The last few years of politics have tested loyalties and fractured tribes; for many, it’s tempting to disengage altogether. We have asked contributors to remind us of why politics matters, by reflecting on their formative years. This series of political awakenings shows how family, feelings and unlikely accidents can shape a lifetime of politics…
I’m sure there must once have been a law passed which prohibited the citizens of Barking and Dagenham from voting anything other than Labour. It would explain why, when I was growing up in the borough, I never met anyone who did such a thing. Such people did exist apparently, but whichever party they voted for never achieved the merest modicum of electoral success locally. Every MP and local councillor in Barking and Dagenham wore a red rosette.
The place was a working class, blue-collar, industrial heartland. The sprawling Becontree estate, built in the 1920s and 30s, was the largest municipal housing estate in the world. Thousands of families, both sets of my grandparents among them, settled there after moving down the track from London’s East End. The Ford motor plant in Dagenham dominated the horizon.
We were the first family in our social circle to own a video recorder. My dad won it in a competition at work. I recall that he recorded the 1983 election night programme on it, and I can see him now, cursing at the TV the following morning when he replayed the tape and discovered the scale of Michael Foot’s annihilation by Margaret Thatcher. I was eight years old, but I understood then that we were Labour. It was tribal. The party was our party. It spoke for people like us.
Trade unions were on our side too. I knew that, because my dad told me he was something called a ‘shop steward’ at his depot, and my mum worked for the GMB. That was good enough for me.
It was natural that I should stand as the Labour candidate at the mock general election held at my secondary school in 1987. (I won by a landslide — though, frankly, it would have taken some effort to lose.)
Later, as life’s grotesque social and economic inequalities became apparent to me, it seemed obvious that the labour movement — the Labour Party and trade unions together — was the only force interested in tackling them. And I wanted to be a part of it.
This innate tribalism and sense of injustice motivated my 16-year-old self to organise (unsuccessfully) a wildcat strike at the supermarket where I stacked shelves, and later to rub up against every boss who sought to exploit work colleagues or failed to treat them with respect.
It was also what inspired me to join the Labour Party at 19 and plunge straight into activism with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) when I became a firefighter three years later.
The FBU — a proud, powerful union — had its share of hardline activists, many from the ranks of the Communist Party, Socialist Workers’ Party and their fellow travellers. These activists always wielded far more influence than their numbers merited. I fell in with some of them and soon became that very dangerous thing — a person who is utterly certain in his own mind that he is right. Anyone who didn’t subscribe to my worldview, which was so obviously correct, was plainly an Inherently Bad Person. That — trust me on this — is how most radicals on the modern Left think.
I embraced the standard patter and slogans of the far-Left and used them relentlessly in debate. (I often smile when interlocutors use the same language to attack me today — often in a way that suggests they think I have never even heard such clichéd arguments before, never mind deployed them, and will be instantly converted by them.)
Around this time, Barking and Dagenham, then still my home, was experiencing a period of rapid and deep-seated transformation. The settled, stable, culturally homogenous place in which I had been born and raised was suddenly caught in the crosswinds of globalisation. Thousands of newcomers had arrived in the borough in a few very short years. Most were fundamentally decent, hard-working folk, but in a social and cultural sense they had little in common with those who had lived there for years.
Very quickly, Barking and Dagenham found itself in the eye of a storm of national debate over immigration. Local people felt bewildered and disorientated by the abrupt and far-reaching change to their community. Many simply upped sticks and departed. Streets in which neighbours had known each other and grown up together, which had buzzed with friendship and human interaction, were now places of loneliness and solitude in which people often lived parallel lives. The social solidarity and common cultural bonds that had sustained the community over generations were suddenly fracturing.
Not that any of this bothered me at the time. On the contrary, I welcomed it. This was liberal cosmopolitanism in all its vibrant glory. It was enlightened and progressive. All decent people embraced it, didn’t they?
Besides, it was the class war that mattered most, and the newcomers were working-class allies in the battle against capitalism. Who cared if a few reactionary locals were uneasy about this dramatic change to their community and traditional way of life? These bigots, with their stupid notions of place and belonging and cultural attachment, obviously lacked ‘class consciousness’. And why did they doggedly refuse to be won over by the argument that open borders meant improved GDP?
It was because of people like me — tin-eared, patronising, certain in their own moral rectitude — that the British National Party won 12 seats on Barking and Dagenham council at the local elections in 2006. It was the party’s best ever performance in an election. The citizens of the borough, angry and resentful at being ignored and insulted, used the only weapon they thought was left available to them. Abandoned by Labour, they turned to the far-Right.
It was only in the years afterwards, once I had taken the time to actually engage seriously with local people and listen to their concerns, rather than simply bombarding them with boilerplate rhetoric, that I began to understand how wrong I was, how wrong Labour was, and frankly how wrong much of the political establishment was, to dismiss the grievances of communities such as Barking and Dagenham so scornfully.
Here was a place of largely decent, tolerant people who would have been perfectly willing to accommodate a modest and manageable number of new arrivals without complaint, but which had instead been expected to accept fundamental social and cultural change, imposed at breakneck speed. And if they did quibble, they were called racist. No wonder they hit back.
The whole experience taught me that, contrary to what so many on the Left now seem to believe, it isn’t all about the economy or austerity or the class struggle. Of course no place can remain for ever unaltered, but if you are going to foist change upon hard-pressed working-class communities, you had better do it carefully. These places are often bound together organically through a culture of language, custom, solidarity, tradition and social mores passed down through generations. Violate that so casually, and you are inviting blowback.
I am still Labour to my bones. That’s why I argue night and day that the party — and indeed the wider Left — needs to urgently rethink its entire worldview if it is to maintain the support of its traditional base. If we keep force-feeding working-class voters a globalist, liberal cosmopolitan view of the world that fails to resonate with them, we are inviting electoral wipeout. And it would be thoroughly deserved.
Delivering a fairer, more equal economy — crucial though that is — is only half the battle. Millions are crying out for a return to a more rooted, patriotic, communitarian politics that respects their sense of belonging and seeks to build a nation of shared values and common bonds — one in which everyone, regardless of their background, should be encouraged to participate, and where communities are not simply abandoned to the forces of globalisation.
To this day, very few in mainstream politics are speaking for these voters. The lesson of Barking and Dagenham — and I learned it up close and personal — is that if you neglect a community for long enough, the quiet anger will soon become a roar. And the price to be paid will be a high one.