by Chris Proctor
Suddenly the words ‘general election’ hove into view: and lo! I am a different man. I am transformed from a grumbling malcontent into an eager believer. From being a ‘what-did-a-Labour-government-ever-do-for-me’ grouch, I am a wide-eyed convert. I sing Monkees songs and dig out my red waistcoat.
Memories are erased, grudges set aside, reservations dismissed. Instead of being the cynic at the back of the church, I’m the verger pushing down the aisle elbowing my way into the pulpit to preach the message: ‘Join with me, dear brethren - Vote Labour!’
This time last week I was still moaning about the Blair and Brown betrayals, another Labour administration following the pattern of Labour in, hopes up, let down, messed around, fed up.
Ramsay McDonald started it. On the eve of Labour forming a minority government in 1924, what did he say? ‘Up the workers’? ‘Capitalism ends here’? ‘Watch out, Eton, here I come’? Nope. He said, ‘Tomorrow every Duchess in London will be waiting to kiss me.’
It still alarms me. After centuries of toil and decades of organisation and activism, Labour finally achieved its primary goal: a government led by the representatives of the workers. And what does its Leader contemplate? Snogging aristocrats. Isn’t that the last thing you’d want to do? I mean, have you seen British grandees? Centuries of them marrying their cousins has left them chin- and brain-less. Attractive, they are not.
And Labour governments have always made me despair when it comes to war. The deep shame of smiling Tony’s eagerness to bomb Iraqis still haunts me. But he was only the most recent in a long line of party warmongers. During the Suez Crisis, Herbert Morrison was desperate for the UK to take unilateral action against Egypt: and he turned out to be a reasonable chap compared with his grandson, ‘Dark Arts’ Mandelson.
That pronouncement of Mandelson - ‘We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’ - was the low point of Labour in power. It showed how in government Labour’s central core value - equality - had gone on its holidays. Instead, we were in the business of approving and institutionalising vast differences in wealth. One of the saddest facts about the Blair years was this: the poorest 90% of us took home less than at any time since Stanley Baldwin. And the top 10% took home more than they ever had.
Even with crimson-tinted spectacles, I couldn’t see this as a victory for socialism. In fact, my Party card for all the Blair years was incredibly well-thumbed. It was out of my wallet and into an envelope on a weekly basis, daily during the Iraq invasion. For some reason I never quite posted it off. Well, for one thing, a first-class stamp is 70p these days thanks to Royal Mail privatisation: a policy, incidentally, still pursued by Labour under Brown and only thwarted by the postal unions and users.
Then there was Labour’s cynical introduction of university fees when they were committed to not doing so: thus alienating a whole generation of undergraduates who had voted for ‘education, education, education’ without realising it would come at a cost. Their cost. And then ….
And then, a general election is called and a miracle occurs! Like Saul on his way to Damascus, I am transformed. Previous memories are erased and replaced with recollections of the minimum wage, free admission to museums, Labour’s refusal to join a war in Syria, and our crowning glory, the NHS. I dig out my Keir Hardie centenary souvenirs, fill the window with Labour posters, canvass innocent passers-by, and hug the telly when Jeremy appears.
If only I could always live like this. Wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, full of joy and crusading energy, supporting a party of high ideals and lofty aspirations. If I ran into myself from last week, I’d be tempted to give myself a sound thrashing. I have a month of joy before me!
This time, I tell myself, this time it could be different. Away with your cynicism! Raise the scarlet banner high! Vote Labour!
Chris Proctor has been head of communications at ASLEF and the Communication Workers Union, written for the Sunday Times, The Guardian, the New Statesman and Tribune, and is a columnist for the NUJ’s magazine The Journalist.