During my time in the Labour Party, in the 1990s, there were plenty of people opposed to its rebranding. But there were also plenty of new people joining all the time. The party was changing quickly, and then one incident made me come to my senses. I made the terrible mistake of entering the Reading Labour Party fundraising treasure hunt … on a bicycle.
It seems impossible now, but in the early nineties, the Labour Party had a much broader rag-tag-and-bobtail image than it does today, one reason it never won elections. In those days, the Labour Party spoke up about the environment, especially about new out-of-town Tescos on greenfield sites. Labour party greens knew supermarket developments would lead to car dependency, and the end of high street shops, which it has. Cycling writers, poets such as myself, were drawn to the party’s shabby image. But the trouble was, bicycles are not sexy. Bicycles do not win elections.
But I still maintain it was a good idea to enter a bicycle team in the Labour Party treasure hunt in 1990. What I didn’t expect was a genuinely competitive attitude in the other teams. They wanted to win … like mad, as though their lives depended on it. They were possessed. They sped about the busy town of Reading in their BMWs grabbing clues and racing to finish. The teams were named Das Kapital, Karl Marx, and Communist Manifesto. Who were these bright young men in their BMWs? Why were they so keen to appear competitive? Was it that their machismo had been dented by 18 years of Thatcherism?
My bicycle team came a poor last, and nobody clapped. When we were awarded last place there were embarrassed sniggers, and things didn’t improve. Nobody spoke to us. They turned their backs towards us. It was a terrible experience. We left, never to return.
In the early nineties, the Labour Party was desperate at every level to shed its worthy last place losers’ image, its greens, its pacifists, its Michael Foots, its road protesters, its socialists, its hair, its beards, its badges, its sandals, its bicycles. Anything deemed by the rebranders to be putting Tories off voting Labour was literally alienated.
After the death of the Labour Party leader John Smith in 1994, I stayed on as a member until 1995 doing the things party workers used to do, leafleting, sealing envelopes, and attending disastrous treasure hunts.
My membership ended when Tony Blair came to lead the party, but it wasn’t Tony that had sealed my fate in the Labour Party, it was that one awful treasure hunt that did it.
In Easter 1995, a new Clause IV was adopted written by Tony Blair. He sent out a message about what the Labour Party no longer stood for. It certainly no longer stood for cycling poets. But it also no longer stood for working people. It stood for Thatcherite ideals concerned with freeing capital rather than freeing individuals. Hence the pitiful state of Britain’s health, education, law and order. There is more to running a country than winning treasure hunts.
When Tory leader David Cameron adopted the bicycle, it showed he really did not have a clue. Labour had been trying to make people stop laughing at them for years for that very reason, they looked stupid on bicycles. But Labour became so self-conscious it forgot that people really didn’t care about bicycles, trench coats, and all the shambolic things associated with Labour’s electoral defeats. People care about money. They don’t want to pay tax. Yet Gordon Brown’s 2007 Labour government is not a shade on the traditional tax and spend Labour government of the seventies. How Labour would love to remind people how much it has changed, but they can’t because no one remembers those days. Blair buried them to gain power, and now it is the Labour Party that is in crisis. There is nothing left to throw out with the bathwater.
Progress makes you stop pushing your bike out each day, and then one day, you throw it out for good. My old membership card was one of the last with the original Labour Party Constitution Clause IV printed on the back:
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
I still have it. It was a distinctive statement. No other party could use it, and no party ever will. Yet the old Clause IV is more relevant than it ever was. The means of production to worldwide publishing is now in common ownership with blogs, Creative Commons licences, the Internet. Nice irony for someone whose Labour Party membership ended over the use of a bicycle at the Labour Party treasure hunt. How they hated bicycles. How they loved their cars.
Without Clause IV, it is the Labour Party itself that ceases to be relevant, and it’s not the only old established institution feeling the cold breath of modernity. The BBC, publishing houses, the music industry, are also checking their health insurance with sweating palms. Imagine how a former bicycling green poet enjoys this revolution. Let them feel it. Let it blow them away.
24/10/07 This is a significantly rewritten version of my story.