There’s a postcard stuck in the frame of my bathroom mirror with a quote I think everyone should read.
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacriﬁce, courage and kindness. What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magniﬁcently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an inﬁnite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in deﬁance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.”
It’s from late political scientist Howard Zinn’s book A Power Governments Can’t Suppress. I’ve kept it in mind a lot lately. I had already learned to affect an apologetic tone when I would admit to people that I didn’t think Jeremy Corbyn was screwing it all up for Labour, quite the opposite actually. When the election was called left-wing friends and family braced themselves for the apparently inevitable Tory landslide and those on the right tried to tell me that it’s all very well wanting a world-class NHS free at the point of delivery but – and here they might assume the kind of facial expression you’d employ to deliver the words “Santa doesn’t exist, darling” – there isn’t a “magic money tree”.
But to be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. I was touched by Big Issue North’s Facebook status on election day. Support staff had been helping vendors register to vote.
“On occasions, this has been met with a degree of scepticism, with some commenting that they don’t believe that they have enough social standing to have a voice and be taken seriously.
“Today, with a mark on the ballot paper, their voice is counted and heard, just as much as the next person.”
Because for all the so-called safe seats in an election, nothing is fixed until the new votes are cast. I said this to someone and they told me off for being idealistic. That is “characterised by idealism; unrealistically aiming for perfection. See also: utopian, visionary, romantic, quixotic, dreamy, unrealistic, impractical.” I don’t think being idealistic should be seen as a negative trait. I think it’s a sure sign we should be reading more Zinn if even the politically neutral dictionary reckons a synonym for idealistic is unrealistic. Labour’s manifesto was often dismissed as idealistic – its hopeful, positive campaign pitched against a more “realistic”, if a lot less pleasant, Conservative vision of a nation needing to put up and shut up while the business people do Brexit.
Then Labour confounded expectation. In the words of John Lennon, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” The fact so many dreamers came out to vote Labour in Conservative stronghold Kensington and Chelsea was a massive surprise even to those hyper-realists the bookmakers. Resident John Cleese had previously tweeted that he wouldn’t be voting since it would be “utterly worthless”. Labour’s winning margin there would have been by 21 votes if he had. Now Corbyn is odds on to be the next prime minister.
So being realistic and idealistic are not mutually exclusive. I count that as a really marvellous victory.