The Politics of Experience

Often people ask me, why do you support Labour? Why are you a socialist? I know many people have asked that of my podcast co-host Bradley, to which he wrote an article similar to this in reply to such questions. This is my attempt to answer these questions not just for the benefit of you my readers but for the benefit of myself. It begins with my life experience.

I am not like the rest of my family in many ways you will come to see. I was born in Derby unlike the rest of my family who were all born in Bolton. My parents were relatively middle class unlike the life experiences of both their forbears. Both my grandparents were from working class backgrounds where their lives originated on the post-war council estates and the terraced houses of the industrial north. As such my parent’s experiences in their youth were that of a working-class lifestyle in the 1970s and 1980s. I am often reminded of the journey my family have been on these last forty years or so by both my parents and my grandparents.

My dad was the second person in his own family, after my grandfather, to attend university and he was the only one out of his three siblings to attend education beyond college. Albeit his time at university came after leaving school at 15 years old and a spell as a lorry driver and an unskilled manual worker. He went on to a masters and a doctorate. My mother was much the same: she was the first in her family (aside from a brief spell by my grandfather) to attend university. Everyone in my family has been to comprehensive schools, all of them have never owned a home over £600,000 in value, in fact my father did not own his own home until very recently at the age of 48. My mother’s parents are now comfortably upper-middle class owning a large home in Shropshire whilst in the aftermath of my grandfather’s passing on my father’s side, my grandmother lives comfortably in a two-bed terraced house in that same part of ex-industrial Britain. Though their journey begins as a working-class story it is now firmly one of middle-class lifestyle but isn’t that the story of a lot of people of the last forty years or so? This is not to negate the life experiences of others, all I simply suggest is my heritage, relative to the trials of others, is to a large extent a common trend in post-war British history. The working-class family on the council estate, in the shadow of Britain’s former industrial past pushes on, breaks new barriers, and enters the lavish life of middle-class suburbia.

As such, my own upbringing was that of a relatively middle-class family. I was born at the turn of the new millennia. I’m told there was much hope and optimism for what lay before. This optimism was, in many ways, well placed. My family’s economic position steadily increased over the next twenty years. My father is now a professor, my mother is now, after several different jobs in the public sector, a clinical psychologist. By this point my parents have securely middle-class jobs, with securely middle-class wages. In my childhood, this relatively secure economic position, enabled many opportunities for me and my brother. We went on holiday every year, we could afford our school uniform and school trips, we lived in nice neighbourhoods in Bolton and Stockport.

That’s not say we were well off. By no means were we well off. Arguments about money and spending were regular in my childhood between my parents. There were times when certain opportunities couldn’t be afforded to me and my parents just about managed to afford my time at university. We were secure but we weren’t affluent, and we certainly weren’t comfortable. Though, this is not to negate the struggles of others with less economic security than my family and I am well aware of how fortunate I am to have been afforded the security and opportunities that many still are unable to access. Yet, it’s the truth, my family did have a middle-class income but never felt truly comfortable with that income.

Things were made worse by the breakdown of my family with the divorce of my parents at the age of 14. My parents ended up living in poorly kept rented homes: my father in a house ridden with damp whilst my mother lived in a terraced house falling apart at the seams. At the same time my brother was diagnosed with autism, after waiting for over a year; I had to go to therapy, after waiting for months. My mother moved to Macclesfield in search of a fresh beginning, it’s safe to say it turned into a sour ending and four years later she moved back to Stockport. Meanwhile my father was ridden with debt after divorce legal fees, paying obscene sums of money for a house he didn’t own, had to afford mine and my brothers’ life whilst his job began to become more problematic with the increasing insecurity of university professions.

In this same period, my dad’s father died and my gran, who can barely sustain herself on the state pension after a lifetime of work, had to pay for a funeral. Meanwhile my brother ended up on anti-depressants, my uncle and aunt also divorced, and I myself, after contending with depression, ended up in a significant amount of debt. Safe to say that though my life is relatively secure, and though my parents work in middle-class jobs with middle-class wages, they struggled and particularly after their divorce.

From my story there are many others like it. Even those who don’t share this story will hear elements of truth from their own lives: the long waiting times for healthcare, the soaring funeral costs, obscene levels of debt, wages that only just stretch expenses, growing rates of depression and low mood, divorced parents and broken families, rented homes (both public and private) which overcharge and underdeliver, the dream of being able to go to university brought back down to earth with astronomical costs which punish middle class families, economic insecurity brought about by unforeseen circumstances. At the heart of this is a simple message: society isn’t working, the economy isn’t working. As such, when I talk of preserving the family unit and strengthening its success, I do so because my own family broke down. When I talk of improving healthcare, I do so because my brother waited too long for his diagnosis. When I talk of a better focus on mental health, I do so because my own therapy was laboured and short. When I talk of building council houses and of home ownership, I do so because for a lot of my life I lived in poor quality (a health concern in my dad’s case) homes, which my family did not own, and which charged a fortune. When I talk of improving the purpose and security of work, I do so because my mum had to supplement her income with in-work benefits and because my dad, who works a traditional middle-class job, is experiencing exploitation and contractual insecurity. When I talk of reforming tuition fees and maintenance loans, I do so because my family were punished by a system that lets the wealthy off and, rightly, focuses on supporting working-class and disadvantaged students but forgets that there are millions of hard-working middle-class families which are stretching themselves that little bit too thin.

Fundamentally my philosophy is built upon these experiences. If I had to sum my beliefs up in a question they would be something like: “Who is in control: the people or the powerful?” When people discuss their own politics, they often talk of the great philosophers who have shaped their opinions. Be in no doubt I acknowledge this; that’s why they’re great philosophers. However, this focus on philosophy often negates the greater influence: their own experiences. That’s what this week’s column seeks to do, not just to enlighten you of my own experiences but to provoke questions in your own mind. Where have I come from? What are my experiences? How have they informed my politics? These are the questions I have asked myself recently and they have grounded me in a political reality beyond the destructive dogmas that seem to encroach upon our political sphere. I might have philosophers that channel my experiences but, fundamentally, the politics of experience is the most significant pillar upon which our own views are built.

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