Lately and increasingly I have resumed writing in long hand when something really matters to me, when something needs working out. The slowness of it, the active thinking, from my heart directly down my left arm to the tip of my pen.
I’m writing in long hand now, sat on the wall of Sefton Park, the Sunday afternoon before the 2015 General election. Sefton Park where I have come for most of my adult life to walk, reflect and think about all the really big decisions. When to invite, when to leave? When to say yes, when to say no. Today I’m here to keep writing until I can decide who to vote for this Thursday.
As you can tell by the title above, several parties and candidates have already been eliminated by the thinking and experiences of my life up to now. I am a socialist and always have been since, I think, my first ever visit to a public library some time late in the 1950s:
“We’d moved to our new house on a new estate, just North of Liverpool. And in one of our early explorations of the new place, called Maghull, I remember my Dad taking me to the Library there and explaining how it worked. That I could pick the books I wanted and take them home. Then after we, or rather he, had read them to me, we’d bring them back. ‘It’s part of how we’ve decided to run the country. Books are important and this is a good way of making sure everyone can read the books they want,’ he said, gently educating his little son in the gently British version of socialism.”
But as you’ll know from my recent posts about The Big Issue and Borgen the kind of socialist I am at the moment has been up for some degree of consideration. Consideration that continues now, sat on this park wall writing all this down.
Early days there were no such problems. Despite schoolboy flirtations with the attractions of Marxism I turned out a fairly straightforward left wing Labour Party supporter. These were the days of the ‘white heat’ of social progress when I could see the lives and conditions of all of us in the working classes getting visibly better year by year. I am from one of the golden generations who got the full benefits of the welfare state: free education including university, full employment, secure housing and the wonderful and confident feeling that life was always getting better. I don’t credit the Labour Party and the Trade Unions with all of this, not at all. I always knew about the post war consensus and the feeling that human kindness and intelligence had become more enlightened than they used to be. When the Conservatives would win an election those days, and they did, it wasn’t a disaster. More of an informed and opinionated argument but on a pretty firm basis of agreement.
So the country arrived at the mid-1970s when I could start to vote, happier and healthier than it had been before or has been since. When there was a referendum in 1975 about whether or not to stay in the European Common Market I agreed with Tony Benn and voted ‘No’ because the European settlement seemed to be all about economics and I didn’t want that to get in the way of the social progress we’d been making. So I was 21 and idealistic, but I still kind of agree with my young self.
I continue voting Labour through the bleak years that followed. Even being a party member in the late 1970s and early 80s as we set up our own branch at the housing association where I worked. All solidly left wing as Liverpool went through a full on class war with Margaret Thatcher and her brutalised version of the Conservative Party.
When they’re all swept away by Tony Blair and ‘New’ Labour in 1997 I’m as delighted as anyone that my young daughter won’t be having to grow up under the vindictive control of what’s long stopped being a post war consensus. As it turns out my delight is only partly justified, ending the Blair/Brown years knowing I’ve been living through decades still very much guided by the ideas and the power elite Margaret Thatcher had put into place.
As forced austerity and the naked greed of the international banking classes has followed I’ve watched in dismay as the main parties have filled up with people seeming more like each other than the rest of us. Professional politicians, a ‘Westminster’ class who’ve all done little or no work outside of their rarefied political village. Who speak in a dialect all of their own, focus on the art of winning above all else, and have the cheek to be superciliously surprised when even their solid supporters, like me, lose interest in the drivel they all come out with when, once every five years, they’re forced to involve us in their ‘democracy’ to keep their careers going.
So in recent times I’ve taken to asking myself ‘Where is socialism living?’ As I try to decide where to cast my vote in both General Elections and the increasingly peripheral local ones. Where most power, money and decisions have been pulled into the political village of Westminster, leaving local politicians and their stooge ‘City Mayors’ with the dirty job of implementing the shitty end of Westminster’s very big stick. No wonder I was keen to vote ‘Yes’ when the Scottish Referendum came along. No wonder I was disgusted when the Westminster Boys Club bullied them into a ‘No.’
So what am I to do now, this week? Well, one option is to avoid the issue altogether. Both locally and nationally I could take refuge in the fact that my vote will make no difference. Where I live Labour seems likely to win easily whether I vote for them or not. So I could not vote at all or write ‘None of the above’ on my ballot paper. A serious temptation. (I did it in the mayoral ballot that was forced on us, instead of the promised referendum about whether we even wanted a mayor.)
Or I could do my ‘Where is socialism living?’ thing and consider the parties my protest vote could go to? One of the Socialist groups or even the Greens? None of these seem likely to get elected but my vote might ‘signify’ my unhappiness with the major parties and politics generally. So these are a real option. I voted Green at the last local elections and have been testing out how Green I am for this one:
“So I took a test to check and you could too. It’s at ‘Vote for policies not personalities’ and it takes you through a thorough questionnaire which compares your own opinions with everyone’s policies. And then tells you what you are. I turned out to be one third Green and two thirds Labour. That’s simple then, on this evidence I should vote Labour.
Except I don’t feel like it. They feel bossy and hard to like. A party of career politicians forever banging on about ‘on the Labour doorstep’ and, yes ‘hardworking families.’ Traces of socialism in their make up are hard to spot any more and their policies seem to be mostly about the management and control of the people, working, immigrants or otherwise.”
See, still not feeling very Labour even with hard evidence. But I’m not very much anything else am I? Well actually, as I walk and reflect here, I realise I am. I’m a socialist ’til I die. And I’ve been reading about that and thinking a lot about that.
Reading the books of Harry Leslie Smith and Dennis Skinner (a chapter in his book carries the title of this blog post). People much older and perhaps even more to the left than me. Out there campaigning for and even standing for election for a Labour Party they could be forgiven for thinking has long left them both behind. What’s all that about then?
Well thinking, reflecting and walking round and round this park I keep coming back to the thought that it’s about a tradition and its about humility. It’s not about me or them knowing what’s for the best for all of us, all on our own. What can we do now to get to the fairer world for all of us I still wake from dreaming about, all on my own? No, socialism at its best has always been a good argument. More about discussions and mutual progress than taking your ball away every time everybody else doesn’t agree with you individually.
So here Harry and Dennis both are at their respective and venerable ages of 90 something and 80 something. Determinedly living their truths and having their say, for the education and good of all of us younger ones, whether we’re listening or not. Like old blues musicians they are now. Telling their tales and singing their songs of the slavery days. Of austerity the last time around. Of strikes and poverty, of principles and progress. So we don’t forget, so we don’t slip back – so we don’t let the bastards keep on grinding us down.
They are socialists. Part of the great Labour and Trade Union tradition that did more than anything to deliver us all from industrial slavery and into a better and kinder world. They are just two of the thousands and thousands of unknown other women and men who laboured to give me and so many of us happy, healthy, secure and educated lives with good homes in a peaceful country. For all of which I am humbly grateful.
So as the afternoon here grows colder and the park empties I realise I am one of them too. Part of the same tradition. And yes it’s taken me much walking, reading and sitting to work this out, to remember it. But that’s fine. How I vote and how we’ll all vote is not something to be lightly considered. Even if I suspect it makes no difference to a result, it makes a difference to me. Voting is both my right and my responsibility.
And so on Thursday, slightly to my own surprise, I will be voting for the Labour Party. Not because I agree with all of their current policies. In fact I could see myself rejoining the party to argue strongly against some of them, socialism being an argument rather than a destination.* No, I’ll be voting Labour to get rid of the current and vindictive government and because I’m a socialist who still thinks the Labour Party has it in it to be the best place to argue for practical socialism in real life Britain.
Sure, it’s as full as any party of career politicians and is still in recovery from the entryism and duplicity of the Blair years. And yet it is still the party of Harry Leslie Smith and Dennis Skinner, still the natural home for the likes of me who sees social progress as an immediate necessity, for us, our children and their children to come, and not a vague future pipe-dream. I may not be an old blues singer just yet, but I’m getting there.
Last words to Dennis Skinner:
“I am a socialist from experience. My politics are homespun rather than from the adoption of a creed, and are based on what I saw from an early age. I don’t use the s-word in public very often but I know in my heart it pushes me to reach conclusions. The environment I was brought up in taught us that capitalism fails the working class. There is a better way of organising society by controlling the economy. It involves public ownership, assertive trade unions, redistribution of income and wealth, regulations and democratic control…
I am proud to stand up for my class, to say publicly I am from good working class stock. I am proud to be a trade unionist, to be a member of the Labour Party and to be a socialist. I stick to my principles. I know no other way…”
Me too. A socialist ’til I die.
And wouldn’t you know, around 8 o’clock on Sunday evening just as I’m finishing typing this up, Dave Cummings the Labour candidate in the local elections this Thursday knocks on the door and asks about my intentions! He gets a short version of the history of the 20th century as his answer. Good on you Dave, you will be getting my vote on Thursday and I look forward to many more friendly arguments.
*So come election day I did indeed vote Labour. I also rejoined the Labour Party, a member now for the first time in 30 years and my vote was one of the 259,417 that elected the socialist Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour leader in September 2015.