Twenty Years’ Hard Labour

There is a part of you that constantly wonders whether it is worth staying in politics because of all the rubbish you have to do. You just have to do it. You’ve just got to keep a grip of yourself and hope that your humanity sees you through—and, in the end, understand why you want to be in it. What I keep saying to people is get behind the image. It’s quite difficult to bring people to actually see the type of person you are.

Tony Blair, Labour Party Political Election Broadcast, April 1997


‘Get behind the image.’ In hindsight, there’s something unnerving about the way Blair looked when he said this. Twenty years back, this biopic of the then Labour leader was a hit – a final nail in the coffin for John Major’s attempt at re-election: ‘Tony’ was young, hopeful, normal. The Conservatives had broadcast a Project Fear- esque monologue, in which national doomsayer and sometime Prime Minister, John Major, stayed rooted firmly behind his desk, predicting a Labour victory would bring the country to its knees. It was positively sclerotic. At home, amongst his family, Blair was vibrant – alternately making tea for the film crew and encouraging his son to get on with his homework: ‘there’ll be a lot of it under David Blunkett if Labour win!’ (We’re not told if this particular incentive made any difference.) He looked sincere, unabashedly ‘human’. It was on this humanity that New Labour built, and won, their ‘97 election campaign. Towards the film’s close, the camera cuts to Blair, at the podium, announcing that ‘we must awaken and ignite in our people, the hope that change can bring.’ The film had hit on a formula to exploit the idea of ‘hope’ to its fullest: people politics. A documentarian by trade, Molly Dineen, who directed the Labour broadcast, later in a 2002 Guardian interview attacked New Labour’s failure to live up to its promise of change for the better. Blair’s forays in the name of progress were altering Britain too fast, too soon: ‘it’s really depressing, and I do feel especially edgy about it, having done the political broadcast [though] I thought Blair was an incredibly nice man to spend time with.’ Her assessment, whilst fairly damning of the government, also condemns Blair as a ‘nice man to spend time with’: he makes a decent cup of tea, but that’s it – the ultimate triumph of style over substance.

In 2007, Campaign, the advertising world’s magazine, reflecting on ten years of Labour government, called the New Labour of 1997 ‘perhaps the most brand-savvy political project in British history’. The image was Blair, a youthful, charismatic Narcissus, and the soundtrack, blaring out at rallies and from TVs, was the 90s dance anthem, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. As Blair waxed lyrical about progress in that Labour broadcast, this pop- anthem provided the accompaniment. D:Ream had recorded the song in 1993 to limited success, and split after a bitter rift developed between the two leading men over how much should be sacrificed for mainstream appeal. Perhaps Tony and Gordon should have been taking notes. The lead singer, Peter Cunnah, was at that time in the process of embarking on an unsuccessful solo career, and agreed that Labour could use the song after John Prescott (whose love of electronic dance music is well known) persuaded him that Labour’s use of it would in no way tarnish D:Ream’s image. The song proved a hit with voters. It re-entered the charts, tying Labour’s brand to a powerful message of change (though unhelpfully, no one seemed to have settled on quite what that change would be) and, in spite of Prescott’s assurances, forever transformed D:Ream into ‘that band with the catchy Labour song’.

‘Things Can Only Get Better’ also helpfully provided the title for John O’Farrell’s first book (1998), which documented a life spent righteously fighting the dreaded Tories – as much as it was possible to be righteous in the middle-class idyll of Maidenhead. O’Farrell is always the underdog: he recalls how, as the Labour candidate in his school’s mock election of 1979, ‘out of a possible twelve hundred I polled 35 votes. Labour gain Maidenhead it was not.’ It was the same story for him as a young man, fruitlessly campaigning for Labour at the height of the Thatcher years. The climax, however, is a moment of sincere hope: election day, 1 May 1997, when Labour won the largest majority in modern electoral history; when (in a shock defeat) Michael Portillo lost his seat, was forced to begin the search for a career fit for his intellectual gravitas, and settled on talking about trains on ITV. Meanwhile, O’Farrell went, in one heady evening, from painfully and perennially unsuccessful local Labour activist in Battersea, to someone who had played a small part in tearing down the Thatcher regime. The book remains a smash hit, and – strange as it may seem – is one of the best-selling political memoirs of all time.

That success may have set a very high bar for any sequel, but in ings Can Only Get Worse? O’Farrell is more than up to the task. The book picks up where his last left off, election day ’97, and chronicles the shattering of New Labour’s credibility, the rise of Cameron, the Coalition and, finally, the political chaos of the previous two years. Rich material for any satirist. It is a very different book from its predecessor. This is 2017 and, unlike 1998, when Labour was firmly ensconced, the economy was on the up, and being a ‘millenial’ was actually quite cool, O’Farrell is very conscious that the Britain of today holds little political hope for anyone, let alone a left of centre Remainer. Unavoidably, ings Can Only Get Worse? sees all Labour’s advances and missteps in the context of what’s about to happen. Sometimes he need not bother with writing the jokes: his experience standing as the Labour candidate for Maidenhead – for real this time – in 2001, is both hilarious and insightful. The seat was retained by its Tory incumbent, a Shadow Cabinet minister called Theresa May. That he crossed paths with her, and stood beside her at the platform on election night, astonishes no one more than himself:

Theresa May just seemed like a competent manager; I could picture her as headmistress of a small independent girls’ school in Surrey. I watched her all the way from the very beginning, and I never saw her coming. Theresa May rose without trace.

Sometimes these moments of wistfulness are a bit heavy-handed. Recalling an encounter on the campaign trail with a ‘nutty’ UKIP candidate, O’Farrell bemoans how ‘his fringe views on immigration and the Germans would become mainstream, his prejudice and poison against refugees and foreigners would win his side a historic referendum’. It is less comedic lightness of touch, more ‘the end is nigh, repent! repent!’ But then again, it is difficult to see how O’Farrell could have avoided sounding at least mildly embittered: for a satirist he has come remarkably close to the corridors of power. Few Have I Got News For You writers were regularly recycling their unused gags by feeding them to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; fewer still became the subject of a recurring joke in Private Eye. For someone whose career has been built on making fun of the rich and powerful, seeing ‘your’ party get into power must be a bittersweet moment: O’Farrell is clearly uncomfortable with having joined the establishment.

This is probably why so much of the book is devoted not to O’Farrell’s run-ins with the politicos of the day, but his own political project: the founding of a new comprehensive school in Lambeth. It is here that he really gets into his stride:

I was sitting in a public meeting I had helped organise which was being held in a local primary school. We would have held it in a local secondary school, but there wasn’t one – that was sort of the problem.

Now he is the underdog again, marshalling the support of local parents to persuade an intransigent Lambeth Council that spending £4 million on a new school is a terrific idea. He is modest about his contribution, and the closest he comes to professing to have affected any political change is the wry brag that ‘there’s a dog-poo bin near my house that wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for me.’ Even so, the verve with which he describes the triumphs and tribulations of bringing Lambeth Academy (now educator to 950 pupils) into being (it opened its doors in 2004 after a three-year push) is a marvel to behold. The school saga also highlights the genuine points of friction O’Farrell had with the decisions made by the New Labour government. His willingness to do his bit for Labour – even going so far as to record their 2005 telephone campaign message – is always tempered by unease (‘I hate those bloody automated calls’) at what Labour are actually doing. By 2010, and rise of the Coalition, O’Farrell accepts that the Brown administration is little more than a ‘limping wildebeest of a government’.

His musings on the Coalition seem a bit of an afterthought – a placeholder for the sheer calumny yet to come. Describing Farage’s 2010 election day plane crash, his thoughts take a morbid turn:

Had [he] been killed that day, perhaps the Euro referendum would never have happened, perhaps Jo Cox would not have been murdered, perhaps British history might have gone in a different direction six years later.

This is fairly crass. But it is symptomatic – in sentiment if not in tone – of O’Farrell’s version of the events of the past seven years. On the day of the EU Referendum result, he tweeted the opening lines to W B Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’. It is the first three words of those lines, ‘Things fall apart’, that seem to have comprised the original title of this memoir (or at least that is what the Labour List ‘new books’ release for May 2017 claims). These words reveal O’Farrell’s original intention for the latter half of the book: to chronicle the rapid destruction of liberal values, a decline which culminated in the Brexit vote, and the installation of a Hard Brexit-touting Tory government. The greatest frustration of ings Can Only Get Worse? is that O’Farrell could not quite stick to his guns in the face of the rise of Corbynism. The final chapter, which deals with the June snap election, strikes me as having been hastily added to reflect the new energy – ‘Momentum’ – in the Labour party. And it rings patently false. I can buy that Labour’s unexpected gains made him feel ‘incredulous’, but ‘euphoric’? Any urge to laugh will stem solely from disbelief.