We need to replace politicians with people who are on our side

April 14, 2024

A stage, no set. Just lights. Two actors walk on. One plays the Mam, another plays the Dad. A tense discussion about paying the water bill. He’s trying to assure her it will be alright. They’ll find a way, somehow. She chafes at the platitude. Their daughter Holly, needs new boots. I’m not going to a foodbank, I’m not, she insists. The indignity. Feeling you’ve failed.

Another actor walks on, playing Holly. Can we have the heating on, Mam, she asks. It’s freezing. Tempers fray, they argue. Holly gets sent to her room. Mam and Dad navigate an awkward silence. I’ll have a word with her, Mam says.

My summary doesn’t do it justice. The emotion, the authenticity, the raw credibility of the scene struck home. A young girl blaming herself for causing a family argument by asking for the house to be warm.

The audience at the Live Theatre were spellbound. Doubly so, because this was a youth theatre production of Fed Up. Researched, written and performed by young actors. The girl who wrote the scene was 12 years old.

There were a dozen more scenes, linked by theme. All unearthed political truths behind food poverty. Austerity is a political choice. Politicians were mocked for banal platitudes. The young people see Starmer as they see Sunak. “Self-serving, self-indulgent, self-righteous.”

One young actor, in a spotlight, invited us to, “Imagine an alternative timeline.”

“In 2008, after the financial crash, our politicians chose to change strategies and run Britain in the interests of the people who do the work.

“A little lad called John is born into a relatively poor North East family. His Dad leaves when he’s 3. He has two older sisters, so his Mam takes a job as a cleaner. However, he gets government support, and free school meals, through the holidays, too. John’s Mam can afford to buy him books, and a Lego train set. He loves that train set. John believes he has a future. Teachers at school have time for him. He works hard. In 2030, John graduates from Northumbria university with a degree in mechanical engineering. He works for Nexus, and designs a new Metro that cuts our emissions and takes an extra 10,000 people to work each day. Fast forward 40 years, and John retires at 65, happy that he made a good living and helped others. He gets to watch his grandkids become doctors and artists.

“Now I’ll claw you back to the world we live in. Run in the interests of billionaires and tax dodgers. John was a third child, and so got no government support. He was too hungry to learn in school, so failed his GCSEs. He couldn’t find work, and, aged 25, was found floating face down in the Tyne, with needle marks on his arm.”

Written by a 16 year old. And delivered with real talent. I choked up with tears.

The kids who wrote and performed Fed Up had talent. And confidence. But like the story of John, that’s a result of support and nurture.

If re-elected in May, I will fund a Youth Voice programme. Right across the North East, including the towns and villages away from the city centres. This will be a network of arts and youth practitioners, and support for existing local groups.

I want our young people to tell their stories. To be proud of their home town. It might be acting, or spoken word. It could be painting murals on public buildings. It could be singing, or African drumming. Let them choose. Feeling you have a voice changes your life.

There’s an irony, of course, that Fed Up was at the Live Theatre, where I spoke to Ken Loach about his films. Neither Ken nor I are welcome in the Labour Party anymore. That’s despite I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You, and The Old Oak. All set in the NorthEast. All challenging the political choices that cause poverty. And despite the fact that as Mayor I’ve funded a Child Poverty prevention programme in over 100 North East schools.

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party that has now adopted the two-child benefit cap that keeps 45,000 North East children in poverty.

After Fed Up, there was a Q&A with some of the young actors, and people who run foodbanks. Their depth and awareness was impressive. I asked them. “Do you see any hope that this will change? That our politicians will get it?”

“If we keep trying to persuade the government and the opposition that they need to change tack, we’ll be waiting forever,” said one of the young actors. “We need to replace them with people who are on our side.”