People tolerate decline like it’s part of life – but we deserve better

For the Conservatives, political messaging is often more potent than political realities. It is hard to feel cheerful on weeks like this, but things can get better

Jess Phillips@jessphillips
Saturday 08 May 2021 18:23
Keir Starmer says he is ‘bitterly disappointed’ with election results

There is no way to dress it up, the Labour Party has a way to go before we even reach the base camp in order to prepare to climb the mountain. I shall not try to spin it, I am useless at that anyway. One thing I am sure of is that people wishing to apportion blame on personalities are more interested in blame than they are on solutions. It is tedious and heaped with bad faith.

We have got to not just listen to what the country is telling us, but act on it. To actually accept that for great swathes of the country Labour currently does not seem like a better alternative.

There are few things more maddening to me than listening to Conservatives successfully telling a story of change after they have been in power for 11 years. The Tories campaigned in my own area of the West Midlands promising jobs and training just like they did nearly four years, which they followed with a decline in employment and a decline in young people in training. In 2017, my Tory mayor promised “zero young people will be unemployed or not in skills training” but before the pandemic between 2015/16 and 2019/20 there was a drop 39.4 per cent of young people in work or training.

If I were to ask anyone in my constituency “what has our Tory mayor done for you, your family or your area?” I can almost guarantee you that they would either not know that we even have a regional mayor, they certainly would struggle to name him and probably none of them would be able to tell me what he’d done. I did of course ask this question during the campaign, and the only person who could answer said: “Is he something to do with buses?” before telling me the buses had become worse.

None of it matters though, and for me, that appears to be for two reasons. The first is that political messaging is often more potent than political realities and to be fair to our mayor and to his political party there is a consistency of messaging about bringing jobs and investment to our area, even if that doesn’t happen it doesn’t matter. If only messages could pay the bills eh?

The second reason is all too dispiriting I am afraid – people have stopped expecting things to actually improve. My mom used to jokingly say: “Aim low and you will never be disappointed.” A delightful self-effacing Brummie sentiment but also a protective shield. People have got used to decline in their areas. People have got used to the police not being able to make it to every call out, people have learned to live with having to wait on the phone for an hour in a queue to get an appointment at the doctor's in three weeks’ time.

People have learned to accept that their local police station is now a block of ten flats and that their local school has crumbling windows. In my constituency, two primary schools had faced such severe budget cuts that they had to close early on Fridays, only offering four and a half days of school per week to pupils. I didn’t find out about it until I happened upon the schools kicking out pupils at lunchtime on a Friday. I didn’t know because not a single parent had complained to me about it. Not one. People tolerate decline today as an expected part of life.

Time was that the natural order of things was that your kids had a better chance than you had. People strived for more for the next generation and expected advancements. Nowadays children live off and with their families for much longer with very little chance of buying a home or having a lifelong secure career. I joke about counting down the days until my sons leave home and older wiser parents look at me with knowing pity and remark “they will be living with you for decades yet” and we all just accept this new normal of a decline in progress and advancement as if it is cliché.

The lies that Boris Johnson tells are nothing compared to the illusion he has created by matching low expectations with the promise of a rosy future that we never quite reach. We never make it to the jobs jobs jobs he promises but the promise is enough when little else is on offer.

People need to feel positive. People want to hear that their area is the best in the world. I know where I live is not everyone’s cup of tea and even in its decline, to me, it is the very best place in not just the world but the universe. I love it and I want to hear that other people love it too.

It is hard for an opposition party to be positive when your job is to be negative about the government, but positive is what the people want and telling a story about a better future inspires even the most cynical citizen.

We have got to get people to believe once again that decline is not a certainty and that they can and will get better. We all deserve better, our brilliant places deserve better, our kids deserve better, our politics deserves better and things can and will get better if we work together with the people to make it so.

It is hard to feel cheerful on weeks like this one but we have got to try because cheer, hope and higher expectations that things do change is what people want. First, we have to convince people things can get better and once we have done that we are in with a chance that they might want to listen to our plans.

Things will get better.

Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

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