In “normal”, pre-lockdown life, one thing I have always found very useful for writing about politics is getting out and about, and meeting new people. You never know when you’ll get a new idea for an article, whether that’s a chat with the local barista, or overhearing a conversation about the EU outside a pub (this once happened!). It can tell you a lot about how politics is playing out in the real world.
I’ve missed this during the last year, and have realised I need it. Indeed, my first “real world” chat since lockdown sparked quite a lot of political juices. It was with a delivery driver, who took me back to London after five months at my parents’ house. We spent the journey chatting about this and that, but things became more political as we got into central London. Here we stumbled upon a load of signs reading “Camera enforcement commencing 14 August 2020” (pictured), which block cars from going down roads.
It’s not exactly obvious what the purpose of these signs are – we mere mortals can only guess at the higher thinking behind council decisions – but they were highly inconvenient from a practical perspective. The entrance to my road was blocked, for starters, and so were the roads parallel. So the trip ended up a bit like Frodo’s journey to Mordor (although my flat is a bit nicer), with us having to plot complex, longer routes to avoid more of these signs. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that all this time in the car is not good for pollution, nor the people living on accessible roads, who get the bulk of emissions. And yet, London has been trying to enhance its green credentials.
The driver told me other things on the journey about the challenges of doing business in London. He said that the move towards environmentalism feels forced and fast; that delivery drivers are having an impossible time simply trying to go down a road (as I saw for myself), and he also talked about the fees he has to pay for parking, which add up when he’s doing multiple short drop offs. It sounded exhausting!
Who is speaking for this man? I wondered after hearing the conversation. I don’t know the intricacies of parking fines, or signs, or any of these logistical hurdles. But it seems like a lot of people feel punished for running a business, while the rest of us are somewhat oblivious.
On a different, but also quite similar note, later that week an electrician came to do some fixes at my new flat. I was relieved to see him as some things needed urgent repair. However the main thing that he seemed to think was “urgent” was how long he had left on the parking meter. It seemed daft, and maybe even worrying at worst, that his main focus was parking when he had an important task to complete. Who is speaking for him? I also wondered.
If these incidents seem a bit mundane, that’s the point (although I do think the road block signs are completely illogical). Since coming back to London I’ve realised I’ve become “out of touch” with the every day concerns of the world. This is something we members of the media get accused of anyway, as we spend so much time on Twitter, but lockdown can make this phenomenon worse. Getting out and about matters, and not just for journalists – politicians get stuck in their own bubbles too. As with canvassing and constituency meetings, there’s a lot to be said for a chat offline.
After realising my “out of touch” ways, I also felt angry about the barriers for delivery drivers – and started to think about other things that could be affecting businesses. For instance, what about the al fresco dinners lots of people enjoy in Soho? How many cars find the repurposed roads in restaurants troublesome? I have no idea.
Isn’t that the point, though? Some of this is because of the way the media works. Generally lots of our debates are at the macro level, from the Green Industrial Revolution to the culture wars to Brexit/ the EU. These are all interesting topics, incidentally, and think they have important implications for society. But there’s also the “in between” subjects that fall down the cracks.
Yesterday, for instance, James Frayne wrote for our site about the scale of the unpopularity of council tax, which he called “staggering”. It bothers a lot of people – including me – but doesn’t really make the headlines. The news cycle is often a projection of what journalists want to read (and I’m guilty of this), while someone else wants to find out about the parking meter, or can they open their hairdressers again?
In short, this stuff really, really matters. Yes let’s debate the macro, but I for one will pledge to get out of my “lockdown bubble”.