The fact that this book is being published now is perhaps of more significance than the book itself. I say this with no criticism of the author who has written a short readable work which does exactly what it says on the cover. But the book is very much a product of nearly eight years of Labour government and of the bitter disappointments it has produced. In particular it speaks for a layer of Labour loyalists who find themselves in the remarkable situation of questioning an often lifelong commitment.
John Harris is Labour born and bred-first active in the mid-1980s in his home town of Wilmslow, Cheshire, which is part of the safe Tory seat of Tatton (at the time represented by the unlamented Neil Hamilton). Harris has an understandable aversion to letting in the Tories but at the same time has become increasingly disillusioned since his teen years with this travesty of a Labour Party and especially with the Blair government.
So now he is thinking the unthinkable – should he put his cross by someone other than Labour and should he advise his readers to do likewise? To make up his mind he undergoes a journey (albeit short and selective) around the British political scene. He finds terrible things happening to our schools and hospitals – electricity blackouts in a new PFI Cumbria hospital, evangelical Christians taking over schools in south Yorkshire. He talks to a variety of politicians from the minority parties and interviews a former Labour minister who wants the Lib Dems to do well to give Blair a fright.
Harris is less than enamoured with a number of the politicians he meets: Charles Kennedy is not a big hit and Darren Johnson from the Greens does not seem to make a big impression. He likes Simon Thomas of Plaid Cymru but doesn’t really agree with Welsh independence, and has a good laugh with George Galloway.
Respect is taken relatively seriously in this account. Galloway is a big hit, although the SWP is less so (Harris has a knee-jerk dislike of ‘Trots’ going back to his battles with Militant in 1980s Cheshire). Harris does go to a Respect meeting in Wolverhampton but performs the rather tired old Labour trick of decrying its size, the arguments within it and the speakers. While it hardly sounds like anyone’s meeting of the year, it would be interesting to see what other parties’ meetings look like. I guess Labour is simply incapable of holding normal public meetings in most places.
Harris is forced to conclude, ‘If the summation of 100 years of Labour history is simply, “Vote for us, or you’ll get the Tories,” then Mr Blair and his friends may be hardly worthy of even grudging support.’ He also makes the important point:
‘Those who are used to voting Labour might find all sorts of drawbacks with the parties mentioned above… All of them, however, oppose the government on at least some of the right issues, and hold out the prospect of the delivery of a shock. For one election at least, that’s surely enough.’
That sentiment sums up what many people are feeling about this election. Labour’s only hope is talking up fear of the Tories and joining the race to the bottom with those same Tories over the question of immigration. Even then, in places like east London, that simply isn’t going to wash. John Harris comes from a generation that grew up in the Thatcher years and scarcely dared to hope that it could ever be successful. Blair was the initial object of their hopes and his policies have shattered them again. But now at least we can dare to hope that there is life after Labour.
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