He was reading a book, a thick book, probably one of those long, complicated novels about family sagas or multiple intrigues. Totally engrossed, he was about a third of the way through the book, his grey hair falling over his eyes and with one hand occasionally stroking his stubbly beard. He looked comfortable, cosy even, in his sleeping bag…
…which was on a cardboard ‘mattress’ on the edge of one of the narrow streets in Barcelona’s old Gothic Quarter, one of those streets that has no pavement. I spotted him and the delivery lorry swerving round him at the same moment, the driver swearing at the invisibility of a dark-blue sleeping bag on the side of the road. The reading man did not even look up from his book as the lorry swerved, such was his concentration.
The man in the Barcelona sleeping bag is homeless. One of the thousands of people in Barcelona who spend each night in doorways, on cardboard mattresses.
A few of these folk find their way into squats. We’ve just had three fires in and around Barcelona in buildings occupied by squatters. All of them linked to multiple causes, but principally to the fact that the squats either had no electricity (and the fires were caused by candles) or that they had an illegal and as it turns out dangerous connection to the electrical mains, in one case with equipment from the 1960s that blew up with the electrical load. I witnessed one of these fires on the way in to work on Monday, with three firefighters leading an injured man to an ambulance.
Poverty is Murderous
Poverty is murderous. It’s murderous in part simply by being poverty (as anyone who has read Pickett and Wilkinson's ‘The Spirit Level’ will know), but it’s also murderous because of what it forces people, desperate people, to do. To squat an old council building and to risk their lives hooking up wires to the nearest street light; or to leave a candle burning next to the mattress where mum and two kids are sleeping. It is the source of stress, of accepting poor working conditions and the ill-health that results from them, and it results in the distinct pattern of life expectancy that we can see in Catalonia or Scotlandwhen we compare poor districts with rich.
The solutions are complicated but not impossible. They include personal actions (what you give, where you shop, who you complain to) and public actions, to improve benefit systems, and to tax the wealthy.
This last point should be the aim of any government, but especially of a Labour government. So you would hope that there was some reasonable chance that, with poverty such a widespread disorder in Britain, the next Government would be Labour.
Today, there is almost no hope that that might happen. The extraordinarily confused leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and the indecision that seems to have rent the party into at least four quarters (combining pro- or anti-Brexit, and socialist or centrist), mean that Labour keeps falling in the polls. And yesterday’s YouGov poll seems to confirm that Labour voters will abandon the party if it colludes in a no-deal Brexit.
Like a lemming in the springtime, Jeremy seems to be heading straight for the cliff edge. His pre-Christmas Guardian interview was a classic, inventing a future full of fluffy unicorns and hairy fairies in which he would win an election, head over to Brussels, demand a whole new deal and come back triumphant by March 29th. Utterly unbelievable, and fabulously fantastical.
He must know that.
Which means just one thing: that Jezzer is, indeed, aiming for a no-deal Brexit so that he can then blame the Tories and force their resignation via votes of confidence.
He is massively misreading the situation. If Theresa May gets her Brexit she will, as she has promised, organise a huge Brexit celebration on the night of the 29th March. She knows, and Jezzer does not, that this will inflate a Rule Britannia bubble over England, a re-ignition of right-wing patriotism, anti-foreigner patriotism, that will keep the Tories in power for a generation. (Until the "patriots’" sons and daughters realise that they have been swindled by their parents).
The fires and deaths amongst the poor in Barcelona are a powerful reminder that we need left-of-centre governments in power, that it is the job of left-of-centre politicians to get back into power. That means honesty, and pragmatism, with voters.
It is Jeremy’s fault that Labour is dreaming of utopias when it should be on the doorsteps winning voters, and on the Commons floor winning votes.