I was five years old in 1997 when my mum took me with her to the polling station and let me scratch a wobbly X on the ballot paper. My main impression of the general election was it meant that I didn’t have to go to school that day, and that voting Labour had something to do with Mum buying the biggest watermelon I’d ever seen from the Turkish shop on the way home. More opaque was why she cried the next morning, or phoned her sister just to repeat “This is amazing … it’s just amazing” over and over.
I think I understand her a bit better now. For a struggling single parent with two young kids, the end of 18 years of continuous Tory rule felt like being let out of a dark room.
Today, we’ve come through nine more such years. We’ve seen Grenfell; the Windrush scandal; £5bn of cuts to disability benefits; 4 million children at risk of malnutrition owing to poverty; a parliament of landlords voting against a measure that would ensure all homes were fit for human habitation; rough sleepers in Westminster evicted after a complaint by the Commons chaplain about their “ongoing stench”. The home secretary, Priti Patel, standing in a food bank, shifting the blame for growing poverty on to the local councils whose budget her government had cut.
The last decade has seen our politicians turn into vandals, and a hatchet taken to the social contract. What we have witnessed is nothing less than, in the Italian theorist Franco Berardi’s words, “the slow cancellation of the future”. Austerity hasn’t just decimated our public services. It has corroded the political imagination. The suggestion that the government might exist to improve people’s lives rather than oversee the managed decline of our society is greeted as somehow preposterous. We’re told the things that we had in the past would be unreasonable to have in the future.
Politicians who got their university education for free tell the young that tuition fees are simply a fact of life. The return to corporation tax to about 2010 levels is regarded as akin to Maoism. And Boris Johnson, who has been otherwise careful to avoid the miserable determinism of Theresa May’s 2017 campaign, fell back on the familiar bleat that there’s no way to “magic up” money for those who have borne the brunt of Conservative economic policy.
Nowhere is our country’s atrophied capacity to imagine better more apparent than in the political class’s response to the climate emergency. Sure, Extinction Rebellion occasionally lurch into self-parody, but no amount of hippy-dippy nonsense could be more shameful than Adam Boulton’s tirade on Sky News this year in which he accused climate activists of being “the incompetent middle-class” and “self-indulgent”. That a broadcaster rumoured to be paid £400,000 a year can get away with calling others moneyed and out of touch has permanently damaged the part of my brain responsible for processing irony.
There’s something fairly insane about a media culture that praises Michael Gove as an environmentalist hero for using a reusable cup while simultaneously delegitimising protest movements associated with climate justice. Aided and abetted by a supine media, the government has been allowed to miss a six-month deadline set by parliament to address the climate emergency. We are already on course to miss the dreadfully unambitious target set by May to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. And despite large swathes of South Yorkshire still being under floodwater, Brexit continues to be trotted out by broadcasters as the defining issue of this election.
There are problems with the Labour party. They have not committed to preserving freedom of movement in all circumstances; they have stuck with a prohibitionist approach to drugs; they have not stamped out antisemitism as ruthlessly as they ought to. But I will not let perfect be the enemy of hope. At its heart, the Jeremy Corbyn project represents the return of the future.
In 1963, Harold Wilson promised that a “new Britain” would be forged in “the white heat of technology”. Now Labour vows that a green industrial revolution will bring in hundreds of thousands of jobs in renewable energy, green construction and transport infrastructure. How could we possibly afford to do all this? How could we possibly afford not to? What could be more urgent than securing a sustainable future on the only planet we have to live on?
Somehow money always turned up when we needed to bail out the banks or pay for no-deal posturing, keep May in power with a bung for the DUP, or clean up after Chris Grayling. It gets harder to believe that “there is no alternative” to economic misery when, quite clearly, there is when the Tories need it.
What’s at stake in this election? The future, and the possibility of its return.
• Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media, and lectures in political theory at the Sandberg Instituut