48 hours that changed my life

In mid-2015 my entire world came crashing down. Everything I understood about life and my purpose on this journey was shattered in an instant.

Thankfully most of us have an extraordinary ability to adapt and rebuild. To salvage strength from adversity. To find happiness from deep sorrow. A remarkable study by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert demonstrates precisely this. Our ability to feign happiness and trick our minds into becoming happy once again is a built-in human trait.

It’s how prisoners are able to cope with prolonged incarceration. It explains why those with very little can lead normal fulfilling lives. And it’s how most of us are able to dust ourselves off and move on in life if we don’t get the job we want or if an important relationship breaks down.

So, I’m able to share this story thanks to my genetics – our shared genetics – and the fact I have managed to rebuild my shattered world.

As a former city councillor and parliamentary candidate it’s fair to say politics has always been a big part of my life. I was one of those weird 90s teenagers who preferred Newsnight over Neighbours, and Channel 4 News over Changing Rooms.

My passion for politics began at an early age. Indeed, it is part of my own family history. I am the son and grandson of Ugandan Asian refugees who arrived in the UK with nothing, following the 1972 expulsion ordered by Idi Amin. This was a major political event, an African holocaust in the making.

Thanks to the intervention of the British government – and the compassion of the British people – thousands of lives were saved, including those of my family.

My parents and grandparents chose to settle in Leicester and I was born and raised on the St Matthew’s council estate. Life was incredibly tough and we experienced great hardship. As my father struggled to find work and provide for his young family, food was often scarce and new clothes were always a luxury.

Luckily, although my upbringing was extremely poor, my family was able to survive – and later thrive – thanks to our cultural values, and thanks in-part to our welfare state. We had a home with help from the council. Healthcare was free and easily accessible. And I had free school meals for much of my early education.

My grandparents were a big part of our family life and I frequently sat on the sofa with both of my grandfathers to watch the news whenever it was on. My maternal grandfather in particular was an avid news watcher. He would always explain to me the nature and relevance of world events.

As I grew up I began to understand more and more each day that we lived in an unjust world. I saw there were countless other families and children in Britain and elsewhere who were also suffering disadvantage and discrimination.

Looking back I think it was at the age of around 8 or 9 where, having experienced injustice – both first hand and vicariously – a seed was planted in my head; not only that politics was really important, but decisions made by powerful people could affect many lives.

I was incredibly lucky to be taught by some very kind teachers and several of them clearly saw something in me. At age 12 I was encouraged to get involved in student politics at Babington Community College, representing my class and later my year group on the student council. At Regent College when I was 16 another teacher prompted me to stand in the NUS elections and I was elected Vice President of the student body.

Over the following 10 years my passion for politics and my desire to help people, particularly those who were being badly treated, continued to grow.

I went to Brunel University in London to study politics and history. I became an active member of the Labour Party. And after finishing law school I qualified as a solicitor, helping some of the poorest people in society have access to justice.

All the while I would share my achievements and happy milestones with my family, but especially with my grandfather; the man who kick-started my interest in politics, and the only person who really enjoyed watching Question Time as much as I did.

At the age of 29 I was elected as the youngest councillor in the city of Leicester. It was an incredible feeling to have been chosen to represent my local community on the council.

As it happened, I was the first non-white politician ever elected at any level to represent Beaumont Leys, a predominantly white working class area of Leicester. But for me this wasn’t particularly noteworthy at the time. It was the area I had grown up in and gone to school. White working class people were my community and it was now my job to fight for their interests.

Over the course of my 4-year term I worked incredibly hard to solve disputes, champion various causes, save jobs, and make a positive difference. By my early 30s it seemed a sensible next step to seek a wider political role, and continue putting my beliefs and values into practice, working to help people and challenge injustice.

In August 2014 I was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the Harborough constituency in Leicestershire. I was set to stand for a national political party in a UK general election. It was a surreal moment, but something that my friends, family and teachers had predicted since I was a teenager.

In reality, the prospect of me becoming an MP in 2015 was very slim. The constituency was a safe seat for the incumbent Conservatives. Nevertheless I persisted and from January 2015, right through to early May, we ran the most exciting and enjoyable election campaign the constituency had ever seen.

A relatively dormant local party was enthused and revitalised. My team and I attended public demonstrations and campaign events. I took part in hustings and debates at the secular society, a Hindu community group, the chamber of commerce, and the National Farmers Union.

For the first time in years we ran council candidates on every ballot paper and in every ward. And I took dozens of activists with me to campaign in marginal constituencies across the East Midlands, helping my party’s candidates in key winnable seats.

Whenever I had a few spare hours I’d pop over to see my grandfather to update him on the latest polls and campaign events and generally put the world to rights.

We even sat together on his couch and watched the Leaders’ Question Time debates on Thursday 30 April 2015. Sadly, it was to be the last time I’d see him alive.

On Wednesday 6 May 2015, the day before the general election, we received a distressed call from one of my aunts. She said my grandfather was unwell and told my parents to get over to the house. I was upstairs on the computer, oblivious to what was going on.

A frantic phone call from my father 20 minutes later spurred me into action and I began getting ready to head over to my grandfather’s house.

It was one of those strange moments, which many people will have experienced, where an otherwise ordinary day becomes extra-ordinary. We experience time in slow motion, with heightened senses, and remember every little detail.

Before I had the chance to put on my shoes another call confirmed the awful news. My grandfather had died. His heart had suddenly stopped working and he had collapsed at home. His name was Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani and he was 80 years old.

I’ve always found it strange how we experience the death of a loved one. It’s as if the whole world stops turning and nothing makes sense any more. It even angers us to see other people carrying on with their lives, chatting, laughing, behaving as if everything’s normal. Grief is a complex emotion.

The suddenness of my grandfather’s passing hit me very hard. Not just because I had lost someone whom I loved so dearly. But because this was the man who had inspired me to dedicate so much of my life to politics.

It didn’t make sense for this to be happening the day before the general election. We were supposed to be experiencing the election together. We were meant to discuss my result and consider the next steps.

In the Hindu tradition a death prompts the beginning of two weeks of prayer and rituals at the home of the deceased, with extended family coming together to support one another.

On election day therefore, I was away from my campaign team and the constituency. I spent the morning covering my grandfather’s lounge with sheets and helping to rearrange furniture to prepare for the inevitable visitors coming to pay their respects.

Soon after 10pm, once the polls had closed, I forced myself to shave and put on a suit and made my way over to the result counting venue – a dreary leisure centre, as is the norm in British elections.

During that election count – as night turned to day – I experienced a roller coaster of emotions, not least because of the many surprising results from around the country. On a personal level I was blown away by the compassion shown to me by my political rivals, including the incumbent Member of Parliament, who went on to be re-elected.

Unfortunately Harborough was the last constituency in the East Midlands to declare its result. We were up all night and I gave my concession speech at 9.30am on Friday morning.

We managed to come in second overall, and it was the best result for my party locally since the 1979 election, which was before I was even born.

I didn’t immediately know it at the time, but the events of those two days – my grandfather’s sudden death and the exhaustion of election night – had a hugely consequential impact on my life.

In the short term I experienced a crisis with my mental health. I was signed-off from work for several weeks with bereavement-related stress.

Up until that point I had never experienced any problem with my mental health and, if truth be told, I never really used to believe a mental health problem could be as debilitating as a physical health problem. This was the first of my epiphanies.

In the longer term my life was completely changed by those 48-hours. My world was knocked off its axis, causing me to re-evaluate everything, not just in my own reality but philosophically as well.

It prompted me to engage on a journey of discovery. To try to make sense of life and our purpose here on Earth. To learn more about humanity and understand our place in the known universe.

Most importantly of all, I learnt to truly value family bonds and friendships much more than my career and ambition.

In this new age of social media, with constant global news coverage and information overload, I have come to realise that our most meaningful relationships – with the people we care deeply about – are the best way to stay grounded. To be happy.

And to find the strength we need to work hard to make this a better world.

Dedicated to my grandfather Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani

A film review of ‘The Iron Lady’

The Iron Lady is an excellent film and well worth seeing if only for Meryl Streep’s mesmerising performance as Margaret Thatcher.

The film is different to what I expected and certainly not a drama or political thriller; more of a biographical recollection.

Essentially the viewer is taken on a journey of flashbacks which recall Thatcher’s life from her own perspective, or rather, the perspective of an aging and lonely old woman suffering from dementia.

The flashbacks begin with Thatcher’s early life and political career, and gradually move on to a variety of highlights from her time as Leader of the Opposition, and then as Prime Minister.

In a way the film is simplistic in that it focuses almost exclusively on Thatcher as a woman, who admittedly had to fight hard to get ahead in a completely male dominated Conservative Party, and later the British political establishment itself. It’s also a very sad and emotive film and may be particularly poignant for those of a strong political persuasion.

For those on the right a once strong and powerful Thatcher is now weak and powerless. For those of us on the left this divisive and often inhumane figure is very much humanised by the indiscriminate effects of time and aging.

The worst thing about the film is a very unconvincing performance from Richard E. Grant who plays Michael Heseltine. Not only did he not look the part whatsoever but it felt as if he hadn’t really bothered to study his subject or try to capture the essence of the man.

Nevertheless barring one or two historical inaccuracies, such as for instance Thatcher’s location when Airey Neave was killed, this is a very watchable film thanks to Streep’s remarkable portrayal.

I particularly enjoyed watching her mannerisms and body language and the way she captured Thatcher’s personality at two very different times in her life. It is fair to say however that the accuracy of the latter portrayal of a senile Margaret Thatcher is debateable, because of the criticism that the film has attracted from Thatcher’s own family.

Overall I would certainly recommend watching the film, and embracing the sadness that comes with seeing a strong person become old, frail and forgetful; a process to which we will all bear witness eventually.

Homelessness is increasing under this Tory-led government

The UK is the fifth most charitable nation in the world – and second only to Thailand when it comes to giving money – that’s according to a recent survey by the Charities Aid Foundation. In the run up to Christmas this is something that we can all surely take great pride in. Sadly the same cannot be said for the way in which we’re tackling homelessness in our country.

The plight of homeless people quite rightly features heavily in the press around Christmas time, as charities and churches right across the country are working even harder, to try and alleviate the suffering of so many of our forgotten people.

Despite all this good work however the situation is getting worse, not least because we now have a Tory-led government that cares far less, about the least well off in our society.

From a peak of homeless households in 2003 / 2004 homelessness in England actually fell year on year during the last Labour government. Overall homelessness went down by 70% during Labour’s time in office.

However recent reports have highlighted that not only is homelessness on the rise here in England, but people who live on the streets also lead significantly shorter lives than the rest of the population, with the average homeless man dying at the age of 47 and the average homeless woman dying at 43.

The sad reality is that since the Tories and Liberal Democrats took office around 18 months ago homelessness in England has gone up by more than 10%. In-fact, in the first 9 months of this year alone homelessness has increased by 13%, compared with the same period last year.

And not only is homelessness rising dramatically under this Coalition government, but there has also been a huge 30% rise in the number of people being placed in short-term B&B accommodation, compared to last year’s figures.

It’s clear to see that a picture of real concern is starting to emerge. According to the housing and homelessness charity Shelter, someone faces losing their home every 2 minutes, and nearly 70,000 children will spend Christmas Day in temporary accommodation this year.

Add to that the findings of a recent YouGov poll commissioned by Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, which found that one in four Brits is seriously afraid of losing their home.

Going forward the situation will almost inevitably get worse as the government continues to reduce funding to local authorities and the voluntary sector, whilst at the same time opts to protect bankers’ bonuses and desperately seeks to reduce the 50p rate of tax, so that the richest 0.5% in society can keep more of their earnings.

A number of planned changes by this Tory-led government to housing benefits next year will also have far reaching consequences, and may well increase the number of homeless people on our streets. One major change that the government plans to introduce will see housing benefit capped at a ‘shared room rate’ for anyone between the ages of 25 and 35 who is currently in receipt of housing benefit.

In other words, many thousands of young adults currently living in private housing will find themselves stuck in a tenancy they can’t afford, as the amount of housing benefit they receive is cut. Those affected will be forced to either try and negotiate a cheaper rent, or move out and try to find cheaper shared housing elsewhere. However with a chronic housing shortage finding a private landlord willing to accept housing benefits and multiple occupants will be a struggle to put it mildly.

Mahatma Gandhi said that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”, so for a country named ‘Great’ Britain these recent developments are particularly shameful.

But let’s be clear: the shame – and indeed the blame – must lie squarely at the foot of this Coalition government for not only failing to build on Labour’s successes over the years, but for actually standing idly by and allowing homelessness to increase.

Of course homelessness remains a complicated issue, and there isn’t a silver bullet that can solve all the individual needs and problems of any one homeless person overnight. A concerted multifaceted approach is needed and, as Dr Nick Maguire articulates in this brilliant article, tackling homelessness may well require a more psychological focus.

However by slashing funding to local authorities and implementing disastrous changes to the benefits system, by failing to grow the economy and choosing instead to suck the lifeblood of potential growth out of the system, and by putting rigid ideology before people and austerity before charity, homelessness will no doubt continue to increase under this Tory-led government throughout the coming holiday period, and well into the new year.

To make a donation to Shelter please click here.