It’s frightening how prescient Jack Thorne’s Hope is.
Just this week, new research released by the Labour Party showed that streetlights are being switched off in three-quarters of England’s councils in order to save money. And there’s a likelihood that even more will be “plunged into darkness” after the Government’s most recent announcement of further cuts to councils’ spending power. The promise that no council will see no more than a 6.4% cut this time around offers little solace once you take into account that they’ve already borne an average 29% cut in recent years.
Thorne’s play centres on a nameless working-class town in northern England where the Labour council are desperately trying to meet the budget imposed upon them by the Tory-led Government. The comparative importance of “core” versus “quality of life” services is debated as, in rapid succession, libraries, care centres, swimming pool hours are cut and, yes, streetlights dimmed.
But it’s a losing battle. As one of the characters notes:
“They’ve caught us in a trap. We can’t raise council tax. We can’t cut ring-fenced services. The richer – largely Tory – councils raise the majority of their revenue from other sources. They have parking and business rates. These cuts have fallen disproportionately on working-class towns. It’s class war.”
In a last-ditch effort to make their point, the fictional Labour councillors band together, hold a press conference and refuse to set a budget. “What this Government is doing to local authorities amounts to nothing more than barbarism… This country gets richer every day but as our nation’s wealth grows, so does our nation’s wealth inequality,” they tell the gathered media.
How bold, how brave. Will life imitate art further? Will we see more councils taking such a stand? Their options are running out quickly. More than half of all councils are no longer “placed to achieve their long-term goals” because of their financial straits.
For the council in Thorne’s play, the stand they take backfires badly. The facilities all close anyway, the councillors are hobbled but back on the frontline, doing what little they can to try to help local people in the face of impossible odds. What’s hopeful about that?
In a post-show Q&A earlier this month (which I returned to catch two nights after having been blown away by the issues in the play), Thorne explained, “It’s hope that these things can be made better. And that, hopefully, by posing questions, you can find answers – maybe.”
As a lifelong Labour Party member himself, and one who has been active for years in his Luton home constituency, Thorne was not interested in the cuts, or the reasons for them, in and of themselves, but in how local party members attempt to deal with them. “I don’t think there is anything interesting to say about what the Tories are doing,” Thorne said. “I don’t think that they’re right, but they have grounds to defend themselves.”
“The answer is not to shout at the Tory Party, but to figure out what we would do.” And that is complicated by the philosophical and moral crisis at the heart of the Labour Party, a crisis for all liberal thinkers perhaps.
“Idealism is dead,” bemoans another of Hope’s characters in one of the play’s most frighteningly persuasive speeches (extracted in full below). As the playwright himself, let us hope not. But this play is a potent and timely reminder that we must take stock, take heed and take action before it’s too late.
Is the Labour Party fit for the modern world?
Extracted from Jack Thorne’s Hope.
“You think the banks’ collapse was about the collapse of socialism?”
“No, I think what followed the collapse was.”
“You’re talking about the recession?”
“No, I’m talking about the absence of protest. Where were the marches? Where were the marches protesting against a coalition government making sweeping changes that its lack of electoral mandate should have made impossible? There were a few, yes. But compared to what we used to be capable of? It was pitiful. The students marched, rioted in fact, a few other people marched. But mostly – people stayed home and looked after themselves. And where they did protest – the protests were so simple. The odd library was kept open. The odd day centre. We should be burning their buildings from underneath them. For what they’ve done. For how they behaved…. We – the Labour Party, the Labour movement, don’t really – ultimately – have the believers any more. Or maybe our believers just don’t know how to believe any more.”
“I’m not sure that’s true. And I’m pretty sure cynicism towards party politics affects the Tories as badly as us. It’s why Farage is proving such a successful-”
“But the Tories never needed believers. Solidarity means fuck-all to them. Mutual self-interest is all that matters to them. For us – it’s all we have. It’s all we’ve ever had. Because without it… what are we? What can we mean?…The Tories want to make dependence-culture a thing of the past, they want to convince us we can’t afford to help those in need. But their greatest achievement is they’ve convinced us to turn on each other. So instead of shouting as one at them, we’re shouting at each other. Instead of screaming in protest at the bankers for stealing millions from them, we’re reporting our neighbours for ten pounds of benefit fraud. Idealism is dead. Solidarity is dead. It’s been destroyed by pragmatism and hatred and shame.”
Post-show podcast from Hope
The Q&A with Hope author Jack Thorne, chaired by Royal Court literary manager Chris Campbell, on 5 December 2014, was entitled “Apathy and Austerity”. “Unfortunately,” Campbell quipped in his introduction, “Jack can’t be bothered and I’ve got a free lift home.” Nonetheless, we touched on those and many other issues raised by the play.
I chipped in my own observations and queries about what’s considered political activism today – so comparatively easy to whip up a Twitter storm and so difficult to get people off their sofas to protest about things that really matter. Why? A fascinating discussion. Do have a listen.
Tags: Christine Entwisle, Council cuts, Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, Paul Higgins, Political plays, Recommendations, Royal Court Theatre, Rudi Dharmalingham, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Stella Gonet, Streetlights, Tom Georgeson