It’s fashionable to be ‘politically homeless’. But it’s also callous and detached

Phil McDuff
Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/REX/Shutterstock

I am not, and never have been, one of the cool kids. I was a nerd into Christian rock at school. I love a good Excel spreadsheet. And in 2019 I am resolutely, unfashionably, not politically homeless.

Everyone is, these days. Can’t throw a brick without hitting someone saying: “Ugh, there’s no choice at all, it’s like picking between being two different ways of being murdered.” This election, depending on which paper you read, is either a desperate fight to save the Queen from being murdered by John McDonnell at 9am on 13 December, or a deeply dull and unpleasant affair which Your Humble Correspondent finds themselves unfortunately caught up in through no fault of their own, like someone sent out to cover an arts festival in Azerbaijan who ends up accidentally reporting on a scandal involving a dodgy sewage works.

You would barely be able to tell, reading the output of the ‘politically homeless’, that the levels of actual, literal homelessness in this country are at truly catastrophic levels. Shelter says that 135,000 children will be homeless on Christmas Day, with current trends meaning that 4,000 children will become newly homeless between now and Christmas. The evidence of our own eyes tells us that real homelessness is a huge problem on our streets, but “hidden” homelessness – precarious accommodation, and people living in substandard, crowded houses rotting with mildew – is all too common. We are failing at being a society, the social fabric frays around us, yet a substantial chunk of the commentariat is somehow bored.

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It’s not that I’ve never felt rejected by the political process. I remember the 2010 election very well, facing the dismal offer of Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. In the Red corner: the guy who’d been chancellor during the Blair years, overseeing a strategy of funding growth by overleveraging an asset bubble, and building detention camps while ramping up officially sanctioned Islamophobia. In the Blue corner: a shiny-faced Bullingdon Club nonentity offering to increase the beatings until morale improved. Times were so grim that Nick Clegg – Nick Clegg for God’s sake! – looked like a breath of fresh air.

Nine years can give you a hell of a perspective though. Take me back in a time machine now, and I’d be hollering at everyone I could see: “Vote for Brown, the other two are much worse than you think!” I wouldn’t be happy about it – I have no real faith that the unadventurous economic programme he put on offer would have done much, except just be better than the alternative. But better is better. I’ve seen what the austerity regime that Cameron and Clegg unleashed on the country has done to my friends and neighbours. I’ve seen how the “hostile environment” has ripped families apart. I’ve seen the Department for Work and Pensions transformed so that it no longer even pretends to be a social security agency, fully embracing its role to punish the poor and disabled until they get work or die trying. I’ve seen the flattening of wages and the grinding drop in working standards which slowly turns this country into a meaner and grimmer place to live.

To sit above it all in 2019 feels incomprehensible. Yes, Labour remains a deeply flawed vehicle for reform. Its manifesto offer, as radical as it is compared with the status quo, is in many ways still insufficient to fully reverse the long-term damage that has been inflicted on our society. But the big question – what kind of country do we want to be? – has two distinct and contrasting answers this election.

Do we want to be a nation of underpaid, overworked, suspicious, angry people? Or do we want to try something else? Do we want to choose a society that invests in itself, which sees homelessness and poverty as a moral problem to be solved? Do we want to do something about the climate crisis, or hunker down and buy more barbed wire?

To cling to the slim, tentative, ephemeral hope offered by Labour is an exercise in ongoing heartbreak and doubt. I know that even the best outcome is for years of struggle and constant setback. And yet the mere chance that there could be people in government who want to try to build a better society is enough.

I would love to be capable of fashionable cynicism, I honestly would. It’s the hope that kills you, after all. This election is making me sleepless and sick with worry. I am tired, and it is cold, and I want to get on with Christmas. But the circumstances of our lives do not design themselves according to what we find convenient and unchallenging.

I wonder how bad it has to get out there, how much more actual homelessness there has to be, before political homelessness starts to feel as detached and callous as it looks from the outside?

• Phil McDuff writes on economics and social policy