Do you know how many days it is until the general election? I do. There’re 75 of them left. It is unlikely that a single one will go by without me attempting in some way to contribute to Labour’s general election campaign. I am not sure of any other cause I will pursue with the same intensity nor anything that I have chased so hard in the past. This is, it has to be said, fairly unusual behaviour, though far from unique. There are people in every arena throwing themselves at something with ferocity that, to people outside, is difficult to understand. It seems to me that politics (of all stripes, but mine are Labour), has two further characteristics that make this disconnect with other folk particularly stark and perhaps separate it from other forms of commitment.
The first is that politics is a collective pursuit. In much the same way that the individual act of voting does not change the outcome of an election – there was no seat in the 2010 election decided by a margin of one vote – the hours in my day are not adding up to a revolution, nor even an election victory. Winning, and losing for that matter, are done in common in politics, and this has given rise to the parties that fashionable people and newspaper editors affect cynicism about.
If you are working exceptionally hard to be an athlete or a musician or so on, your actions affect you, directly. Obviously there are teams around top people in all fields and support from early life to achieve excellence, but I think it’s uncontroversial to say trying to influence the actions of seventy million people is qualitatively different in the scope for individual actions of consequence than similarly intense pursuits in other activities. The humble scrivener such as me looks very inconsequential to most others, and indeed we recognise it ourselves in the scorn laid on self-important social media-ites with ten followers, for example. It is hard enough getting people to accept the importance of their own voting – what on earth could inspire someone to pour hours of life into an arena of life that is so much on top of that ten-minute trip to polling station?
So we seem to be bashing away at a cause to which each presence of ours makes little difference. Further to this, though, politics is made separate by the fact that everybody is so bloody horrible to all the other folk doing it. Not even in a way that is supposed to be frowned upon, but in a way that is actively encouraged and institutionalised. Good, moderate CULC people don’t often go in for that hard-left favourite, “I say Tory, you say scum”, but I lose count of the ways I’ve described all the other parties in vividly uncharitable terms. I personally have escaped most vitriol (though one Tab commenter described me as “Labour’s hellhound attack dog” – an accolade I treasure), but that’s mainly because the other student political societies in Cambridge are so laughably disorganised. See – there I go again being a git.
It’s not just us pathetic students either – the other week the Daily Mail ran a front page accusing Ed Miliband of having known the financial crisis was coming and then choosing not to tell anyone. What can you even say to that? Perhaps we might accept criticism of policy or even person where relevant, but clearly much language is Manichean, malicious, or just absurd. Some people reclaim the insults, but the fact is we all throw them around and we believe them – largely. Even when we don’t and actually get on pretty well with the other side, the media behaves appallingly, targeting individuals in a way that is totally unacceptable in other walks of life. This is, I think, right and proper given the power that politicians seek to wield, but it is not initially attractive.
This is not a good look for politics. I did not set out to be Sisyphus, simultaneously engaged in a mud fight with a bunch of monkeys. I set out to change the world. Just check out my Youth Parliament poster if you don’t believe me (I won). So why the hell do we do it? I speak here as a Labour Party partisan but much of the following probably applies to other parties too – though not, I think, political campaigning outside of representative democracy, which lacks the institutional structure and media attention and so mainly gets cross with itself.
Many reasons could be cited here – the already mentioned desire for change and motivating fire of our values – the traditions we wish to walk in and those giant shoulders waiting to be stood upon – camaraderie and comradeship – pure competitiveness. All are relevant but there is one aspect I will touch on. I hope someone else will write the others but I have to go canvassing tomorrow and it’s late.
Labour is a democratic socialist party, at least on paper. I am not sure what unites the various parts of the movement other than one motivating idea: That is, a genuine belief in the power of the state to do good. Let me put that in a way that may have some purchase “on the doorstep” as we would say in our particular campaigner’s patois. If we win the election in 75 days’ time (remember that?), my people get access to the metaphorical good stuff. Winning government is like being given the key to a door, behind which are loads of levers marked: state power. Pull this one to engage social justice drive. Push this button to release the pounds. Or not, because austerity. There’s a bit in the film Lincoln where he slams the table and holds forth: “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power. You will procure me those votes”. Political activists are very aware of that immense power and god damn we want to get our hands on it.
The state remains the site of vast influence, prestige and potential – a fact I think often missed by most individuals for whom it tends to appear as awkward looking white men in ill-fitting suits, letters from HMRC, and speed cameras. These are not glamourous aspects of that great leviathan –the fight over who gets to send out the tax returns lacks that grandezza that we attribute to our own part in the struggle. But this, the power of government – still greater and more noble than any other source of social power – is what we want for our side. We may be attacked and ridiculed, but that belief in the enormous good that could be done if only our people were running the show endures.
s this view correct? It is very common to argue that governments change little: “if voting changed anything they’d make it illegal”. Well, actually it was illegal for hundreds of years and then working people fought for it and we got it, so that cliché may be true but not in the way it’s usually meant. There is, though, a disconnect between the state as an idea, and the experience of government in any one context. To some extent it is the former we fight for and the latter we expect. Part of it is the sheer awfulness in principle of losing, no matter who to. In 2010 Labour was pretty well exhausted and the top brass spent a lot of time being useless. Yet that campaign saw some phenomenally determined campaigning from activists fighting people they knew were on a personal level fairly decent, and who looked likely to win. If Labour had won (and if we win this May), would it have mattered?
I’ll close with three points on this thought. Firstly, when you measure success by how many votes you get, having more than the other people counts. A lot of politics can’t be predicted or dealt with according to manifesto commitments. Trust in values matters in that case, and activists tend to have more of it in their own party’s leadership (though not much more, let’s be honest).
Secondly, small change is change and it matters that it helps the right people. The important bits of life don’t happen in the blur of days, but in the small moments and the margins. A few quid on someone’s tax credit; a week on paternity leave; another half hour with a nurse – don’t you ever tell me that doesn’t make all the difference to someone who’s struggling. Don’t get me wrong, I want to transform this country and I believe Labour can, but I’m also not afraid to be proud of a party that recognises the consequences of the margins.
Thirdly, and I suppose the flipside of the previous, is that changing things in a big way takes time. It is not easy to build an economy that creates decent jobs for all, or fix schools, or negotiate an international green deal. A lot of protest parties make a living out of telling voters how simple it all is – they’re wrong and I think most people know that. Change is complex. Losing five years matters when you might not fight all that many more elections, because life ain’t actually that long. We have an enormous distance to travel until the goals of the Labour Party become a thing of the past – every election is a step and every step matters.