“Look at what we can do,” I remember thinking; a young teenager looking at moving pixels of the air raids on Saddam’s palaces. I wasn’t old enough to really know the context. In fact, I didn’t know what the twin towers were when they had fallen just a bit before. It was almost spectacular; the damage, the ferociousness, and I didn’t have a process at the time to determine whether I was for or against it.
We’ve been at war for over half of my life, and somewhere during that time I’d managed to make my university dissertation about torture in Abu Ghraib and I’d been to my fair share of rallies – even stood outside the Ecuadorian embassy to cheer Julian Assange the day after he escaped there. But last year I moved off-grid and stopped reading the news altogether. I was done with politics and I wanted to focus on my spirituality as the answer. I wanted to be absent from the whole damn system.
And yet, last weekend I found myself at the Labour Party stall on our high street, holding a banner with my wife and dog. I snuck away when it developed into a march through the town centre accompanied by djembe thumping and the thin singing voices of the ageing, folding into tired-out Joni Mitchell renditions on auto pilot. A force of habit perhaps, but for once we should be electioneering, not protesting, so I asked what needed to be done.
The Labour Party had declared our seat “unwinnable” and gave the candidate no support, so he ran the campaign from his home, by hand. Hundreds of people trudged in and out of that house and said, “What can I do?” The answers would range from, “Can you make cups of tea for the people on laptops in the living room?” to “Jump in that guy’s car and go with that person to this place and knock on doors.” Nobody knew each other. One of my first jobs was to go and refill the toilet paper.
One day, I waited in a random pub car park for supporters to arrive. And they did. My knuckles grew tender as we knocked, hoping to rustle dormant people to vote for compassion for the first time. I was patronised by conservatives who told me not to bother because they would get a landslide. It was clear that the young had never really won anything, and were seen as having no political validity in the UK. We were flunk-outs, too busy texting and throwing chemsex parties to shape our society in the flesh. Don’t worry your pretty little heads, the elders will tuck you in at night.
On the day of the election, I sat just inside a polling station to collect the card numbers for Labour. We were using the information to see which of our supporters had voted. I had to deal with derision and suspicion from grey-eyed folks as they wondered what personal details I was stealing from them. They were on their way to vote in favour of mass surveillance. I had to explain that all parties were allowed to have a representative to collect their numbers and that often, the information is shared, but that nobody else had enough volunteers to come.
I cried to myself in the few moments of silent inactivity, alone in a beige community hall entrance, staring at the toilet signs, unsure if I was doing the right thing. Soon after I had watched in awe of the bombs dropping on Baghdad, the boy in me who loved to destroy had died, and was replaced by a man who valued peace above everything else. Valued human dignity and cared for our environment. Blair, Labour and party politics in general had been enemy number one for a decade until I heard Jeremy speak.
I cried as I cry now. They might say I’m too sensitive, but I might say they are the final generation who were beaten up en masse in schools and gunned down in wars for unpronounceable lands. The cycle of abuse would continue, but we may no longer allow it to be handed down the line. We are connecting with each other by opening doors.
But it’s hard to empower disadvantaged voters. They couch-surf or rent and move often. They have shambolic work schedules. Problems with childcare. One house that we knocked up had a Labour poster in the window, which opened when we banged the door. The young person climbed out and told us they’d lost the key. “I’m Harley.” He had no idea where the polling station was and his friend who was “staying there” full time was unregistered. They wondered why we had sent a poster and called on them three times. It turned out a Labour member used to live there but had since moved. A fiery Glaswegian who I was knocking with took time out to drive the lad down to vote. It was luck that got his cross in the box, but there must have been hundreds more that we never located.
Later, I crunched the numbers that came in from all our polling stations until I was let go at about half eight on Thursday night. Cycling home, I turned my phone off and got into bed, slept, woke and took the dog for a long walk in the countryside. I must have been the last Labour volunteer to know the result. We’d felt every vote in our area. Each time someone would hang up their phone saying, “Thanks for voting and supporting us today,” we’d feel relief, and the opposite would be true when we heard “Well it’s disappointing but we hope to see you soon.” Watching some pie chart grow on a TV screen at 4am just didn’t really feel like the election anymore.
But the result came to me at lunch and it was the thing they thought would never happen. The few would campaign for the many and become the many. People of all ages and types would do the gritty work in the streets and a true cross section of people would walk into the candidate’s house and be given difficult, or boring, or emotional jobs to do, and the job would get done. They should have learned. It happened twice in two years inside the stagnant Labour party itself.
And so, even though Labour are not in Government and our seat was lost by just eight hundred votes to a pro-fracking Conservative, we all still went and partied last night to celebrate the victory of making a connection that will prove decisive in the establishment of a new politics many of us thought we may never live to see. I hope with all my heart that we got down badder than the winners, who sent newsletters calling us terrorist sympathisers the day before the election.
It might be the end of the article, but it’s the beginning of the story. It is a tale as yet unwritten because it cannot be foreseen by shouty pundits on TV, or target advertised to on Facebook, or laid out in three incendiary words on the front page next to an unrelated picture of Kate Middleton. It can only be written by the hands of the people who, by standing on each other’s shoulders are able to see over the wall for the first time. After all these years of trying to smash it down, this, perhaps, is how to do it.