number of key ways over the last few years (making a series of government u-turns over cuts to benefits). If we had a coherent labour party giving a unified voice to this opposition we could achieve even more, whether or not we achieve a Labour government. It seems that the goal of gaining power has become of higher priority to some PLP members than the goal of making a difference for the constituents they represent.

I think Corbyn is one of the few people that understands that British politics is broken at the moment. Too much influence is purchased with party donations and sponsorship, and too many rich people are right at the top and making decisions with self-interest at the core. We need to reform that, and get genuine representation of the people. We need to reengage the people who are not voting more than we need to fight over the middle ground. We need to help people identify as working class and fight for their rights, despite the tide of propaganda getting them to blame immigrants, the EU and the vulnerable. Again, Corbyn is as close to that as I’ve seen in my adult life. He has no affiliations or financial interests outside of his job as a politician, and he has refused to kowtow to wealthy donors.

I fully accept that he hasn’t given his opinions in snappy soundbites. But I can’t see that as a bad thing. Issues like leaving the EU are complex, not black or white, and they merit reflection and discussion not just a yes/no answer. So I think that whilst people say he is losing the game, he is actually trying to play a different game, and one I think is a damn sight better.

I think Corbyn is a breath of fresh air in British politics. So I am very sad to see the way he has been treated by the PLP. Whilst complaining that he cannot lead, they have refused to follow him, despite his inclusiveness when it came to selecting the shadow cabinet.

To stretch another metaphor, I see it like an artist agreeing to make a mural with 200 aspiring young artists from local schools, and then finding out that 140 of the names on the list are of kids who are not engaged in mainstream education and have no interest in art. The way I see it, the artist’s only option is to try and make everyone feel included, select widely for those who are to take each role in making the mural, and then when kids don’t turn up, to fill the gaps with those who are keen to get on with the project. Sure, the artist can try to go out and meet with each kid who doesn’t turn up and try to engage them in the joys and challenges of the project, but that will mean they give a whole lot of energy to fruitless battles and will sap away the time for actually creating the art. The artist can’t fix the system that was stacked against them within the time given, so it makes sense to just get on with the art itself, in collaboration with the kids who want to work with them.

The only difference is that all labour MPs should want to create this piece of art, because in the terms of my metaphor they are art students and it is the course they signed up for, even if the style of the artist isn’t the familiar commercially driven billboards they were expecting. The result might still be surprisingly beautiful.

I believe the Leave campaign had massive appeal because it became a way to express dissatisfaction with the status quo, when the neoliberal hegemony meant that people could hardly see the difference between the mainstream political parties. Voting leave became a way for people who were feeling disenfranchised to thumb their nose at authority, to try to disrupt the established political systems. If that conclusion is correct, then I believe that this desire for change could as easily swing left as right, if the media and prominent voices from that side offered targets to blame (eg bankers and millionaires who buy politics) and promised easy solutions (tax bonuses and top 1% salaries, robin hood tax, fixed funding and no donations to political parties). The Labour Party need to unite to harness this desire for change, and to show that they can deliver it.

But not only have they not connected with the people or the media, they have allowed Theresa May to seize their territory by making a speech claiming that the Conservative Party can serve the working class (despite almost every claim directly contradicting with her voting record), whilst the only Labour news is about how the PLP don’t have faith in their leader, and have shown this in less and less dignified ways. The in-fighting has become increasingly ugly. Watching charismaless Eagle squirm whilst Leadsom’s resignation stole the press from her launch may have been the most cringe-inducing moment so far this year. But it is clear from the lack of policy or answers to any questions that she stands for nothing apart from not being Corbyn. I also suspect she has been goaded into being a stalking horse to allow other members of the party with leadership ambitions to come forward with less risk.

Meanwhile 130,000 new members have joined (or returned to) the Labour Party because they like Corbyn’s approach to reforming politics, and share the hope for change. And instead of being welcomed with open arms, they are having the door slammed in their face by the PLP, who assume (wrongly) that they represent militant left-wingers rather than members who lapsed during the New Labour years but have now returned because of seeing a return to principles, young people who have engaged with politics for the first time, or the disenfranchised members of the general public that they should want to connect with. Nearly 600,000 members could be an amazing force for changing politics in the UK – that’s just over 1% of the voting population, nearly four times the Conservative membership, more than ten times the membership of UKIP and the largest membership of a political party in modern times. In my opinion, making exclusionary rules as to who can vote for the party leader and chasing the centre ground is exactly the wrong move to make, and will end in anger, legal challenges and a split in the party. But it seems that touch paper was lit before the referendum, and emotions are only getting higher, so I doubt the insight to avert it will arrive now.

If there is any hope we can make politics more authentic, and/or bring it back to the basics of representing the electorate, then that could give some meaning to all of this chaos for me. The one advantage of chaos and disruption to established systems is that change is possible. And the one person who has been consistently showing the qualities I’d want to lead that change is Corbyn.

So here’s hoping that we can make something positive out of the ashes of the current firestorm. I would welcome positive change right now, in whatever form it takes!