The Accidental Labour Activist
I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but I think it dates to the realisation that David Cameron really did mean his ‘idea’ of the Big Society to be taken seriously. I’d assumed this notion of a smaller state where you do-it-yourself was something he’d made up on the hoof during the General Election to make it seem like he really did have a ‘Big Idea’; that he wasn’t just a sub-Blair impersonator but that he did have something akin to a philosophy. Worse than watching the sickening love-in between Cameron and Clegg was the sickening realisation that he actually meant it. That what he wanted to do was to shrink the state and the public sector that forms the civilising backbone of a more liberal democracy.
I should make a confession. I’ve always been a bit of an armchair activist: but nonetheless passionate for all that. I could no more vote Tory than I could eat my cat. I totally agree with Aneurin Bevan’s description of them as lower than vermin. My politics can be dated to a particular conversation with my mum in the early 1970s. She was lighting candles during one of the power cuts that came in the wake of the miner’s strike and I was whingeing because I couldn’t watch TV. Her response was to say that all workers deserved a proper wage for their labour. Two periods of unemployment for my dad underscored that first political lesson as something that was felt in my guts. It gave an experiential basis to my politics. It also left an abiding feeling that there is something pernicious and sickening about the way capitalism deals with the working classes.
As a result, I can bang on about politics with the best of them. But I’ve never been what you might call ‘an activist’. I feel happier talking to friends who share my views about my politics. With people I don’t know, I can always see their point of view and that can make for the kind of conversation where you try to see the good in what someone says regardless of how bonkers it is. (That’s the failing of my training: I’m a professional philosopher, God help me.)
But activism? The closest I come to it is delivering leaflets and occasionally telling outside polling stations on election day.
But then came Cameron and the excuse provided by the deficit for decimating public services. It was the renewed attack on the poor that had me grinding my teeth with frustration at my own sense of powerlessness. How to respond to the Comprehensive Spending Review which placed the cost of reducing the deficit at the doors of the poor, of women, and other marginalised groups? How to stop the ‘social cleansing’ that will inevitably be the result of the capping of housing benefit? (And thanks Chris Bryant for that phrase that had Clegg snorting with fury – you are dead right).
And something strange happened.
I’d always assumed – naively – that Labour had won the battle over good public services and the need for a state that supported its citizens and their aspirations. Good grief, even Cameron was committed to the same spending as Labour until very late in the day. To realise with a jolt that this wasn’t true came like an electric shock; that the more civilized, more decent society that I believed Labour had been creating was about to be broken apart.
And now my diary is full of political meetings and the dates of demonstrations.
This renewed activism started slowly and, some would say, inauspiciously: phoning round trying to get support from Labour members for Ed Balls’ leadership bid. Yes, I know, Ed Balls. That much maligned figure. But I like his willingness to argue for bold solutions; the fact that his politics is visceral; that you can’t imagine him in any circumstances inviting Thatcher to tea or having a pint with his opposite Tory number. Call me tribal, but that’s what I mean by being Labour. It’s based in experience; in a felt sense of the injustice of things and the need to put things right.
And now I find I can’t stop: attending a Labour Women’s Group; my first demo for about 16 years. (Must admit I realised pretty quickly why that was the case as I stood in a freezing cold city centre, listening to speeches and watching dodgy street theatre. There’s something about the left that means we are always happier beating each other up than turning our fire on the right. Not good enough. We need to hone our fire, know our enemy.)
And you know what? I feel less powerless, less like I’m a lone voice shouting at the TV at the unfairness of it all.
Perhaps it’s time for all of us who assumed things really had changed after 13 years of Labour rule to do something rather than sit at home hurling abuse at the latest coalition politician to appear on TV.
Anyone want to join me?