We don’t have to wait for permission for change, says Guardian columnist Zoe Williams in her new book Get It Together (Hutchinson, £14.99), which analyses poverty, the NHS, tax avoidance, privatisation and more. Briskly written but thoroughly researched and dealing well with complexity, it’s subtitled Why We Deserve Better Politics. “It’s easy to feel powerless, but you don’t lack power, and nor do I,” she writes. “Irresistible power is when we all start going in the same direction.”
Who is your book aimed at?
A lot of the reviewers have made the perfectly reasonable criticism that I’m preaching to the converted: people who already believe in climate change, and society, and community, people who already hate racism and corporate capture of the public realm, and the exploitation of the workforce. But I believe that most people feel like this, even most conservative voters; we just can’t see a way forward. So I wrote it for everybody – it’s not programmatic, and I don’t have all the answers. But if you feel like this, and I feel like this, then we would be daft to assume that there’s nothing we can do about it.
Given the general election result, do you wish you’d written it a year earlier?
*Hollow laugh* On the one hand, I wish I’d written it a year earlier, and five years earlier, and a decade earlier. On the other hand, we have a serious Westminster problem that one book, even a book a thousand times better than mine, would not answer: we do not have a progressive party in England offering hope and ambition. We have a party occupying the space of the “left” whose basic offer is to be slightly nicer (not too much nicer) than the “right”. This is never going to win over a large number of people (I was never won over by it myself). Change is going to come from the ground up, or it’s not going to come at all, and that takes time. But at least we now have five years *hollower laugh*.
People like David Blunkett are already saying Labour’s problem was that it wasn’t sufficiently Blairite. Is that the way the party will head?
What did Blair’s government do wrong? It trusted the private sector over the public sector, with PFI, privatisation and outsourcing. It subsidised corporate super-profits by boosting low wages from the public purse, and created a bloated landlord class by using housing benefit in lieu of any real strategy to house people. It went to war with Iraq. It relied too heavily on financial services and, as a result, exercised no oversight. What did it do right? It made people believe, however fleetingly and misguidedly, that things could be better if we all worked together. So sure, I would love to rediscover the optimism of those years, but this time, with some principles, rather than just a slick slalom to keep on the right side of the markets and the Daily Mail.
When people are living ever more precarious lives, is there time for them to get meaningfully involved with social movements and campaigning?
I think the possibilities for activism are limitless: there will be people who have no time, who are ground down by the oppression of Universal Credit, low wages, long hours, hopelessness. There will be union movements stifled by new anti-union regulations, and there will be people who just wonder what the point is. My gut sense is that it’s hopelessness more than your work schedule that really drains your energy – people find extraordinary resources of energy and resilience when they think other people will stand with them. The important thing is not to give up because you think other people are too tired. In management speak, “if you want something done, ask a busy person”. It’s often the people with least time who are the most generous with it, just as it’s the people with least money who are most generous with that.
How come there isn’t a Syriza or Podemos in the UK?
I think we’re on the brink of something very like both of those movements: Syriza was born when Pasok collapsed (which was the “centre-left”, basically New Labour party in Greece) and Podemos caught fire when a miserable Spanish electorate voted in the right wing again, for want of any alternative. Don’t forget the SNP, of course: it suits commentators to pretend they’re a pure nationalist party but in fact their case is progressive and that’s what captured people’s imagination. We don’t have to wait for a party; the movement comes first, then the party, the leader comes last.
Do you have any hope for the Paris climate talks in December?
Yes, I think anything that people can mobilise around, campaign on, and feel as though they’re involved in – that could be the London mayoral election, the Paris climate talks, the EU referendum – will give us the catalyst we need to co-operate across different groups, mediums and agendas. Again, look at Scotland. Leaving the UK was, on paper, extremely boring; just adding a new border and a load of hassle. It was the ideas that the “Yes” side brought to the campaign – that a different way of doing politics was possible, that austerity was a con and shareholder value maximisation wasn’t everything – that caused it to ignite.
If the north secedes from England and becomes part of Scotland, would you like to come and live here?
In a heartbeat.