An old anarchist slogan resurfaced on the streets of Spain during 2011’s “indignados” uprising: “Our dreams don’t fit in your ballot boxes.” It’s a message that feels relevant in Britain today as fractured loyalties and myriad local battles expose the deficiencies of our antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system. Actual anarchist communities were never half as messy as this.
Those hoping to explain our national fiasco have resorted to warnings of Russian interference, fake news and troll armies, or at best made a show of listening to “very real concerns” courtesy of hasty vox pops brought to us from down-at-heel Leave-voting towns.
For Jack Shenker, understanding the Brexit vote and the transformation of party politics means looking for answers where others have failed to tread. As a former Guardian Egypt correspondent (Shenker is the author of the acclaimed Egyptians), he reported from the convulsions of Tahrir Square and occupied factories of Damietta. His contention is that Britain’s political ruptures require equal rigour and investigation.
And so he roams, across our nation of chain coffee outlets, bedsits, luxury flats and ghost retail parks. He meets far-right web activists in Newcastle and asylum seekers in Glasgow; in visits to the likes of Tilbury and Oldham he seeks out the victims of austerity, benefit sanctions and “hostile environment” policy, of long-term post-industrial decline, atomised communities, poverty wages and the crisis in affordable housing.
Shenker dismisses as fantasists those “who believe the pre-2008 world can somehow be resurrected”, and says that a surge in a disorderly grassroots politics is filling the gaps left by Britain’s political elites.
While his chapters have seemingly vague titles such as Community, Work, Homes, Borders and Youth, these broad overlapping themes emerge in Shenker’s detailed and passionate reporting. Debi, a campaigner working with homeless young people in Manchester, tells him that there has been a “tearing of the social fabric” that has “left many of these kids with a kind of PTSD”.He talks to Fatima, 54, who lives out of two suitcases in Stratford, east London, having migrated from her native Guinea-Bissau to Portugal, then to the UK; she works two minimum-wage cleaning jobs, from 6.30am till 9pm, before returning to the grim, precarious bedsit she shares with nine strangers.
Fatima’s miserable situation introduces the book’s most intriguing chapter, which details the agile new micro-unions such as United Voices of the World (UVW), which have sprung up in the age of the gig economy (a story told in Callum Cant’s new Riding for Deliveroo). We are reminded that 7 million Britons living below the poverty line are from working families. Now We Have Your Attention argues that the militant, DIY trade union action emerging among Deliveroo and Uber drivers, outsourced cleaners and Wetherspoon workers reflects the politics of our age just as surely as the ancient rules on prorogation, or machinations of the ERG – and that the Amazon “fulfilment centre” in Tilbury is as important a site for understanding the future of politics as the Palace of Westminster.
UVW was founded in 2014 and, we are told, spent £3,358 on communications in its last accounts, which may be why you are unlikely to have heard of it (Britain’s largest union, Unite, by contrast, spent just under £3.5m). Populated by workers such as Fatima and a skeleton staff, the union has won several pay rises for its impoverished workers. Such successes are inspiring, but the difficult truth for those looking to restore their faith in democracy is that most of the forces Shenker documents remain small and marginal.
Yet we are left hopeful. The author’s passion – and the defiance of his subjects – is infectious. And you have to applaud him for finding the untold stories behind the rolling omnishambles that is British politics in 2019.
• Now We Have Your Attention: The New Politics of the People by Jack Shenker is published by Bodley Head (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15