My little piece, ‘Last Place in the Labour Party Treasure Hunt’, about an experience I had in the UK Labour Party in the early 90s, is entirely true. I wrote it in 2007, when the remarkably successful and dominant New Labour goverment of Gordon Brown was “in crisis”. How could I have known it was about to be defeated in 2010 by a weak Conservative / Liberal coalition between David Cameron and Nick Clegg? Labour under Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling actually saved Britain from a disastrous US-led banking collapse, something no one gives them credit for now, not even the now dominant and relatively successful left of the party under Corbyn.
The early 90s was a time when, like now, rattled by successive defeats, the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party brutally turned on “the left”, as they saw its membership of peaceniks, environmentalists and globetrotting poll-tax evaders, as though we were to blame for those defeats. It was the worst takeover that could happen in a world where Labour needed its green vegetarian pacifist wing more than ever because some of us had a vision of the post-industrial, pro-EU, green future.
My salutory lesson was first published in The Seminal in 2008, and looking at it now in 2016, I can see my 1990 self was once terribly upset about the spread of Tescos supermarkets into greenfield sites. I wonder what happened to Tescos. I also like that in 08, I knew the internet allowed common ownershp of the means of production, allowing people to cut through the selective mainstream publishing media and take control, in the way Clause IV used the word “control”. No wonder they axed Clause IV. I bet they wish they’d axed Facebook and Twitter too.
Wikipedia: “Clause IV historically refers to part of the 1918 text of the UK Labour Party constitution which set out the aims and values of the party.”
For those who don’t know, a Treasure Hunt “is a game in which players follow sequential clues in search of a prize or prizes”. They can take several teams all day to achieve, as clues can be left over a large area. They can be very damaging, producing plenty of extra stop/start CO2, and changes to traffic patterns significant enough to affect nesting birds who need to feed constantly, but, you know, feel free to keep on Treasure Hunting. It’s your karma.
Last Place in the Labour Party Treasure Hunt
During my time in the British 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, and there was one incident that made me come to my senses regarding its direction—I made the terrible mistake of entering the [______] Labour Party fundraising car 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 perhaps. In those days, the Labour Party spoke up about the environment, especially about new out-of-town Tescos on greenfield sites. Labour party environmentalists knew that supermarket developments would lead to mass car dependency and the end of high street shops, which it has.
Cycling writers, poets such as myself, were drawn to the party’s environmentalism and shabby image. But the trouble is, bicycles are not sexy. Bicycles do not win elections.
I still maintain it was a good idea to enter a bicycle team in the Labour Party car 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 [_______] in their BMWs grabbing clues and racing to the finish. The teams were ironically 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 threatened by 18 years of Thatcherism?
My bicycle team came a poor last and nobody clapped our valiant effort. 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.
The Labour Party was desperate at every level to shed its worthy last place loser’s 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 image makers 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 those disastrous car treasure hunts.
My membership ended when Tony Blair came to lead the party, but it wasn’t Blair who 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 by the Labour Party 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 at 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 fashion-conscious they forgot that people really didn’t care about bicycles, trench coats, and all the shambolic stuff associated with Labour pre-1995. People cared about money. They didn’t, and 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. Labour would love to remind people how much it has changed, but it 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, it is in my hands on the Internet through my blogs and Creative Commons licences. 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 all 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.
First published in The Seminal 2008