One of the great political problems we face in modern times is what is often termed the ‘apathy’ of the electorate. According to UK Politcal Info, only 66.1% of those eligible to vote in 2015’s General Election actually turned out. Personally I smart at this lazy accusation of apathy, usually directed at the young, made by politicians and the media alike in response to low electoral turnout. This seems to be me to be a quick and judgemental leap to cause, for which I can see no real justification.
I became naturally interested in this issue around the time of the general election last year. I discovered, upon talking to many people who asserted they wouldn’t vote, a widespread sense that, whoever was in government, it wouldn’t make any real difference in their actual lives. It’s not apathy – it’s not that people don’t care what happens in the world – but there is something about our current political system that leaves people feeling powerless and disenfranchised. That their vote will make no difference, because there is a perception that one party is much like the other party.
There’s an extent to which I can understand this. In the 80s people bought into hardline libertarian economics en masse. In the 90s, New Labour’s rejection of ’embarrassing socialist ideals’ was further tacit confirmation that neoliberalism was the only way to make the world go round: the big arguments were over, and the rest was a matter of finessing the detail. This, combined with an increasing sense of distrust in what is often termed ‘The Political Classes’ (in fact, a thoroughly heterogeneous group) has led to a common attitude that ‘one is as bad as the other’.
The thing is, even in today’s politics, that’s not actually true. As an artist I consider a large part of my job description, roughly, to be ‘to make people think about stuff’; so I set about constructing a piece to demonstrate, visually, and viscerally, that actually, even today, who is in power really really does make a difference. I wanted to provoke people to feel less alienated from politics in general; to show that the decisions made on-high have relevance. I wanted to bridge that gap between what happens in our political system, and what happens in our daily lives – I wanted to make the relationship between one and the other very concrete.
I came up with ‘The Political Is Personal’, which is currently on show in the public area of Conway Hall. The piece comprises three large wreaths, intricately constructed from paper electioneering material from four of the five major parties in England (Labour, Conservatives, The Green Party, and UKIP – I could not reach any local member of the Liberal Democrats, no matter now many times I e-mailed, rang, or tweeted them!). (Getting in touch with all the parties to collect their post-election ephemera was an interesting experience in itself, and has led to the bizarre state of affairs of me receiving e-mails from UKIP that begin ‘Dear Friend’!) The wreaths are in memorial to those who have died following the imposition of bedroom tax or as a result of having benefits revoked. The names and circumstances of some of these individuals are detailed in the centre of each wreath, a harrowing multiplicity, even if it is but a small representation, along with manifold statistics from the department of work and pensions, including the disingenuous phrase “any causal effect between benefits and mortality cannot be assumed from these statistics”. (I know correlation does not equal causation but, really?)
The piece can be viewed for the forseeable future at Conway Hall any time it is open. And please feel free to contact me with any comments you have – I can be contacted through my website .