Imprint / Data Privacy

Letters from Workers: Has the World Changed or Have I Changed?

Canvassing for Labour in the Marginal Seats around London

09.11- 12.12 

FALLING ASLEEP ON the train, so the passage that I’m reading becomes a list.

 My eyes skip forward through the sentences, registering the phrases that stand out: the twentieth century, the welfare state, unionisation, the family wage. Then: deregulation, inequality, privatisation.

Without the connective tissue of grammar, it feels like something I have read many times before. That I have been constantly reading, in fact, going over these same decades, endlessly rehearsing the same basic facts. As my head nods between stops, the passage merges with the station announcements: a bad poem of names and places.

West Brompton, Parsons Green, Southfields, Wages and Conditions, Industry, Paul Volcker. 

Unlike the pages I’m reading, the names of the stations have no associations for me. They're places I’ve never had reason to go to and can't picture.

As I gather my things to get off, I check my phone. Clive James is dead and now Clive Anderson is trending.

I think about that year when everyone famous died.

You would hear the news about someone else, and think fuck. Tune in to the tributes and reactions, depending on who they were. And then you would forget about it. Until the next time that person came up organically, independent of the fact of their death. Only then would you realise what the news meant.

And as I go up the steps, I feel weary at the thought of how many other famous people’s deaths I will live through. People I thought I was indifferent to, perhaps, but with whom I will nevertheless have certain associations. People from this era who I will remember seeing on television at certain times of my life, hearing their voice as a child.

As I tap out at a station I’ve never heard of, I think: What do these associations mean? What feelings are being laid to rest?

 

ON THE OVERGROUND that morning, I tested my out of office message. Sending a blank message to my work email and receiving the automatic reply.

The weird feeling of being addressed by myself, made me think of my cat, his reaction when I take his collar off and then he hears the bell sound as I set it down on the side. You can see him briefly interested in the sound: his sound coming from somewhere else.

On the picket line, several of us still have Labour stickers on our coats from the weekend. We stand at the entrance to the university, holding leaflets and signs. People's faces are tired. I recognise some of them from the strikes of the previous year.

Someone mentions that the polls look bad.

“But if anything, they're better than they were at this point in 2017.”

"All the sampling assumes that young voters aren't going to turn out."

We are all listening to the same podcasts. Repeating what we've heard, seeing if we can drum up anything new. As we stand there, students come out of the little Sainsbury's across the road and cross towards us, in waves regulated by the traffic lights. I look at their faces and try to see them as young voters, but in this setting they look more like commuters. Crossing the road purposely with their headphones on, warily sussing-out the picket, realising their normal route is blocked.

It is hard to make the line seem real, to draw something definite with our bodies. It is against the law to physically stop someone, so we give way as they stream through the gaps and onto campus.

"Have you heard about the strike?"

Most take a flyer but don't stop to have the conversation. But when they get closer, you can see that they are different from older commuters. Their faces not yet fully set to the world, their expressions still admitting some doubt. Famously unlikely to: answer the door, have a landline, ever own a home.

I start asking them instead, "Are you registered to vote?"

I took my gloves off early on so that I could handle the leaflets and after a while, my hands are freezing. There is a depth of coldness that has less to do with temperature than it does with how long you've been outside. It doesn't go away when I put my gloves back on to leave.

I have been struggling to concentrate on the picket; my mind keeps drifting to the election. So at the end of the first shift, I decide to go across town to do some canvassing, promising myself I will return to the picket again tomorrow. I say goodbye to the people I’m stood with and head up the street towards the tube, merging with the traffic of the pavement.

As I pass the east gate, another picketer, not recognising me, tilts her face towards me and asks me if I know about the strike. (The sound of my bell, coming from somewhere else.)

 

Putney gif 1

Views from Putney, Jack Gain

IN PUTNEY, I recognise the group the way you recognise football fans at a train station. By the few spots of red among the dark winter coats.

I walk over to them, smiling at the one or two faces that look up as I join. We are divided into groups and head out into the residential streets around the tube station, introducing ourselves to one another.

This group is mostly young. There are old and young and little in between.

One young lad from the Channel Islands quit his job and moved to London to canvass every day, handing in his notice exactly four weeks before the dissolution of parliament. That event, whose timing nobody has been able to call for the last two years, he predicted within a day. Since then, he has been sleeping on a friend’s floor in Tottenham.

Tottenham, where in 1977, Labour councillors including Jeremy Corbyn organised a counter demonstration against the National Front when they marched through a Jewish neighbourhood.

Tottenham, home to a historically Jewish football club, founded by local grammar school boys under a lamppost in 1882. (You imagine their dark coats moving in the sulphur mist.)

Tottenham whose supporters are hissed by rival fans in a sound intended to mimic the gas chambers. The hissing, notoriously insidious and difficult to police because it is impossible to tell exactly who it is coming from.

You get used to the grammar of doors. Learning to look for lights that are on and shapes moving behind the dimpled glass.

And to the grammar of faces that come to the door. Their endless variation and unpredictability. The few plastic moments as the face arranges itself in response to who you are, or rather, what this is.

And you get used to putting your own face forward to strangers.

I think of an article you read that said, "polling doesn't measure public opinion, it produces it."

I ask them about the election, aware that by putting them on the spot, I am forcing them to come up with an answer to something they might not have been thinking about.

Sometimes they take their prompts from me.

"Are there any issues that are particularly important to you?"

"Probably, the NHS." He says looking at my sticker.

"I just don't like Jeremy Corbyn," a man at another door says.

You get used to this too, even from people who are voting for us. Get used to how quickly insubstantial the statement proves to be.

"Oh really, why's that?"

"I just… there's something about him. He's obviously a good man, a great man. But I could never vote for him. I’m a lifelong Labour voter but I could never vote for Jeremy Corbyn."

I report this back to the board runner and he laughs.

"They haven't voted Labour for, well, at least the last five elections. Possibly ever."

This phrase, “lifelong Labour voter” appeals to people, for some reason, even when it isn’t true. It evokes some kind of bygone virtue.

Take me back to dear old blighty.

On the 2 ‘til 4 session it gets dark while you're out. The houses look warm inside. Outside, the bin areas are run down, the drains, the communal walkways, the small parks. There are no public toilets so there is never anywhere to piss.

Knocking on another door, I think of the expression "private luxury and public squalor".

We follow in the wake of delivery drivers, evidence of whom we see everywhere. Their calling cards, notes left to them on the door, card envelopes propped up against the door.

For some people, a delivery is the only reason they open the door. You can see this register on their face when they see that you are not that.

People’s doors in general are an unwelcome point of contact to the world, an opening to the public squalor.

That you can be roused from whatever you're doing in there by any passing stranger, feels like an intrusion. Many people say they are busy.

Aoife at the next door jokes, "I must have a bailiff's knock. No-one is answering to me today."

Someone finally comes to the door where I’m standing.

"Sorry, I’m very busy. But I am voting Labour," she says shutting the door.

"Oh great, thanks."



ON THE WALK back to the station, I listen to a journalist talk about a book on financialisation. It is now rush hour and the people appear from slick amber reflections of streetlight on rain.

The words: stagflation, miners’ strike, the big bang, wages merge with the faces in the crowd. "Petals on a wet, black bough."  It feels like people are looking at me more than usual and I am not sure why, until I remember that I’ve left my Labour sticker on.

 

I think about the way our eyesight evolved to see red as a colour of danger:

blood

rage

caution

 

But also:

fruit

berries hidden among leaves

a notification.

 

It is the same way your eyes register:

A sleeping bag.

The outline of someone’s legs among a pile of coats in a doorway.

A person gravitating towards you as you walk down the street.

 

"Sorry man, I don't have any change."

On the Overground, a homeless man walks through the carriage, stopping to deliver a little speech asking for help. He waits to see if anyone will respond. The trains on this line don't have separate cars, meaning you can walk all the way along them. For a while, this led to a rise in begging. Then recently they started to play the following announcement:

"To help someone you see homeless or asking for money, please donate to the Whitechapel Mission.”

Since they started the announcement, the sight of homeless people begging has become less common. The problem, displaced.

Something has always bothered me about this announcement, besides its brutal smugness. And as the man walks through to the next carriage and the announcement comes on, I realise that it is the missing relative pronoun, who. 

As in “a person who is homeless or asking for money.” This has presumably been deleted out of embarrassment at referring to the beggars as the object of the sentence, to be seen to be obviously talking about them.

In the proceeding fudge, it could be they who are homeless or asking for money. But it could also be your seeing them which is homeless or asking for money. Your seeing them is the problem they are choosing to address.

The beggars struggled even before the announcement.

The problem they face is that they are talking to a collective space which has been vacated. To a group of individuals whose collectivity no-one recognises. By talking to everyone collectively, they are talking to no-one individually. And so no-one feels obliged to respond.

Getting off the train, I check Twitter and see a new poll in which LAB is 3 points up since Friday. A small movement; part of a vast average experienced in real time.

I try not to get excited by it as I put my phone away and run up the stairs to the barriers.

 

Lewisham gif

Lewisham, Jack Gain

THE NEXT MORNING I wake up early, in the middle of some dream. The jolt of adrenaline makes it impossible to go to sleep so I lie for a while looking at my phone.

 

The first thing that comes up in my feed is an advert for a film set in the 1960s: men in suits grimace and shake hands, the video playing without sound. The last time I went to the cinema it was to watch a film about Diego Maradona. One of the trailers was for a film about Elton John; one for a film about the Manson family murders; and another for a documentary about the moon landing.

I think of all the biopics and documentaries from this period that are yet to be made. This classical period of the late twentieth century, whose long terminal phase we have yet to wake from. Whose celebrities are yet to die.

It is the day of the voter registration deadline, so I decided to skip the picket and go to a voter registration drive at Roehampton. To find and register voters not born in the twentieth century.

At my work, a complaint that you often hear is that, nowadays, people no longer attend events that they have signed up to. But at every canvassing session I’ve been to, there have been far more people than the organisers expected. Twenty people at an event where you might expect five. Fifty people when you might expect ten. Two hundred and fifty when you might expect eighty.

 

I wonder if this is evidence of momentum, either in the colloquial sense or in the organisational sense.  

At the voter registration there are dozens of us — frankly too many, so we all spread out. I wait on a little path outside a café. I help one student register on her phone. She wants to vote Labour but her dad and her brother have been on at her that their proposals are not realistic.

 

"Labour's the only party that's fully costed everything we've proposed. They put out something called the grey book."

"Really? Where can I find that?"

"You really want to read it?"

"No, I’m going to send it to them to shut them up."

I register a few more people, wring promises out of a few others to do it before the deadline.

For some, it is the first time they have been spoken to as a political subject in their own right. In our training, they told us that most people turn off after being spoken to for ten seconds. But the young people I speak to have time and want answers from me. Some ask me to explain from scratch what the parties are and what each one stands for.

I find myself saying to several of them, "We didn't used to have tuition fees."

The best conversation I have is with a woman who works in the cafe on her cigarette break. She is in her mid-twenties and has never voted. I ask her why and end up with agreeing with a lot of what she says.

"What I’d say is, this time is different."

"Why's that?"

"Basically because we're here. Loads of people joined Labour and now we have the opportunity to actually do something. The people who are at the top now aren't there because they made the right career choices. They're there because we put them there."

In the end she says, "Well, I can't say I’ll definitely vote, but I’ll definitely register."

After a few hours, two young women walk up to me smiling. 

They look like they have walked out of a rave or a festival. One is wearing a flat cap and a wax jacket. The other has her hair down despite the rain. They had been looking for a free spot to register people. They were smiling at me not because they recognised me personally, but because they recognised me as another canvasser.

"Do you want to get a coffee?" one says to the other.

"I really need to pee. Is there a toilet in there?" she asks me.

"I don't know. I’d guess so."

"I like your coat," she says to me. "Come on." she says to the other.

The way they talk to each other, it's impossible to tell if they've known each other for a long time or have just met recently doing this. The activity makes for a fast, practical intimacy.

When I leave, there are more of us than when I arrived. On my way home, I listen to an interview with a musician who ends up talking about the miners’ strike. 

"I can only describe it as heavy. Everything was heavy. The coats were heavy, the jackets were heavy, the donkey jackets. The blokes were heavy, they were hard blokes. The police were heavy. The atmosphere was heavy. It was just fucking heavy times." 

 

Battersea gif

Battersea, Jack Gain

 

IN BATTERSEA, I am put in a group with the MP, Marsha, who narrowly won her seat off the Tories in the last election.

When we arrive at the estate, two lads on bikes see our stickers and clipboards and shout, "Free broadband!"

Marsha is the only one quick enough to respond as they cycle away.

"That's good, isn't it?" 

They don't have time to confer, but after a moment, they both shout back an offset, "Yeah!"

The Patmore Estate is across the road from the New Covent Garden — a huge fruit and veg market that supplies all of the restaurants in the city — and Battersea power station, now being redeveloped into luxury flats.

The councillor we are with lets us in with a fireman's drop key, so we don't have to use the intercom. He knows the names of all the blocks.

John, the board runner, is quick on the board, sending us back out straight away while he records our data.

"You don't need to tell me if they're not in."

One by one, he sends us off down the open air corridors to Labour households and we bring him back Labour votes. 

John is quietly pleased. "Seems like we're holding up."

The Labour councils who built estates like this were said to have "built the Tories out of London.”

 

The buildings are slightly shabby, but hold their own. Distinguished by the straight lines and facing shapes of a municipal socialism. Their pathways open up into public greens and areas of play.

They are the opposite of my usual routes around the city, to work, to the shops. The crowd control of football stadiums, airports; the fluid dynamics of the tube.

I need to buy shoes, so after the canvass I go in to Oxford Street thinking it'll still be relatively quiet. But the tube station empties me out into a dense stream of foot traffic going in only one direction, a steward shouting instructions through a megaphone to keep us moving.

I think about the term ‘hostile environment’. First the word hostile. (Hostile in the colloquial sense or the organisational sense?)

Then the word environment.

What happens to all these people when they can no longer safely stay in their houses and crowd into places like this? When the collectivity floods?

I can't imagine the ice caps melting or the composition of the atmosphere changing but I can imagine this. This crowd getting tighter, the instructions from the megaphone getting more severe.

When I get to the Doc Martens shop, the sales assistant is smiling, causing my fingers to impulsively check whether I’ve left my sticker on.

She fetches me a new pair of the shoes I have on.

While she's gone, I notice that my current shoes, which I thought were still basically okay, without my feet inside them are a total disgrace. The shape completely gone, a chewed up insole in the open maw. I shunt them under the bench and wait in my socks.

The new shoes are too tight and I can't face trying to break them in while I’m canvassing, so I put it off until after the election. I leave, thanking the sales assistant, who seems to have made her peace with not selling any shoes.

Hendon gif 1

Hendon, Jack Gain

THE NEXT MORNING I go to Hendon, riding the Northern line almost to the end.

“Labour housing built the tories out of London. The tube built the Tory suburbs into it.”

Put me on the train to London town.

The upper extent of the line is above ground, meaning I have signal on my phone to read the cross tabs of two recent polls that show us going up 5% and 2% while listening to a podcast about European integration.

The Cold War, Devaluation, the Common Market.

Chalk Farm, Hampstead, Golders Green.

 

Believes Jeremy Corbyn

Is antisemitic: 30%

Is not antisemitic: 32%

 

Outside the station, there is a special briefing based on the fact that we are canvassing in a largely Jewish area on a morning when the front page of every newspaper carries the message that Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite.

There is a green tent near to where we're standing. A two person pop-up tent next to the entrance of the station. Everybody carries on around it.

It is the Wednesday before Black Friday.

Black Wednesday, being the day in 1992 when the pound was forced to leave the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, having been short-sold by a sovereign wealth fund run by George Soros.

George Soros, the Jewish billionaire and backer of the Remain campaign, subject of antisemitic dog whistles by pro-Leave politicians. 

And the bogeyman of the antisemitic president of his native Hungary, Viktor Orban, who has been supported in the European Parliament by the Conservative Party.

 

For the first two days of the strike, it rained. Then the temperature dropped and clear blue sky opened up above us.

The yellow leaves are drying in the gutters as we walk out into a quiet street of 1930s semi-detatched houses, cars in the drives.

At one house, a Jewish woman explains to me sadly that she can no longer support Labour.

"I like everything else about them, everything that they're proposing. But I don't feel welcome there anymore. I don't feel safe."

I just end up listening to her, to everything she has to say. I’m sure I would disagree with some of the things she's read that have led her to feel this way. But you can't argue with someone when they tell you they're afraid.

At another house, an older man, who comes to the door dressed quite smartly has more general doubts about "leadership". He is considering voting Lib Dem.

I try to move the conversation on. "30 percent of kids are living in poverty. In this part of London it's gone up to 40 percent." I am like a messenger from another time, bringing news from the kingdom to his door. He's still not sure.

"Hmm. We're leaking a few votes here," Isaac, the board runner says.

A leak; the displacement of air: the sound of hissing from the Manchester City fans, the Leicester City fans, the fans of Ashfield and Derby North

 

LATER AT THE shop, a fight starts while I am at the check out.

I am listening to a podcast about the public enquiry into the Hillsborough disaster when I hear shouts.

A white guy, is yelling at the black security guard. His face is twisted, his jacket bunched around his upper body. (The men were heavy, the jackets were heavy).

He is angry because the guard called him back when the alarm went off. He points at the guard and calls him a mug. 

The guard stays behind his podium and smiles.  This makes the man angrier.

"You're a fucking mug!"

I pause my headphones and keep scanning my items. Everyone else also seems to be paying attention, waiting for a cue to get involved, to enter the vacant collectivity.

The mans face makes me think of the word hostile again. (Hostile in the colloquial sense or the organisational sense?)

Another black man, a shopper, just arriving, is now telling the man to calm down.

The man turns on him. “What are you going to do?” he asks him.

“Why are you here, mate? No, why are you here?” Speaking over him and then going quiet. “No. No. Why are you here?”

He has said this one too many times or am I over-interpreting it?

The whole thing is over too quickly for anyone to intervene. The man disappears into the car park. Other staff now crowd around the security guard, excited, to find out what was going on.

 

That night a new polling projection comes out predicting a 68 seat Tory majority. "The model is based on 100,000 interviews with members of the public." I think of how long it would take to get answers from 100,000 doors.

The defeat looks heaviest in the Labour heartland, the former industrial towns in the north and the midlands.

The north, where bankrupt football clubs and entire streets of terraced houses are sold for a pound.

The north, whose accents are the last vestigial trait of what the culture recognises as  “working class”.

Accents, long associated by that culture with pig ignorance and crudity of manners.

Now known as the friendly and down-to-earth voice of commercials and financial services call centres.

I have felt my own accent coming out on the doorstep in this last week. Accidentally slipping into it to soften the encounter.

Lying in bed, my feed is lit up with people calling on canvassers in London to travel.

"Friends in Doncaster are telling me that they are getting only a fraction of the volunteers that the London seats are getting. People needed for some really difficult conversations with Labour voters."

"If anyone can make it to a northern marginal, they should. Esp to Stoke South, Grimsby, Broxtoe, but essentially wherever."

"Liverpool, Leeds or Birmingham, well, I don't care."

Do I still know anybody in the north? Is there anybody I could stay with?

People on whatsapp are saying there are local activists in each constituency who are offering to put people up, so I look at train tickets.

£66 to get to Broxtoe.

£70.50 to get to Mansfield.

£81.50 to get to Crewe.

Looking at the names of these unfamiliar places alongside the extremely familiar and specific amounts of money, I remember that I’m on strike. And given the pay I’m about to get docked, I probably shouldn't do it. So I resolve to stay and do my best in the marginals around London instead.

 

I HAVEN'T BEEN back to the picket since the first day.

 

The election has quickly come to encompass everything; everything that is at stake in the current strike. But also everything that was at stake in the last strike, and in the strikes and the protests before it.

Without the routine of travelling to work, it becomes difficult to keep track of time. The events of each day, the news stories, the doors and faces become part of an endless stream, adding new information but no refinement of sense.

I find that canvassing makes it even harder to get any perspective on what’s happening in the election.  But is the only course of action that makes sense. The only response to good or bad news. So I keep doing more of it.

In Battersea, there are dozens of us gathered on the pavement in the middle of the day.

The leader is a young lad with the broad features of a colliery singer.  He pairs me up with a new group of people. If you do this long enough, do the people stop being new? Will I start to recognise them? Will the city feel smaller?

Craig studies at Goldsmiths near to where I live but he's originally from Nottingham.

He tells me about a game he went to between Nottingham Forest and Newcastle where the travelling Newcastle fans chanted "scab" at the home support for the whole ninety minutes — a reference the UDM, the scab union founded in Nottingham during the miners' strike.

"So are you a Forest fan then?"

"Sort of but not really."

"Is Nottingham one of those places where we shouldn't be losing but we are?"

"It's one of them."

He tells me that he sent an email to his parents this morning, copying in a letter sent by Corbyn to the miners in 1984.

He wrote, "I am not trying to convince you anymore but I just want you to know that I will never understand how you can not like this man."

We start on an affluent street. Walking up to one house with a Porsche and a Jaguar outside, Craig says, "I wonder what party these people who own a Porsche and a Jaguar support."

We are met at the door by a man with white hair who looks like a retired record producer. He lets us introduce ourselves and then says, "I’m afraid I don't support Labour. Thank you for calling."

At the next house, a woman says politely, "Gosh, Labour again. Well, you're very persistent, but I’m afraid we're voting Lib Dem."

"Does that go for everyone in the household, madam?" Craig says.

"Yes."

Walking back to the board, Craig says, "I am voting Liberal Democrat so that one day my child might enter the private rental market."

We report back to the guy running the board.

"That's good. They all voted Tory last time."

The next addresses are inside an asymmetrical development of new-builds. No-one has a drop-key so we have to try all the intercoms to find someone who'll let us in.

I give my spiel to the one guy we get hold of and ask if he's decided how he's going to vote. "Yes, thanks. I’m all sorted mate."

"All sorted," I say as we move on. Craig laughs. "That's good. You're all sorted, are you mate?"

For some reason, we both find this funny. Something about the breezy, matey way it displaces something awkward between men, by making it into a transaction.

The new-builds are harder to get into than the council flats. We head back to the office to help out with some letter deliveries.

In the office, there is music playing, the printer is running, there are mugs and paraphernalia everywhere. The young colliery singer is there now, with his coat off, leafing through some papers and singing to himself.

Craig and I stand there for a moment as people buzz about us, waiting for someone to give us something to do.

While we're stood there, Bella Ciao comes on the playlist, an old partisan song.

I heard this song for the first time recently and became briefly interested in it, reading the different versions of the lyrics, listening to a Tom Waits cover of it on repeat on my way into work.

When it comes on in the office, there is a little general "ahh" of recognition, as though the other volunteers are remembering the same thing.

Someone gives me and Craig a big stack of envelopes each with a map attached.

We are going in different directions, so we say goodbye. No-one ever seems sure how to say goodbye to each other. There is a feeling, difficult to place, that you will see each other again.

He and I exchange an awkward, “Cheers! Nice to meet you.”

As we go to the door, the colliery singer calls out "good luck!" to us then kisses his fingers to us and says, "Bella ciao!"

The envelope deliveries take longer than I thought. The temperature drops while I am out and I end up finishing in the dark.

By the time I get home, I’m freezing. I make a cup of tea and run a bath and then get into bed with all my clothes on but am unable to get warm.

Overnight, the shivering becomes a full-blown fever. It exhausts itself some time in the middle of the night, but I end up sleeping until 11 and missing the morning session.

 

Kensington gif

Kensington, Jack Gain

THE NUMBERS OF people are still getting bigger. You still meet people who are doing it for the first time.

Back in Kensington, the organiser, a woman younger than me, briefs a couple of hundred people on the pavement outside a restaurant and a corner shop. 

Behind her, as she talks, the waiter waves his arms and punches his fists for us behind the glass. The guy from the corner shop comes to his door to listen.

At one end of the road, the town houses have been split into flats for private rent. There are ragged doormats, flaps missing from letterboxes. The doorbells and buzzers are unlabelled or don’t correspond to the numbers of the flats; their wires painted over with the white of the frame.

At the other end, there are pastel-coloured doors with Banham locks. Some with Christmas wreaths, others which are clean and well appointed, but where obviously no-one lives.

At this end, I have more success with the cleaners. I’m always secretly relieved to be met by them rather than their employers, in my fingerless gloves and ruined shoes. 

One, a European woman with henna coloured hair, holds the door ajar behind her.

"I vote by post. I have already voted."

"Do you mind me asking who you voted for?"

"Labour. I love Labour. I think it's great that you young people are going around."

Somewhere else, I ask for Mr. and Mrs. Miller on the intercom.

"They're not in. This is the cleaner."

"That's alright. Do you know who you're voting for?"

"Yeah, Labour. I always vote Labour. Who's in at the minute. The con—"

"The Conservatives."

"Hang on a minute," I can hear her turn the hoover off.

"So what's Labour about then."

"Er, this time it’s a ten pound an hour minimum wage, four new bank holidays, free dental checkups, take the trains back into public ownership..."

She sighs. "Well, I hope you win. But I’m not getting my hopes up."

 

This is what you come up against, more than any countervailing ideology or set of beliefs. Just low expectations.

 

This is why the four day week isn't polling well. It is the best policy. And therefore the least believable to people who have been ground down.

Later on, I scroll through my feed, my sight has adapted to look for anything formatted like a poll. The all caps, the three letter abbreviations, the numbers. Like the football results, the ways your eyes land on the name of your club.

English football being known for its speed, aggression and disorder. The results, an intrusion on the chaos of the game.

"If the election were held today, the result would be..."

Doncaster Rovers 2

Peterborough United 2

The received pronunciation of the announcer, the melismatic "nil".

Carlisle United: nil

Ipswich Town: nil

Southampton Itchen: nil

Derby North: nil

Changes from 22 Nov. Changes from 2017. From 1979. From 1945.

 

Colindale gif

Colindale, Jack Gain

 

THE STRIKE ENDED on Wednesday, but I haven't gone back to work yet and also haven't phoned in sick.

I did test my out of office again, because I couldn’t remember if I had set it to expire. It still worked. The sound of my bell coming from somewhere else, some other time.

In Colindale, we walk to an old council development of low-rise cul-de-sacs surrounding a meadow.

I get sent into a block on my own and find half the flats empty. The doors pocked by half-crescents that look like the impacts of a battering ram. The few remaining occupants have made their own doors cheerful with Christmas decorations but aren't answering to me.

Further into the estate, we have a bit more luck.

I speak to a Polish woman who tells me: "I haven't decided yet. I’ll probably vote Labour." 

Behind her. two blonde boys in red school sweatshirts watch on from the hall. One of them is saying "Jeremy Corbyn!"

She shushes them and turns back to me suppressing a smile

"I’m like 90, 100%."

"You're 100%?

"Yeah, I’ll vote Labour."

And Miss King, who takes a while to come to the door. She wants to know why Jeremy Corbyn hasn't done anything about Universal Credit.

"Well, we've got to win first. But then he's going to scrap it."

She tells me what it has done to the people she knows. That and the benefits cap and the work capability assessment.

“You need 12 points to qualify. My son was in hospital for six weeks. He has sickle-cell anemia. The day after he was discharged he got 12 points. He only just qualified. I know what it’s like because I help people fill in their forms.”

"You mean that’s part of your job?"

"No, I’m retired."

"You're just helping them."

"I’m just helping them."

Miss King ends up taking a poster for her window. But none of the next few people I get ahold of are planning to vote.

As we walk back across the meadow (farewell to this land's cheerless marshes) the board runner tells me that the whole estate is being cleared for redevelopment.

"They've been evicting people, slowly slowly. Large parts of the estate have been empty for years."

I think of all of the homeless people that I’ve walked past and all of the empty houses that I’ve knocked on; here, in Kensington, in the north, the streets of terraced housing sold for a pound.

When I get home, I see two new polls which both have Labour and the Tories down by -1. The upward movement appearing now to have stalled. The news makes me despondent. 

Does this work at all? The spectacle of the election and the hundreds of us gathering in the streets seem to have been happening in two different worlds.

In two weeks of doing it, I am not sure that I have convinced anyone of anything.

Instead, they have started to convince me. Their ambivalence and lack of belief have entered me like the cold into my bones.

ON THE DAY of the election, I get up early and am on the train before the first commute.

I eventually did go back to work for a couple of days. And there, without trying to, I found myself getting into conversations more easily. Something must have changed in my face, my orientation to the world, which made people more inclined to talk to me, as though I’d left my Labour sticker on.

I talked a couple of people round to Labour. Talked a few people into voting who might not have bothered.

I even got into a conversation on the tube. A woman got on the Central line and came straight over to me and Aoife, who had been on the same canvass and was going back the same way. She was smiling at us in a bright red coat. (Red of caution or red of notification?)

It turned out that her son was also canvassing. "He's out every night. He’s a teacher, teaches English so he's not daft. I do what he tells me, but we've always been Labour anyway."

She was a florist from Bermondsey, who worked on a stall in Kensington. She showed me and Aoife her hands: pink, a little grubby, a little swollen. 

"My rent is 1,300. I make it work with a little swings and roundabouts. But god, I hope Corbyn wins. I love that man, he's for us."

“Do florists have bad hands?” I asked Aoife, when the woman got off.

"Yeah, especially if they're outdoors all day. It's quite wet and difficult work."

 

POLLING DAY ITSELF is actually fun.

I am surprised to see Aoife there on the day, because she has come all the way over from Leytonstone. "Christ, what time did you have to get up?"

"Ach," she says. "I’ll sleep when I’m dead."

This becomes a saying that we use to motivate ourselves to persevere throughout the day.

At lunchtime: "I’ll eat when I’m dead."

When arriving on the landing having run up the stairs:

"Catch your breath before you knock."

"I’ll breathe when I’m dead."

I had planned to break the day up by going home at lunch time so I could vote myself in the safe Labour seat where I live and then rest for a couple of hours before coming back for the busiest part of the day.

But in the end I decide to work through and go back home to vote just before the polls close at ten. 

"I’ll vote when I’m dead."

"When I’m dead" being a time after all this is over that we still can't contemplate.

The work is more cheerful than before because we are only calling on houses where the people are friendly. And, because we’re just reminding them, people see us less as door-to-door marketers and more as a public service.

“Shit, it’s today? I completely forgot,” says one man.

When a woman in the back room calls through to ask who it is, he calls back, “It’s the election guy.”

An old Indian man asks me to stir his tea for him while he goes out to vote, the steam from the lentils making me realise how hungry I am.

I now think this might be the only thing that works, in any lasting way. Not the substance of the conversations as much as the fact of them. The conversations you have with a stranger at your door register in the memory in a way that leaflets and news headlines don’t.

The last few hours are a blur as people get home from work and we tear around the estates as fast as we can.

 

Some time after nine, I say my goodbyes and leave with just enough time to get back. As I’m walking away from the flats, Aoife calls to me over the railing from the second floor.

"Hey." 

"What?"

"Could you do me one last favour?” I go closer and she lowers her voice. “Could you show this lady where the polling station is? She doesn't want to go on her own and I’ve got to get through the rest of this block."

When I get to the landing, the lady is pulling on her boots. She has a coat on over her pyjamas. She tells me it's the first time she's been out all day.

Her teeth are chattering, either because of the cold or because she is a little on edge to be going out into the world. We talk a little in the lift and on the walk to the nursery, where I wait outside.

“Some days, I just can’t handle it all, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I do.”

After I’ve walked her home, I make a dash for the tube.

When I make it down to the station, the next train is due in 4 minutes but it doesn't come for ten. By which time, the platform is full.

 

It is now certain that I won’t make it home in time to vote.

 

When the train finally comes, it’s rammed inside. I just about get on and end up in the middle of the carriage. Hemmed in like a boar between arches.

As we descend into the tunnel, I realise that the names of the stops, which meant so little to me before are now flooded with associations; each one a stream of strangers’ faces, of conversations in doorways, of the doorways themselves, of dilapidated communal areas. The outline of something human in a pile of belongings.

Some of the places remind me of a certain time of day. Of figures under a lamppost, their dark coats outlined in the mist. 

Of blue skies, yellow leaves on the grass and everywhere red. The bright rosettes of it on the people as they pour out into the quiet streets, like the streets around a football ground.

Each time we pull into a new station, I connect to the platform wifi and refresh my browser to see if there’s any news. 

I am doing this compulsively, knowing there will be nothing meaningful, knowing that by law the exit poll can not be released until ten o’clock exactly.

In the tunnel between Gloucester Road and South Kensington, the train slows to a stop, the dark outside the window close.

After a few minutes, the driver makes an announcement:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just been told that we are being held at a red signal. I’m not sure what exactly is the cause of the delay but we should be on the move shortly.”

The clock on my phone says that it’s two minutes to ten.

The longer we wait, the more tense the mood in the carriage becomes.

We are stood close enough together to hear one another’s thoughts.

Someone presses against my back but there is no room ahead of me to move into. I realise that even if I wanted to, I could no longer move my arms. 

In a few moments, the train will start to move again. We will pull into the next station and I will refresh my connection and find out the result.

But for now I am stuck down here in this crowd, our bodies pressed together in this definite mass.

I am surrounded by people, voters, probably hundreds of them, but I am unable to know what they have decided.

Down here, Marsha is still on the estate, calling back to the kids who cycle past.

Craig is still on the terraces at Forest, having been dragged along by his Dad.

The two girls from Roehampton are still at the rave, walking up to strangers as if they know them.

Miss King is in the half empty flats in Colindale, helping people fill in their forms.

The young colliery singer is kissing his fingers, saying, “bella ciao.”

And the florist is in Kensington, her pink fingers working the stems, telling people about her son.

 

- Jack Gain, London

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