It’s May 2015. David Cameron has just been elected as Prime Minister with one of the slimmest majorities in British political history. The Liberal Democrats are vanquished. Ed Milband’s Labour Party is in dire straits, and Scotland looks set for a second independence referendum, with the SNP taking nearly all of Scotland’s Westminster seats in a clean sweep.
In a Government & Politics class at a selective school in Watford, my 17-year-old self was living for it.
I joined the Labour Party straight after that election. Despite my background, from a single-parent household on tax credits, I chose to be a member. I’d always kept my options open politically, but being Labour just made a lot more sense to me and my own personal values. But, at the end of Lower Sixth and in an introduction to my A2 Politics course, my teacher explained the essence of free-market economics – something I had always viewed as a dirty term due to its association with Thatcherism.
“It’s the idea that multiple companies should be providers so that they compete with each other and keep prices down”.
Far from being “dirty”, that idea made a lot of sense to me. But, only being politically educated for a year, I still didn’t know why Labour held hostility towards it. Until I found out that, from 1997 – 2007, they didn’t. That someone had managed to combine the compassion of increased social policies with a free-market economy. And that someone was the much-vilified Tony Blair.
From then onwards, I viewed Blair as a much-misunderstood man. I hated his foreign policy, yet adored his domestic policy, as it made so much sense to me. Blair stood for, and acted according to, everything I had been piecing together in my political education. I viewed the world as the New Labour Machine did. I had the opportunity to undertake a Personal Investigation in my History Pre U course, and I opted to look at the makings of the New Labour experiment. I idolised Alistair Campbell as the man who could sell the story I so desperately believed in. From then onwards, I sought to do as he did. I remember joining a freshers’ group chat before I came to LSE, where everyone was asked what they wanted to do later in life. I simply replied: “I want to be the next Alistair Campbell”.
So I thought that political communications for the Labour Party was my calling. But then 2016 happened.
My naïve, 17-year-old self’s view of the world came crashing down. Suddenly, the failures of New Labour, in all their glory, came to the fore. They let too many EU immigrants in, against the public’s wishes. They failed to adequately modernise “left behind” places in the North. They also failed to “save to mend the roof when the sun shines”; neoliberal economics could not be effectively reconciled with large social-policy spending. Spending in “boom” cycles and failing to save in “bust” ones led to one of the greatest economic disasters of modern times – the impact of the 2008 Global Financial Crash in Britain. Beginning with Thatcher’s closing of the mines and move towards a London-centric service sector economy, New Labour had accentuated a divide between “cosmopolitan” and “left-behind” areas in the country that was only exposed on 23rd June 2016, with the Brexit Referendum.
At the moment I heard that the country had voted to Leave, I knew that the New Labour Experiment was dead. It was a failure for leading to this. Not only that, but the country was exposed as fractured, and the Corbyn-led Labour Party was far from up to the challenge of facing this. Being a fierce adequate of the New Labour machine and seeing the statistics of previous British elections, I believed, and still do, that a largely socialist manifesto is incapable of winning a British General Election. I have a somewhat Hobbesian generalised view of humanity which may contribute to this. Nevertheless, 2016, for me, spelled the end of politics as we knew it.
This was confirmed when I interned this summer at a public affairs’ firm and met Harry Gregson, who was a previous Communications Director for the Labour Party. Harry had the job that I aspired to have when I was 17. But he quit. When I asked why, he just said he simply could not get behind the party. It was flagging. He had worked there since 2008, so saw the Party through one of its biggest challenges in the form of the Crash, and had only just lost faith in the party. He added that he felt sorry for my generation and the lost opportunities we would have in the Party now that it was vast losing credibility and failing to meet the challenges that arose from 2016.
I voted Labour in 2017, but only because, as a Politics degree student, I believed I should always exercise my vote. But, in all honesty, for the first time in my life, none of the parties firmly resonated with me. I could never vote Conservative, out of a mixture of my background, personal values and firm belief that there remains a “cult of individualism” at the heart of the party. The Liberal Democrats were virtually dead and so naïve in their dedication to a second referendum. As if it would have a different outcome to the first; the fracture behind the first referendum had been exposed, you can’t just paper over it. I still dislike Jeremy Corbyn, but I voted Labour on the basis of the one thing that 2016 hadn’t changed: my values. I remained, and still remain, committed to achieving a more equal society, accounting for individualistic attitudes but boosting collectivism to achieve this.
The 2017 General Election then largely reflected the Brexit vote, with “Remain” areas backing Labour and “Leave” areas backing the Conservatives. Some heralded a return to normality with the two-party system; yet it was just the fracture at work again. 2017 only affirmed that the divide in British politics was not going anywhere, and, if major politicians could not solve it then I, as a university student wanting to work in politics, would not stand a chance.
So, I attempted to broaden my horizons. In my second year of university, I applied for internships in nearly every sector. Finance, Marketing, PR – you name it, I applied for it. But I still couldn’t shake the idea that I wanted to be part of the Establishment. Yet, in my heart, I knew that the Establishment was failing, and had, effectively, fallen after 2016. I interned in Public Affairs, which I enjoyed to an extent, but I’m not sure if working for clients is for me. I want to work for an agenda that I believe in, and, call me naïve in saying this, make British politics a better place. Right now, Westminster is catty, bitchy and quite frankly toxic, which can all be seen at PMQs. I don’t want to work for the civil service, as I don’t think I could undertake policies that I don’t believe in.
That is linked to my greatest problem, in terms of versatility and a willingness to explore different jobs. I don’t think I can be moulded. I went through an extensive application for a job in PR recently, for the company to basically turn around and say communications wasn’t for me, and I understood the business sector far better. It’s probably true, as I remember being asked in an interview if I would be willing to concoct a lie to cover up a company’s mistake, and I just replied that it was far better to admit to the mistake and sugar-coat its impact than lie, as that would always be found out. She raised her eyebrows, probably her signal that I should not be working in an industry based on manipulating the truth.
Arguably, political communications does this, too. But I believed in the pre-Corbyn Labour Party, and still do. I could so easily sell it, as its core would not be a lie to me. But the opportunity has gone. Or maybe it was never there to begin with, given that the crisis in British politics has likely been brewing since Thatcher changed the landscape of modern Britain.
Now nearly 21, I’ve found myself struggling to find the niche that I thought I had sorted at 17. The landscape of my chosen career was out of my hands, as politics always is. Still, I never anticipated seeing the opportunity disappearing into oblivion entirely.
As a child, I was somewhat a prodigy. My reading ability was high throughout my years in education. I remember being top of my class in my fairly average primary school, and, in my final year, having my teacher grade my Reading level as a 6, despite being told she was not allowed to. From then onwards, expectations were placed firmly on my shoulders. From teachers who saw what I was capable of doing. From my parents, who wanted me to fare better than they did. And, most importantly, for myself, who desperately tried not to be “the kid that peaked in school”.
Going to the top institutions has only cultivated this fear. My school was selective, so the vast majority of its student body were incredibly clever. It was disheartening not to be selected for the best schemes, and, in many ways, friends felt like competition. Then I came to LSE, which was like my school on steroids. Being surrounded by the best and brightest minds was made worse by around 70% of the student body wanting to go into a vocation carved out for them from first year. For both the Finance and Law sectors, most students undertake a Spring Week in first year, internship in second and receive a graduate job for third.
Before I turned 17, I thought I’d do Law. Having a high reading and writing ability, along with an analytical aptitude, this seemed like an appropriate vocation. But family has always been of primary importance to me, and finding out the working hours and job commitments involved in Law wrote it off for me. But now I’m coming to regret that, on the pure basis that it would have been so much easier for myself and figuring out my career, had I just decided to go into Law that much earlier.
So I am now at a crossroads. It’s incredibly difficult not knowing what to do, when you actually do know, but it is not an option. I considered taking next year out to work on the US Democratic Party’s 2020 Presidential Campaign, until I remembered that the US faces a similar divide to what the UK does now. The establishment are failing everywhere so, with my desire to advocate a national cause that I believe in, how could I advocate and become a part of it?
With graduation nearly six months on the horizon, I am feeling the pressure of the weight of living. Nothing would disappoint me more than failing to find my niche and looking like my biggest fear – wasted potential.
Yet, in my current predicament, that sadly looks to be a viable prospect.