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Politics

My Political Autobiography 1984/1992

I am now forty two years old and 2011 will see me in my 28th year as a member of the Labour Party but let’s get one thing straight…It’s OK for me to slag off the Labour Party, but don’t even go there with me unless you know what you’re talking about? OK? Good.

 

 

I was brought up Roman Catholic so I suppose it’s in my nature to offer unquestioning loyalty to a deeply flawed institution.

It’s all about belonging to something which offers solutions to some of life’s difficult philosophical issues. And in the ‘eighties it gave us a vehicle and channel to fight back against the Tories.

 

 

Now therein lies the rub. They were very polarised times and especially in Yorkshire given all the strife of mass unemployment, the Miner’s Strike and Thatcher’s assault on the NHS and education system.

This is why it beggared belief that one Ruth Kelly who is the same age as me) told the Observer in 2007 that she was “pretty ambivalent” in terms of Party politics in the ‘eighties. You what? Which planet was she living on? Especially as a student as we were in the vanguard of fighting the vile 1988 Education Act which abolished grants for Third Level students and replaced them with loans.

This only affected a very small minority University students, but the people punished would have been people like me who got the maximum benefit as I was in receipt of a full grant. I only knew one other person in that position and we got married. Class solidarity carried to it’s ultimate conclusion!

We both came from solid white collar semi professional working class families where in my case Mum was a nurse and Dad a Careers Officer. This is the important bit, both were aspirational and had no problem with me going to University.

However a conversation with my Dad over the tuition fees scandal proved enlightening. “There’s no way on Earth I would have let you rack up £30k of debt no matter how good the degree was”.

That’s what Clegg and his out of touch cronies just don’t get. For families like ours where the idea of debt was anathema (my father in law virtually had to be marched at gun point to sign the papers to obtain a mortgage for his council house) the prospect of a monumental £9 grand a year before you have even lifted a pen in anger is just not realistic.

What I fail to understand having been a Secondary School teacher for so long is why these days people go on and on about how de politiced the younger generation are. Excuse me? Two million people on the march in Feb 2003 against the imminent Iraq War. Millions involved either actively or as viewers for the Live 8 thing. And then the mass mobilization of youth against the Lib Dem backed Tory blitz on young people with the abolition of the EMA and the unbelievable hike in fees.

Tony Blair and our Labour Government got it wrong about University funding in 2003 when we introduced tuition fees. I backed the idea at the time because I believed it was basically a progressive and (whisper it) Socialist policy. I remember Alan Johnson telling us during a Q and A with my pupils at Hessle High Sixth Form, “Why should some rich parents pay £30k a year to Eton or whatever and then expect the taxpayer to pick up the bill once they go to their protected and guaranteed places at Oxbridge?” But this was my “Utilitarian period” where I weighed Blair up and decided he was basically trying to get the best deal for the Many and not the Few, and if there were some casualties along the way then that’s life.

Wrong, wrong and, for good measure wrong.

We are a collectivist Party. No one left behind, no collateral damage accepted. The Banking Crisis helped me see this. They basically fucked the country up the arse and we, the people are just meant to take it. No more. It’s a black and white concept for me now, as it was in the 1980‘s.

Socialism that delivers positive change for everybody, or unregulated Tory Capitalism which allows such scandals as the Ings Estate in East Hull to be left to go to the dogs, where ordinary families are left with derelict crack dens either side of their homes because the Coalition has decided that because the Bankers have wrecked the economy Labour’s plans to make the Estate reasonable are, “unaffordable”.

Karl Harrison, the new MP for the area explained the whole depressing scenario to me on the phone last week. He concluded by saying that both Michael Meacher and Hilary Benn were of the opinion that Thatcher would never have gone this far, and this coming from two guys who were at the forefront in the 1980’s, Michael as an MP and Hilary in Local Government.

A good example of youth on the move came in 2005. I was in Edinburgh for the Long Walk to Justice Campaign aimed at the G8 summit. A quarter of a million mainly young people on a deeply political protest against the effective genocide that is African Poverty.

 

 

What “commentators” mean is that people are disillusioned with Party politics.

And why not? To the casual observer Blair and Brown blew the trust invested in us by the 1997 landslide and two subsequent comfortable poll victories.

Due to 18 years in Opposition and the scars left by Militant, we were deferential to the Tory Press and acted as though we were squatters in power, as though our Government was an aberration in the natural scheme of successive Tory Administrations. And yet the Tories made no significant gains in the polls in May 2010 only entering Downing Street due to this weird Coalition with Nick Clegg and his lust for the trappings of, but with no actual power.

 

 

In 2005, to my eternal shame, I voted Lib Dem in the (vain) hope that they could unseat that nasty little bugger Davis. How inept are they? Davis (against the national trend) INCREASED his majority due to a woeful Lib Dem campaign. I mean Charles Kennedy. Do me a favour. Pot smoking, votes for the criminal and a 50% tax band. A great set of policies when you aspire to destroy the Tories. And they have utterly no principles. “Ooh look, a bandwagon! Lets jump on it!” (Iraq). But their latest stunt, that of signing the NUS Pledge against Tuition Fee hikes in the 2010 Election has well and truly come back to haunt them proving thy never ever had any real principles.

When have you ever heard someone referred to as a dyed in the wool, passionate Lib Dem? Never I bet!

In 2005 the Lib Dem thing skewed the vote because many tactical voters (like me) detracted from Labour’s national percentage so it made it look as if Party had done badly. I mean a Third Term Majority of 67.We would have been ecstatic with that after the 1992 fiasco.

 

 

So political anger and 60p a pint in the Labour Club saw me join up in Sept 1984. It seemed a good mature thing to do as I entered the Sixth Form. A rite of passage if you like. And it annoyed my parents, surely the prerogative of any 16 year old.

My Dad was weird when it came to politics. He was a deeply principled guy, much of his values coming from his Anglo Catholic religious convictions, natural One Nation Tory voter until 1987 when the fall out from the Miners Strike, plus what he saw at work regarding the worst abuses of the hated YTS saw him switch to Labour. But by 2001 he was significantly disillusioned with us that after a Hustings he declared for, get this Socialist Alliance.

My Mum was an aspirational Tory. Working Class but thought Middle Class people voted Tory. In North Hull. In window rattling rented accommodation with no central heating. And a nurse too.

We did OK as a family after 1974 when they bought their first house, but nothing special. Just reasonable. I mean I would be gutted if we had to live in a house and area like that now. (Yes I know that’s a dodgy thing to say, but I feel we’ve earned our place through hard work, but above all by taking the chances on offer due the post 1945 settlement where successive Government of both persuasions agreed to the principles of universality when it came to health, education and benefits ).

We argued like mad about this politics but you can’t do this logically with someone with such odd views. I have some contradictory ideas but there is a basic thread because I’m a Socialist. The classic clincher to a “discussion” on politics would be “If Socialism is so great go and live in East Germany or the Soviet Union!”

 

 

The Miner’s Strike was just unbelievable. Literally Civil War. The miners were a great set of lads because they didn’t care who got involved, even lanky Sixth Formers with bad skin.

I went to a rally in Barnsley and the guy said we are the face of it but it’s everyone’s struggle against Her. There was never any stuff along the lines of, “You lot know nowt because you aren’t down t’pit”, and I found this with all of them, especially the wives who came over on a Friday night with a van for stuff we’d collected in town. They wanted their kids to go to University and were full of aspiration too. We collected and bagged up tin’s blankets and the like. In the 1980’s. Disgusting. Being cut off by the lecky board. The stories would make your toes curl.

A mate of mine now went through it as an 18 year old lad. The police were just the pits (no pun) Met officers giving it the large one about the overtime paying for Barbados. And the casual violence. Pit villages being surrounded and the Met going in to kick strikers about a bit, especially after closing time. It’s all accepted now and on the record but the Tory Press in those days….No way. It was a press dictatorship. Only Channel Four News came anywhere to recording the actualite.

 

 

And then you have Thatcher’s hate filled phrase; “The Enemy Within”, about the strikers.

Veterans of D Day.

Men who had been on the Burma Railway.

Lads who fought in the bloody Italian campaign

The Korean War.

The Falklands

Northern Ireland.

People who were St. John’s volunteers or Samaritans.

A guy who was a fill in Vicar when people went on holiday.

Lay ministers.

Scout Leaders

And men suffering illnesses brought on by the conditions underground.

That’s why I find it almost impossible to be objective when talking about Maggie. It’s just too emotional when you contemplate the wreckage she left behind.

 

 

But it’s not by any means about hatred.

I believe strongly that as people we have the power when we work together to make the world a better place. (Pass the sick bag? You old cynic).

There is nothing worse than selfish people and at the end of the day we only get on crack at this life so you’ve got to do it right.

Every conflict is about money and resources so you address this you eliminate war and poverty which are the two things that drag us down as a world.

And, if you want to look at it from a Tory point of view, you educate people and give them opportunity then they don’t nick you car or burgle your house!

Besides everything is so much better when people are NICE to each other. And it’s always a buzz when you do something good for someone else.  

By the summer of 85 I was into politics in a big way. Strangely non of my mates were and I didn’t know any of the people that were involved before hand.

That’s weird looking back at it because I always regarded myself as bit unconfident when I look back at this era but thinking about it, just going along when I didn’t know anyone took a bit of balls for a 16 year old.

 

 

We did the Friday night boxing up thing for the miners. Food, blankets etc as many of them had been cut off or had furniture repossessed. I found this hard to believe myself, let alone trying to explain it to school mates. Amazing sacrifices were made and it’s no wonder some chose to go back when defeat was an inevitability.

 

 

What is odd, looking back, is the acceptance by Kinnock and the leadership that the Party were 100% with the strikers and it was tolerated for people to say so and organise. Now you can be expelled for writing a critical letter to the press, if you are a member and it’s seen.

I was livid with Kinnock and couldn’t understand why he didn’t throw the weight of the Party behind the strikers. I saw him speak at the Barnsley Miners Gala in 1984 and he was passionate in his condemnation of the Tories but he was to be outflanked by Thatcher in two main ways.

 

 

Firstly she used the Police as a weapon of the Political Establishment against the working Class. This had never been done before. And it had the undertone of a North V South battle as the Met and Hampshire Police were the main areas involved.

The facts are not disputed now, even by the Tories. They set up exclusion zones around pit villages. Detained illegally hundreds of people and “held” them in police wagons so they couldn’t’ be active on picket lines or whatever, meetings etc.

Cars were stopped whether or not they were involved and not allowed to travel. Then in at least two occasions that I heard first hand, the Police moved into villages and smashed people’s houses up.

David Peace’s novel “GB84” is a perfect evocation of the Strike and the destruction it wrought on communities and especially on individual families. A real Must Read if you ever want to get a handle on the era.

 

 

And the media. She had the print press in her pocket and the TV and radio people were craven in their non reporting.

The BBC had been the victim of a sustained amount of pressure from the Government over perceived bias. She got the police to raid the BBC over a critical documentary which exposed brutality in the North by the RUC and some extra ordinary interview footage with paramilitary types. You can hum and ha about this but the BBC has to have the right to make it’s own editorial decisions. It would have gone all the way up the line before getting the thumbs up.

This was a “Hutton” moment and saw the Beeb roll over on so many levels.

Blair learnt from this re Iraq and we have seen a concerted campaign to make the BBC do as it’s told.

Matt Frei of BBC News is a typical victim of Governmental pressure. He was slated for his truthful coverage of the 2005 massacre of it’s own people by the Bush Govt in New Orleans following the Katrina Disaster and was rapidly sidelined.

 

 

So she held all the trump cards and Kinnock reasoned they were going to lose and it wasn’t worth destroying the Party as well.

The excuse used was “violence” on behalf of the pickets. Well from what I saw on the two occasions I joined picketing, it surprising how good humoured the miners were under such provocation.

Taunting cockney coppers but they laughed it off. Amazing.” We are better than them”.”They are victims of her as well. The difference is we know we are”.

If you think about it, those houses were paid for by the strike but could they sustain the repayments when interest rates were 15% thanks to Lawson? And Police pay was amongst the worst in Europe by the end of the Tory era. She used them and them binned them when the job was done.

 

 

Bitter defeat for the Miners and a period of disillusionment for me. Many felt the same. I never gave up but I felt a more radical solution was needed as it seemed the Tory stranglehold over the Southern Working Class and women (the two groups who decide who wins) seemed unbreakable. She delivered a perception of affluence via Council house sales that wasn’t really true but people bought into it.

 

 

When I went to Northern Ireland as a student in September 1986 there was a Labour Club as the Party wasn’t allowed to organise there and I didn’t fancy the SDLP as they were overwhelmingly Catholic and I don’t believe in such stupid distinctions. I mean you wouldn’t get one Labour Party for people with brown hair and one for blonds.

 

 

I met Mike Fisher and we became good mates. He had a similar upbringing to me. White collar working class and we joined up with Militant Tendency who were Trotskyites.

We were (although we didn’t know it at the time) in good company. Milburn, Blunkett, Darling, Hewitt and other later to be Labour Cabinet Ministers were involved or supportive at the time.

 

 

My core values have never changed. Nationalisation unless proven otherwise, disarmament, fair taxes, liberation for women and minorities (but not at the expense of the white working class), peace and real democracy.  

Militant reflected this and had a radical agenda but the main reason for me was the rejection of Sectarian violence and a analysis that the root cause of the War was the Brits divide and rule policy which made it impossible for the Protestant and Catholic Working Classes to empathise with each other and to see the reasons for their misery which they took out on each other.

 

 

Some sections of the left talked about the dilemma of the IRA campaign. That’s a no brainer for me. It’s always wrong to kill people unless it‘s a “Just War“ situation such as the Falklands or Kosovo.

And there was no need if you unite people in peaceful protest and civil disobedience as NICRA was doing in the late sixties. The authorities will always over react and democracies can’t sustain the bad publicity for long. MLK and Gandhi proved it. And the real tragedy and clincher is working class people killing each other for a Socialist is anathema.

The SWP and writer/ journalist Eamon McCann spoke about the IRA as the only party in town when it came to fighting the ruling Orange Class. That would be why the IRA mainly killed fellow workers then? I have a lot of time for McCann. I had a few bevvies with him on occasions and he is very committed and good company.

I admit I hero worshipped him a bit for his involvement in 69 plus his brilliant book “War and Irish Town”,he had lived it and deserved to be listened to. And he wrote for Hot Press which made him Ultra Cool for me. He was one of the only critics of Live Aid and the ill thought out Self Aid which aimed to do a similar job regarding un employment in the Irish Republic.

But his support for the IRA at (meetings in Derry but not in his column) ruled me out of getting involved.

He is a denier of this now and his forward to the new edition of the book is breathtakingly revisionist.

In 1995 at a meeting in London, I quoted his speech from 1988 in Derry. He went a bit mental and accused me of being a plant from the press!.

 

 

Our Militant Cell were a varied lot. Two students. A secondary school head, postal and NHS workers and a lecturer from the Uni.

We mainly concentrated on paper sales in the Uni (successful as most Lefty Students will support each other) and in Belfast. We did one outside the FE college on the Falls Road. Stupid and naive but no one of any importance saw us. The IRA are not to be messed with and a bloke I had heard mentioned was killed because he upset some local “hard” man in Tyrone. It’s all about “respect”.Very primeval.

In addition we supported the local hospital campaign to try and bring awareness that the Tories hated all working people. That did well and I was proud to see Trade Union leaders from both communities involved.

 

 

Unfortunately the security forces wildly over estimated our influence and tapped our phone and interfered with our mail. We had a guy on the inside at BT and Special Branch were stupid enough to publish a memo which he showed us.

Of course we thought it was great but we would have been laughing on the other side of our faces if anything had happened and we got arrested. 

I have often been the recipient of routine harassment by the Police when coming and going out of the UK and wonder if this is the reason. 

 

I was openly in Militant and in the last week of the 1987 Election campaign I had the pleasure of working for Pat Wall in Bradford.

Although I had the surreal experience of watching the results in a Junior Coomon Room at Worcester College Oxford where my mate James was at Uni. I wonder where Gideon, Druggie Dave and Boris were that night!

When I returned to the UK for the Summer in 1988 I worked for the Labour  Party in Hillingdon on the Europe elections. No one gave a toss about my Miltant affiliations. I was a Socialist and a hard worker so who cared? 

 

The defeat of 1987 and subsequent events such as 10% inflation and the fact we couldn’t afford a house and were paying £500 a month on rent made me wise up to the fact we had to get the Tories out and if that meant tempering stuff to get elected then so be it. It’s all very well feeling nice and worthy but ultimately it came down to Tony Benn’s stock in trade phrase, “Principles without power are futile”.

It affected me in Ireland but much more so back in the UK and especially when I started teaching. You can be all principled when it doesn’t really matter to you who is in. That’s why all these idiots who wouldn’t vote Labour in 2005 really wind me up. They are mainly Middle Class professional types who read the Guardian and live in the suburbs. Hmmm Wonder who THAT could describe!

I had an almighty row with a SWP guy selling papers on this very issue a couple of years ago.

The real losers are the people we were growing up with and with whom we had a lot in common life experience wise until I started earning a few quid. And the real poor and dispossessed. Do you think the Tories would have even thought of SureStart? Nuff said.

So I became an activist in Hillingdon and we had a ball. My father in law was a stalwart.

Quite the best bloke I ever had the pleasure to know. And a real Socialist and Union man. Totally top man and I miss him a lot. We argued like mad about politics but he was right. Bugger the minutiae. Get them out! 

 

We had been beaten into third place in the Ward that we lived in, Hillingdon North, but work, work, and more work saw us get our two guys elected the Council. We canvassed every house face to face twice over four elections and everyone knew us and knew we would deliver.

Some great but slightly mental characters. Alan B! I got stitched up canvassing as the new boy in the 1988 European Elections as we were on holiday from Uni.Off his head.

Simon. Statistics mad! But he knew street by street what the lie of the land was and where we could pick up votes.

John L. Fantastic committed guy. Bus driver. Fattest wife in history. Deaf and shouted like mad.

We are in the Committee room in the 1990 locals. This was before I was a teacher. Bunkman calls around as his kids were never going to school due to being on Party business, delivering leaflets and writing up canvass returns on a huge wall chart. Invaluable!

John B.Former alcoholic. Still a bit mad. Let me use his house whilst on holiday to prepare for my wedding. His son came back on the morning of the Big Day to 20 blokes crashed all over his house. No problem! 

 

This brings me to the full scale horror of 1992 General Election. Nationally very close and we were ahead going into the last week, but Major was personally popular and was in a honeymoon period after Thatcher was deposed.

Plus they had the press and The Sun and Express were vicious virtually saying do you want a Welsh guy with ginger hair as PM. It was that low. Pure poison. 

 

Smith messed up with a Shadow Budget that contained Tax rises. Honest but stupid. The Tories put them up far more in the end!

However I was on Planet Labour and couldn’t see how we could lose. Who could possibly vote for that lot?

We received such support on the doorsteps and although we couldn’t win the seat we wanted our vote to be solid, and it was in our ward.

Everyone was saying do it for us! I felt ten foot tall walking home after the polls shut. People beeping their horns and shouting support as I walked home, four pack in one hand and a Chinese in the other to watch our inevitable entry into Downing Street 

 

But horror was to unfold as we watched the results come in and see that Major had achieved the biggest popular vote in history to win fairly easily with a majority of over 20 seats. Given the state of the economy it was more fear of a Labour administration than a positive Tory vote. 

 

I was devastated. I just couldn’t believe it and I cried on the night.

Unlike 2010, 1992 was instant. The exit polls were bad and by 2am it was game over.

The next day I remember haranguing my Year 10 class about how my age group had messed it up and how they must not do the same, me at the ripe old age of 23! I’m sure they were enthralled. 

 

We had to change or face oblivion and resign people to exploitation for another 10 years. 

 

And we did it.1997 May 1st.History was made. But with a lot of pain on the way. 

 

*P.S. Re 92 election. Two things…One funny the other certainly not.

1) Ian Skitt was Alastair Darling’s press secretary for a couple of years and now works for that bastion of Socialist largesse United Bank of Switzerland in Zurich no less

In 1992 he was an “Anarchist” and whilst staying at ours I made him come canvassing. We were both crushingly hung over and he complained about me “selling out”, and the Labour “were no better than the Tories”.

In 2003 he was defending the Iraq War for a living, saying we had to invade to preserve our oil based decadent lifestyle!

Mind you he said I was the only person he knew who scratched their balls whilst talking to the Mother in Law and voters. Well it was warm and hangovers make me sweaty.

 

 

2) The BNP.I had erased this from my mind. They stood against us in a diverse Constituency and were particularly interested in our ward as it was very working class and had a fair amount of British Asian voters.

We weren’t too concerned until they followed us on a dark Monday night at the start of the campaign.

Nowt was said but it was enough to scare me ,let me tell you. I was assured this was standard practice and they would leave us alone thinking they had put the wind up us.

I’m sad to say it wasn’t the end and the following Sunday they followed me and Simon (Jewish so he had extra special reason) and we were getting more and more worried.

Then two of them came over and said “We know where you live”.I could feel the blood pumping in my ears, but didn’t flinch and just carried on. Four blokes against me and a pensioner. Big fuckin men eh?

I said call the Cops but the others said it would up the ante.

The next Tuesday I was bringing 15 Year 7 girls back from a church visit. 15 BNP types were waiting to leaflet white pupils and intimidate Asian ones. They racially abused the kids and threatened me. I said heads down and run!

I called the Old Bill. They came 1/2 later and said there was nothing they could do, and unless punches were thrown not to bother them again.

 

 

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About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.

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