Elections are, or should be, the culmination of a period of reflection and consideration about how we might do things differently in the future. This election seems to be particularly odd, as it has been forced into a set of simple binary issues that don’t demonstrate the complexity of the issues ahead of us.
Political slogans are expected to summarise the choice between the different parties – Get Brexit Done, or For the Many Not The Few, have their appeal to the core swing voters that each party is targeting. It then becomes a matter of how these slogans are sold through the media, which is either hostile or a cheerleader for one side or the other.
The messages boil down to one thing, as far as I can work out. Are we going to continue to squeeze, or are we going to invest? Are we going to run everything about us for the benefit of a smaller and smaller group of people? People who often don’t live here in the UK. Or, are we going to start to provide the finance that will enable us to demonstrate that having enough people to do their jobs, and looking after things well, is not only more humane, but is also the best way to run profitable services in the future.
I’ve just come back to the UK after a month teaching in Thailand, and while it might not be the best form of evidence I can muster to demonstrate my point, it is something that felt very real to me while I as away, and I hope might have a resonance for many people who are familiar with similar experiences.
When I’ve been to use the toilet in a shopping mall or a department store in Thailand￼, or at an airport or a train station while travelling, there has always been an attendant on hand to keep the facilities clean and ensure that they are running properly. This is very different from the UK, where there is seldom anyone in attendance whose primary job is to look after the facilities. In the U.K. the cleaning checks are often only done on sporadic occasions through the day – think of the spreadsheets on the wall where the staff have to initial that they have cleaned and checked the facilities.
Public toilets in the UK are often few and far between. They are often messy or have essential supplies missing. They are increasingly run like an industrial workspace, rather than a space of personal comfort and intimacy.
For me this feels like a real and living difference in the way that we have absorbed and accepted learnt through a process of internalisation what amounts to a second-rate sense of service and pubic provision. We’ve got so used to expecting services to be run with as few people as possible, that we regard any alternative approach to be alien.
I wanted to buy some biscuits from a Tesco Metro in Leicester yesterday, but when I walked into into the store, just after 10am, I was faced with a stock-cage being unloaded inside the entrances to the fist isle. This was next to a pile of cardboard boxes on thee floor waiting to be cleared away, and this was next to a stack of green plastic crates with more stock waiting to go out.
When I glanced at the till, there was a queue of half-a-dozen people waiting to pay, and only one cashier. So, I turned around and walked out. If Tesco doesn’t want my custom, then that’s their problem. They can take pride in their ability to squeeze and squeeze their staff. They can put in as many automated tills as they want, but I don’t have to shop with them. Particularly when they place an obstacle course in my way that prevents me from even entering the store in the first place.
I might sound like I’m having a good moan, but as another example of this squeezing mindset, look at the strike taking place in British universities. This squeezing approach has been taking place throughout higher education in the UK for a long time. There are now less and less full-time staff employed to teach and research, while there are record levels of casualisation in the workforce, as hourly paid lecturers are expected to plug the gaps where full-time, qualified and experienced academics used to provide a high standard of education.
This poison, is one in which squeezing and keeping squeezing has become the norm. The message from Boris Johnson is that you can have your cake and eat it, which translates roughly to ‘because we will just keep squeezing.’
The problem is that if we don’t invest then the rest of the world, and particularly those that are investing and who understand this problem, will grow richer and stronger while we in the U.K. are stuck trying to do more and more with much less. The cake will run out.
I think many are ready to break out of that cycle, and anyone that offers some hope that we can do things in a different way will get my vote at the election. I will be holding my nose with Corbyn, but Labour’s investment plans seem like a good start, and a very welcome break with the past.
Let’s stop squeezing everything and instead start to think about how we can invest to grow.