“YOU are all the same”, “I wouldn’t trust any of you”, “life is just getting harder”.
Whether I’ve been campaigning on the doorsteps in South Yorkshire, or in Dundee during the Scottish Referendum, people are saying the same things.
Westminster feels a long way away – a long way geographically, but even longer away politically, as people feel a disconnect between what happens in the Westminster bubble and the rest of the country.
Whether it’s people on low pay, or struggling to pay the bedroom tax, or a young person out of work, or the disabled coping with benefit cuts, life is very hard for millions of people across the country.
One million people need a food bank to feed their families, and others languish on exploitative zero-hours contracts. Thousands more are trapped in a housing crisis that is getting worse.
Many people can just about keep their heads above water but can’t cope with an unexpected bill like the boiler breaking down, or the washing machine packing up. They’re scared to open the next brown envelope landing on the doormat.
The Chancellor says the economy is improving, and no doubt the official statistics show that, but it doesn’t feel like that for millions of people who have too much month at the end of their money.
Life for many people is hard, and people feel politicians just don’t understand how life is for them. Many people have lost faith in politics to deliver real and lasting change. That is dangerous for our democracy.
Today is Holy Saturday – Christ has died the day before on the cross and is laid in the tomb. Jesus talked about a new kingdom where the poor were exalted, where the grieving are comforted, where the meek inherit the earth, and where the peacemakers are blessed. Christ’s listeners were expectant and hopeful and now Christ is dead. Hope has been snuffed out, everything is dark.
Yet tomorrow, Easter Day, the Church celebrates the resurrection of Christ, he is alive, and hope returns.
Hope is the central theme of the Easter story, and hope is incredibly powerful and transformative. The longest phoney election campaign is over and now the General Election campaign is on, and we have a month to decide who will govern this country. What Britain needs is an agenda of hope.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, I learned that fear is caustic and hope is infectious. I saw close up how hope could transform a country. I remember the gunshots, the explosions and the broken dreams shattered with each bomb.
It was fascinating that it was on Good Friday in 1998 when the politicians agreed a new future for Northern Ireland that unleashed a generation of hope. Of course Northern Ireland has limped towards peace but, as an Ulsterman, I can tell you Northern Ireland today is a radically different place to the Northern Ireland where I grew up. Hope transforms people and transforms communities.
Hope gives people faith to believe that tomorrow will be better than yesterday, that things will get easier, that life will be better.
What kind of hope do we need in Britain today? This article isn’t long enough!
So let me suggest four areas where I would love to see hope transform the gloom and doom that many people face.
Firstly I dare to dream of a nation where food banks are a thing of the past. It is a scandal in the fourth largest economy in the world that people need a hand out to feed their children.
I am so grateful to the thousands of people who run these food banks in their spare time and fund them with their generosity. My Church Army team run many of these and I have seen the shame and embarrassment in the faces of those who need help.
We need to give those people hope, hope that they can feel the sense of pride that they can feed their family without a handout.
Secondly, hope means someone who works a 40 hour week should be able to afford to pay their bills, save some money and be able to treat their family to a meal out or a holiday. Hope is a Living Wage that helps people earn their way out of poverty. Politicians talk about making work pay, but we need to actually make work pay.
Thirdly, we need to give our young people hope. Speaking to an audience of students recently in Sheffield, I discovered most of them don’t think they will get a decent job or be able to afford their own home. We need to turn that around. That should be a realistic hope for any young person.
And, fourthly, hope means we recognise that we are, despite our challenges, a fortunate and rich country. It terrifies me that some politicians talk about slashing our foreign aid budget. We have a duty as a country to spread hope to the poorest in our world. David Cameron has shown real leadership on this.
Foreign policy must not be allowed to fall of the radar in this General Election campaign. We all know our nation faces a terrorist threat, but if anyone thinks Britain is made more secure whilst cutting aid to the poorest in our world, they needs a crash course in history. We are a more optimistic and hopeful nation when we seek to make our world a fairer and more just place.
It strikes me this country is crying out for a politics of hope. Just after the Second World War, the country was nearly bankrupt, people were exhausted from a long hard painful war and Clement Attlee’s Labour government offered new vision and new hope.
In just five years, his government founded the NHS and free education for all. Surely we can do it again? We can lift our political dialogue to a bigger agenda which can capture people’s imagination, re-engage them with politics, and offer hope for a better tomorrow. That is what I hope for in the next four weeks, I hope our politicians deliver.
I wish you and your family a blessed and hopeful Easter.
Mark Russell lives in Sheffield, is chief executive of Church Army and writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @markrusselluk