The Politics of Selfishness

Originally published here.

My New Zealand was always a political one. My Dad was a member of the now-defunct Alliance party under Jim Anderton, and I was a six-year-old standing on a soap-box, announcing Dad’s intention to speak to potential voters on street corners on Saturday afternoons.

My own face was on the leaflets I got paid $5 to deliver to local mailboxes. His picture was screen-printed, along with his name and the Alliance colours, on the side of our two family cars, and when we were dropped off at school, my sister and I would emerge from the car proudly, politically.

I got told off at school for handing round sheets of Alliance stickers that I’d stolen from my parents’ office. “Politically neutral,” my teacher explained. My friends wore the stickers on the inside of their clothes anyway – they liked the stars. I won our class elections. Later, I stayed with Green MP Jeanette Fitzsimons and her husband in the Coromandel. They had a self-composting toilet and we slept in the barn.

The first time I voted, I did so in my old primary school only two days after my 18th birthday, the same school in which I’d won my own election. I voted the same as my parents did.

I moved to Wellington and attended law school – a fairly lacklustre and uninvolved student, if I’m honest, more invested in my English degree and my difficult relationship to care much about judicial review. But there was no escaping the impressive nature of a law school ensconced in government buildings, the lawns crawling with judges on their way to various courtrooms, the ever-present Beehive squatting above it all. Once, in a sandwich shop on Lambton Quay, Peter Dunne took the last veggie roll in the queue in front of me, and then dropped it on the ground. “Justice,” I thought, even though he still had the lunch he wanted, albeit a little bruised, and I didn’t.

The second time I voted, I wandered, still drunk, down the sunny street from my flat. I forgot my voting card and it took me a long time to fill in my details, my still-new address failing to come to me in the dim repurposed community centre.

Even though politics was an ingrained part of my life, it wasn’t something that struck me as relevant to my wellbeing, except insofar as my father having a job. I knew the parties and their politics at a precocious level as a child, and then I forgot them. My awareness of governmental policy extended to student loan pay-backs and minimum wage increases.

The concept of an apolitical law student might seem like a strange one, but I don’t believe that I was alone – as long as I kept passing my exams, the content and application of public law to my own life amounted to nothing. I was selfish because I could afford to be – because the safety nets of part-time employment, student loans and parents had let me lead a life abstracted from politics. I studied what I wanted to, and I bought what I wanted to. I learnt the intricate details of a legal system, both public and private, that seemed to have no real power over my life, because all the problems I had were solvable. I grew from a child deeply interested in all aspects of politics to a young adult interested only if they directly affected me.

Now I live in London, where neither my working, nor my private life, has anything to do with law or politics. Legislation is no longer a central part of my familial or academic existence, but since leaving the safety of a political framework that works for me, politics have become important again. Starting out in a new industry in a new city, I earn a low wage – and nothing, not even a father on a soap box, will make you more politically aware than treading the breadline. I’m more aware of politics than I’ve been in years – I follow the personalities and proposals of politicians closely – but issues surrounding welfare and pensions are not the ones that grab me, but hikes in mortgages and changes in tax brackets. My politics are selfish, and the policies I care about are the ones that could change my life.


There’s not the same proximity to law-makers that there is in New Zealand, but with the heightened sense of hierarchy that exists in the United Kingdom there is a greater feeling both of impact and of alliance. The vague listing ships of left and right that exist as Labour and National in New Zealand are solid and unyielding in their politics here, and one’s political identity does not shift.

Not long after I moved here, Margaret Thatcher died, and on the day of her funeral I left work to join the crowds that lined the route her coffin would take. There were thousands of us – some mere onlookers like me, some expressing their sadness, but the vocal majority sported signs and sang “Ding dong, the witch is dead”. In New Zealand, plenty of politicians have been loathed, but none of them have fractured a country the way this woman had, with her prioritising economic stability over jobs – in such a way that years after her fall from power and retreat from public eye, years into a slow decline into dementia, they still abandoned everything they were doing to smile at her passing coffin.

These gestures, these moments, though, are leftover from a period of political unrest and Thatcherism – these days, there are similar trends in voter statistics to those in New Zealand. In New Zealand’s last general election 77 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds registered to vote – as of February 5 2014, one in four young people living in Britain had not yet registered to vote.  In the 2010 general election, only 44 per cent of 18- to 24-year-oldsvoted. As a general trend, voter participation in developed democracies is gradually sliding downwards, but why? Is it because of what I’ve recognized in myself – that unless a proposed law change directly, negatively affects my quality of living, I don’t care about it?

Politics might be decried as a murky, opaque process, but in absence of outrage, there is apathy. This is the self-defeating nature of democracy – wherein when the equilibrium of contentment is reached, we stop.

The solution to voter apathy, then, might be to stir the pot – which is what I witnessed recently in the UK. The recent Budget announcement by the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition government was one that was eagerly awaited by social media punters – and rather less eagerly by myself, and the others in my office.

Perhaps the Conservatives knew this – perhaps this was instrumental in their key Budget points. Because, in the end, the most striking point of a speech that included dramatic pension reforms and a welfare cap was the “Beer and Bingo” tax – a halving of bingo duty to 10 per cent and a reduction by one penny in beer duty.

Tweeting out an advertisement that looked like nothing so much as a spoof of his own party, Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps entreated his Twitter followers to “spread the word”. And those hard working people did so, in their thousands, heaping such scorn upon this patronizing missive that all other points from the Budget were over-shadowed.

One can almost put oneself in their shiny leather shoes, those Conservative law-makers constructing a Budget that many would ignore. In between laws and allocations that would affect potholes and fuel duty, the kinds of things that would draw no real media or public attention, and affect Average Joe in only the most fleeting of ways, they decided to chuck in – and then highlight – a couple of boons for the working class. A way to entertain themselves, they might have nodded, and a cheaper way for them to drink, as they do. A couple of shiny things to tide them over, while they awaited reforms that might actually affect the quality of their lives. Brilliant. Inspired.

Shockingly enough, the plan backfired. High-school Orwell was called to mind, at least to literature fans on Twitter, who were quick to spoof the eminently spoof-able advert:

“Bread and circuses” was whispered, then shouted – satiation and entertainment the only necessary requirements for satisfaction? It was hard to pinpoint which element was more insulting.

It’s not just the content of the advertisement that is so patronising – though the assumption that beer and bingo is the way that “hardworking people” fill their days is fairly pointed – but the use of the word ‘they’. That division, that very deliberate line in the sand, between the people who own the houses and make the money – and the law – and those that don’t.  Does Grant Shapps play Bingo? Probably not. Does he drink beer? Probably – but then, he probably doesn’t notice the 1p price difference.

The policy might have been sound, but the pitch was flawed – and yet: suddenly this dry political document that would usually cause a stir only amongst political commentators became the biggest talking point of the day. “Beer and Bingo”, the catchy misplaced mantra, rang out across the internet. Is this what it takes, then, for people to become truly cognizant of political manoeuvring that will one day affect them? A social media slip, one patronising comment too many?

To my mind, though, this was the ultimate example of the politics of if not selfishness, then certainly self. The second people felt like a policy was pitched at them, they took note – and the minute they felt offended by it, they spoke out.

Here’s what I’m prepared to bet on – it felt good to get mad.

It felt good for me to turn to my colleague and ask her if she’d ever played Bingo. Ask if, perhaps, that’s what we should do this evening. It felt good to go to the local pub and find the tip jar – labelled Shapps’ Tax – filled with 1p coins. It felt good to be aware of policy, to be offended and angered, and to bite back in any small way.

The nature of my own political selfishness is that it takes a bursting of my bubble for me to say something, do something, feel something. It’s not something that makes me proud, when I have friends who actively stand up for youth justice when they’re no longer youths, for the 99 per cent when they number among the 1 per cent – it’s a flaw, a big one, born of a political consciousness that never extended beyond my own backyard. But, in London certainly, the combined effects of increasing costs of living, population booms and a weak and failing job market, means that my own backyard will no longer be a safe place to be. I – along with about one million other Londoners – am about to find out what happens when selfishness is no longer safe.

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