Stood at bus stop, minding my own business, when …


I heard a woman chatting to another about her child’s medical treatment.  He was not getting the attention he warranted, in her opinion, from the NHS.

Of course, she said to the other woman, you know why he is not getting an appointment, don’t you?  Other woman nods yes.

I am glad you understand (now we have exchanged the bigot’s eye contact) and agree with me.  They come over here etc, etc.  They get sent to the front of the queue etc, etc.  Nods and spoken agreement from woman two with non verbal, but clear support from woman three.  There were five of us at the stop.

At which point, I swore in front of this woman and her child.  Just the one word, it rhymes with bullocks.  It was not my proudest moment, but when you have been on the receiving end of such prejudiced opinion for over twenty five years, with no right of come back, then sooner or later something is bound to snap.  I firmly gave her a piece of my mind as to how I saw it from my position.

Her response was that I might well be right, but it was her perception that I was not.  Perception (as I fear too many, particularly intelligent people fail to grasp) is very often reality for the average voter.  Woman two retired behind a smokescreen of I never said anything (which was untrue) and woman three developed an interest in the middle distance.

Then came the counter attack.  I had uttered a swear word in front of her child.  I admit it was hardly my proudest moment.  However, my major sin was butting into a private conversation.

You want to tackle that woman’s perception?  Then stop expecting other people to do it for you and start butting into some private conversations not just ones on social media, but out on the street, in the café, on the Tube, in the back of the taxi, in the workplace and yes, at the bus stop, too.  The personal is the political, is it not?  I just hope you have a better outcome than I had, because I do not think I changed anyone’s perception of reality that day.

By the way, all three women were white, working class and standing at a bus stop in one of the most deprived wards in England.  A ward that was, until very recently, a Labour stronghold and now has two (ukip lite) Tory Councillors sitting alongside one Labour Councillor who is standing down this May.  A ward whose population defined itself in 2011 as 79.5% white; 4.8% mixed race; 6.1% Asian British; 8.9% Afro-Caribbean and 0.6% other ethnic group.  A ward where ukip, the BNP and the NF (remember them?) compete for office with Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.  The Conservatives now field local candidates for the local elections as though the ward has become twinned with Royston Vasey.

Migration (code, in some quarters, for both migrants and non whites, wherever they were born?) is something that some of the voters in this ward perceive to be bad for them and their families.  They have no ideological hang ups about PFI (if they know what it is); have no interest in re-nationalising the railways; their environmental concerns do not go much further than bellyaching about the cost of a green wheelie bin; extraordinary rendition sounds like it might be something they might like to rent on DVD; returning East of Suez shows they need us, Rule Britannia and all that, and, although the Typhoon is going way over budget at least it is British, mostly, Battle of Britain, the Few and all that.  A tad over the top, may be, but these people will be voting on Thursday 7th May alongside people with all sorts of ideological hang ups as well as special and minority interests.

Plenty of people on my timelines are saying why they will be voting for X and/or why Y has lost their support and so on.  Would it be unfair of me to think that they do not spend much time listening to views with which they disagree?  Well, if you are more than just an armchair supporter of a party then between now and May you have your chance to listen to your fellow voters (just like you say politicians running for office should do).

Get yourself a clipboard and go canvassing for your chosen party (with their approval) and see what the electorate thinks of its policies, your candidate and your cherished beliefs.  I guarantee it will be (Civil Service code) an interesting experience.  You may even agree with Winston Churchill, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

You might get to meet ‘Voter’ Z who shows every candidate at every election a pile or two of canine ordure on the footpath, but not because he wants them to do anything about it, but because he can get them to look at it, whilst gleefully telling them all that he does not vote for them (or anyone).  Russell Brand ought to go on tour with him.

You might be harangued by Voter W who does not see enough of her MP.  Would you like to speak with him about something?  I could ask him to pop around later.  No, I am fine.  We just do not see enough of him around here …  He usually out polls, by a wide margin, his party’s local authority candidates in that ward so go figure!

You will probably understand, if you do not already, why all political parties, serious about maximising their resources, produce documents like Labour’s Campaigning Against ukip.  Stand up rows with voters unlikely to share your views, let alone vote for your party may be personally cathartic, but they will not put crosses where you want to see them on polling day and, if you think by being on the other side of that conversation that you are changing someone’s mind then you are not.  You are definitely not voting for their party and you are too late to get them to change their policies to match up with your particular preferences.  You have had over four and a half years in which to do that and their polling probably suggests that they do not need your vote to win or stave off defeat.  And their polling also tells them what concerns the average voter whose cross they are seeking on polling day in your constituency.  You need to change the concerns of your fellow voters to change the policies of most political parties engaged in electoral politics.

My woman number one is, I fear, the average voter in her ward.  Disturbingly, she conceded she could be wrong and I right, but preferred to stick with her world view, perhaps like a child holds on to a dummy?  Either way, I do not think a five minute lecture on the reality of migration would change her mind about the issue, because it did not.  However, the NHS is obviously very important to her so perhaps I missed a trick there?  May be, unlike some on the left I could have recognised her perception, her concerns even and then moved the conversation on to talking about how without staff from abroad her child’s healthcare really would be adversely affected.

Possibly, I might then have started a conversation about the re-regulation of bus services, because the vast majority of people in this country who use public transport travel by bus not train.  Locally, a Daysaver on the buses just went up from £4.00 to £4.20, a 5% increase.  I gather that rail season tickets have gone up too, but I learnt about that from the tv news, unlike the change in bus fares which I had to read on the side of the bus.

As an aside, I probably would have to persuade woman number one that the Council does not run the buses and has not done so since 1969, in other words, before she was born.  I still hear people at the bus stop blaming them, ubiquitous, anonymous people in power, for the cost of bus fares, the paucity of the service and its invariable lateness.

The cost of commuting by rail is a serious issue, but if re-nationalisation means bus users subsidising rail users then how will that not be the salaried middle class getting their way, once again?  Perhaps we should ask Dennis Skinner’s Man on the Clapham Omnibus?  Perhaps we should ask Martin Griffiths of Stagecoach about which issue is more of a vote winner, bus or train fares?

I gather where you stand on rail ownership is becoming a shibboleth on the left.  I wait for the day when we may have a serious debate about what we want from our publicly funded transport, health and education systems without people first taking up entrenched ideological positions (and that before we move on to how to best deliver them with effective public/private/VCS partnerships dedicated to continuous improvement of service).  I know I will not get one between now and May 7th so I do not expect to be changing my voting preference between now and then.  Although, the first party to say the NHS should focus on prevention not cure …

Yes, ukip you nearly had me thinking well of you for once, but then you outdid yourself by flip flopping within the same policy point.  We think poor lifestyle choices present a major challenge to the sustainability of the NHS, you said, but alas, then went on to say it is wrong for the Government to dictate to people how to behave so, on coming to power, we will scrap all publicly funded campaigns promoting healthy living.  Incidentally, has ukip flip flopped over this bit of its ‘lost’ NHS policy?

Seriously though, would it not be great to discuss what we want from publicly funded services rather than just debating about whether they cost us too much, not enough etc?  Might we not have a chat about value for money in its broadest sense?

For the record, my perception was that woman number one’s child was getting the treatment he needed when he needed it, but what would I know?  I am just an average voter (or may be not).  I travel by public transport, mostly the bus (but I love travelling by Chiltern and Arriva Trains Wales) and I have never taken a driving test.  I gather the latter means I am not, in some eyes at least, an average voter …

I think our rail network should be run by one organisation, vertically and horizontally integrated.  I am just not sure whether it should be directly owned by the public sector or not, because either way taxpayers, including my three women at the bus stop, will be subsidising it, even though they are unlikely to be using it to commute within London and the South East where the cost of commuting is, I gather, a big political issue.  And that is why we, the people, need an informed debate about what we want from our national rail network.  As an aside, one of the commercial casualties of World War One was the profitability of that network and the taxpayer has been increasingly picking up the tab for it ever since.

And this is where we came in.  If ukip did not have migration to use as a scapegoat then it could just as easily play up its attack on the out of touch middle class with their sense of entitlement.  Matthew Goodwin said as much in his article of 26th August 2014 wherein he remarked, “Such (policy) ideas will repel metropolitan liberals but strengthen Ukip’s appeal to older, left-behind voters who feel they are being taken for a ride by elites who seem more interested in throwing money at migrants or overseas than to native low-skilled workers.”

If you think Labour, in particular, should be thinking seriously about resurrecting British Rail (and disinterring a goods yard full of stand up comedians’ gag vans) then you will need to be convincing about how you think this is not another example of the elite taking themselves for a ride.  A ride at the expense of those who they have consigned to waiting for a bus that never comes.  I am reminded of the quote, wrongly attributed to Mrs Thatcher, that if you are regularly using a bus in your thirties then you are a failure.  At least buses were allegedly on her radar.

There was a time when the working and middle classes made common cause over issues like public transport.  When there was a degree of common interest and when the scion of a Liberal family (take note, Mr Danczuk) and son of a Viscount could be considered more Labour than many a horny handed son of toil.  Recently, I heard Owen Jones being described (to his face) as an heir of that chap.  He blushed.  What was clear, from Birmingham’s equivalents of the stereotypical Hampstead socialist that were making that observation was that they had never once canvassed for the party that they were urging to be more radical and, therefore, had no idea about how to persuade people to vote for the policies they wanted to see adopted.  They hold their truths, it seems, to be self evident.

If you change your policies, goes the line, then of course enough people will vote for them for us to take power without us delivering leaflets on a damp Monday morning in January or spending 17 hours getting the vote out on polling day.  In one regard, all activists, regardless of party are the same, we have all shared the agony and the ecstasy of electoral politics.  Engaging in click membership, getting your new, shiny party card (and feeling of virtue?) and turning up to the odd meeting to have your say comes nowhere near it.  Yes, your chosen party wants your money, but arguably they want your boots on the ground more and your strongly held opinions a tad less.  Which is why many parties value their non member activists more than their members who do nothing, but pay their membership fees.

Let me leave you with this thought.  Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, if you had a UB40 you quite often got concessions at the cinema and similar, but I have not seen similar since 2008.  It was not politicians who made people give the concessions and it was not politicians who made them stop.  Why are people less charitable today in this regard than they were back in the days of Thatcher and right on (rest in peace, Rik Mayall) politics, when Labour fought a General Election on a radical Manifesto described as “The longest suicide note in history” (and lost) and when the party was led by a scruffy, intellectual Bevanite who held his mentor’s former Parliamentary seat?

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