Theatres of conflict

JONATHAN TIMBERS rallies to remember the October revolution and spends a day at Millbank and Number 10 – all in one very bizarre week in November.

When Harold Wilson said ‘a week is a long time in politics’, perhaps he should have added that sometimes an hour can seem even longer when you’re stuck in a Labour Party or left-wing meeting. These are my reflections on 21st century revolutionaries and reformists.

‘Fighting the enemy with sticks’

Nobody from my Labour Party branch had thought to invite me to a celebration of the Russian revolution in Wakefield, led by Arthur Scargill. When I heard about it, I rang Pete Lazenby, industrial reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post and the branch member who was organising the trip, to book my seat on the mini-bus from Hebden Bridge. Pete said that the event went back to the good old days of the Anglo-Soviet friendship society, when cultural delegations from the Eastern bloc turned up to large, packed meetings in a grand old hall at Leeds University.

In this post-Soviet era, the event now took place in a Working Men’s Club in Wakefield and, yes, there were spare tickets. There would be speakers from the Indian Workers’ Association, followed by Arthur himself.

When we arrived, we found ourselves in a hall with a stage bordered with gaudy curtains. Around the room, red flags had been hung, and in the corner was a bar that offered cheap beer, spirits and sweet white wine. There were stalls selling hammer and sickle, and Lenin badges. I sidled up to get a drink and noticed that someone was also trying to sell some pamphlets and a bust of Josef Stalin.

The room itself was packed, and there were a lot of young people in their 20s, who looked like they might be going out clubbing afterwards. But the person who really caught my eye though was an old man dressed in a red v-necked pullover with one of those high-peaked Russian military caps. There was a row of soviet medals pinned to his chest.

The opening speaker was a young man from the youth section of the IWA. Much to his surprise, he was given two minutes by the chair to speak on organisational matters. He was followed by an older comrade, who attacked new Labour MPs for hiring ‘their mistresses’ as secretaries. To give the crowd their due, he got booed for saying that, but it did not deter him from calling the PLP ‘prostitutes’.

The crowd was really waiting for Arthur to begin. He had appeared at the last moment, just before the first speaker. A short, stout figure in a dark-grey, conservative suit, he now no longer tries to cover his baldness. I was struck by his resemblance to Captain Mannering of Dad’s Army. All he needed was a little moustache, and a pair of glasses. When he stood up to speak, he did so in the same steely, straight-backed fashion.

Nostalgically, he remembered his first speech at a Communist Party meeting in Barnsley, where the chief speaker was the former CPGB general secretary, Harry Pollitt. “It was the worst speech I ever gave in my life,” he said, “but afterwards Harry said that the future of Communism was assured because of the involvement of young people like myself.” Clearly, this was intended as encouragement to the first speaker from the youth section.

Arthur then referred to the Russian revolution, not unreasonably in my view, as “the most important event in human history”. Lenin was then mentioned twice. We were then quickly conveyed from 1917 to 1941, without being able to catch sight of any unsightly purges or labour camps.

“What about Trotsky?” a woman shouted from the audience. The man at the bar next to me turned to his friend and said in an Ulster accent: “Who’s that fuckin’ eejit?” Apart from that, she was ignored.

Arthur was busy comparing the ability of the capitalist nations to resist fascism (“and France was invaded before tea”) to the resolution of the Soviet Union under Stalin with its amazing battle tank, the T34. In Britain, he said, we were training people how to resist invasion with sticks: “Yes, this so-called advanced capitalist nation was preparing to fight the enemy with sticks. How do I know that? Well, I’ll tell you how I know. My father was in the army and was helping to train them.”

In fact, it wasn’t until Stalingrad that the Wehrmacht was halted in its tracks (there can be no dispute over that, of course). Arthur then made a parallel between Stalingrad and the Battle of Saltley Gate. To be frank, I can’t remember his exact words; my shock was too profound. However, a friend who was counselling me a couple of days later did point out that if Arthur was marching on Saltley Gate it actually made him Von Paulus at the head of the German 6th army … if one takes the comparison seriously, that is.

Arthur, however, had no intention of allowing us to catch our breath while he was speaking. The subsequent demise of the Soviet Union was blamed on the leaders who succeeded Stalin from Khrushchev onwards. “And this system,” Arthur screamed, “that defeated Hitler, that had produced the best battle tank of world war two, the T34, and put the first rocket and the first man into space, collapsed because the shower who took over after Stalin – from Khrushchev to Gorbachov – sought to re-introduce market economics.”

Despite having spent my Saturday night listening to this raving nonsense, I don’t consider my time entirely wasted because the old man in the Soviet military kit came and sat next to me, and we started talking. His name was Bertie Lewis and he was born in New York where, despite being extremely proficient in mathematics, he was denied education after 14 because he had not been taught enough or the right things at his school in Queens.

So, during the late 1930s, he travelled around America by jumping onto freight trains and saw the poverty in rural and working class communities. When the war came, being half-Canadian, he travelled to Halifax and got on a coal ship to Britain. London, even after the blitz, astonished him. He volunteered for the RAF in 1941 and by 1942 was flying missions over Germany as a wireless operator. Of the 15 crews in his squadron, only two survived. What kept him going, he said, were the news reports of the Red Army’s advances, which were preceded by stirring classical music. All the crews knew that the losses inflicted on the Red Army were similar to their own, and this gave them the heart to fly out once again against Nazi Germany.

Someone from Hebden Bridge who described himself as “an unemployed musician” remonstrated with Bertie about Stalin and the atrocities throughout Europe which the Red Army committed. I didn’t have the heart to join in. Even had Bertie been prepared to re-examine his views after 60 years, I felt it was a mark of respect to leave them well alone. At least for him, God hadn’t failed.

The air war and the ground war

The coordinator of the Calder Valley general election campaign team is a former regimental sergeant major, who runs a voluntary organisation that recycles waste, called Chippy Wood. He refers to me as his “2IC”, meaning, apparently, second-in-command. Because he had a job interview to conduct, I was despatched down to London for a day at Millbank to learn about the general election. I also received a very nice invitation to visit Tony and Cherie in number 10. I noted on the official invitation card that the Royal Crest was printed in red.

Arriving at Millbank tower, with its impressive East German architectural style, I gathered with the other representatives of Labour’s key constituencies in the Media Room. “Let’s stay together” was being piped in, and we got to see a preview of the Labour Party’s “Thank You” party political broadcast. General secretary Margaret McDonald introduced it by saying: “In true Labour Party style, we are going to begin with a video.”

Douglas Alexander MP, the general election coordinator, then outlined the election strategy which, it will surprise no one to hear, consists of promoting Labour’s stewardship of the economy, its commitment to full employment and significant investment in public services. This will be coupled with warning people about the Tories and their record of economic mismanagement. Douglas’s language was an interesting mixture of Marxian rhetoric (the one million plus jobs Labour has created has “historic significance” apparently) and post-modernist marketing jargon (Labour will “tell the story” of the public services during the “narrative of the campaign”).

There was more of the same from Carol Linforth, Head of Election Delivery (sic) and Local Recruitment (as opposed to recruiting important, high profile people, I assume). She told us our task was to “build a landscape” (did she mean, a model landscape?) of voters in the constituency. South Dorset was picked out as an especially good example of increasing voter contact for this purpose. “Well done Gareth! Well done Jim!” she exclaimed, presumably identifying the South Dorset election coordinators, as men with microphone booms rushed up to Gareth and Jim as they do in the Jerry Springer Show.

The highlight of the session at Millbank was a guest appearance by Peter Mandelson, whose hair had been brushed into a floppy parting as opposed to being swept back severely for ministerial engagements. He said that we might be worried about some of the things he was about to say. Millbank and the PLP leadership, he informed us, would be fighting “the battle of the airwaves”. They would “fight them in the radio stations, in the newspaper letters columns, on terrestrial and satellite TV”. We, however, he looked around the room at his field commanders, would be conducting “the ground war” with “the people, our people, the activists”. We would be fighting the enemy “house to house” with “Labour Party members on the ground”. Someone from the back of the room tried to point out that there weren’t many these days, and Mandelson smiled benignly and said: “I told you you’d be worried about that.”

After a session on “The consumerist electorate – communities and voter loyalty”, about constituency demographics, and some extremely unhelpful and badly planned workshops, followed by a tour of the Millbank offices, we were led to number 10.

Leaving our coats, bags and mobile phones (which have to be placed on a table just inside the famous doorway, like pistols in a Western), we moved from the rather grubby hallway up the stairs where the pictures of all the PMs, from Walpole to John Major, hang. Atlee’s must have been taken by the same photographer who did Lenin – there was the same monumental, waxy quality about his face – and Thatcher’s was in soft focus. She appeared to be wearing a Britannia robe, her head slightly to one side, a sweet but knowing smile on her lips.

Inside the state rooms, we were treated to vegetable dips and automatically refilled wineglasses. Tony and Cherie’s taste in art reflects their passion for the new. Gone (well, mostly) are the forgotten personages of the British aristocracy. They have been replaced by late 20th century art, some of it highly conceptual and abstract (an orange square on white canvas with a trickle of paint hanging from the block of colour). A portrait of Thomas Hardy as an old man hangs in the main reception room. There are bits of the moon on display, collected by the Apollo astronauts. And in a bookcase in the meeting room were the collected works of Rudyard Kipling, some novels by Trollope (abandoned by John Major perhaps) – An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist – innumerable biographies of Harold Wilson, and books written by Ted Heath and William Morris. There is only one book on Thatcher, and one titled Elephants: Ancient and Modern.

Eventually, we gathered in the main reception room. Tony, Cherie and baby Leo made their entrance. I was sitting on a sofa talking to a solicitor called Polly and a student called Susan. Polly had just had a baby and stayed sitting while the rest of the room turned towards the first family. “I could have spent the day with my baby,” she said to me, “but I’ve spent it with the bloody Labour Party instead.”

As Susan and I cravenly milled into the crowd in order to meet the PM, I noted that I was filled with a sense of apprehension and excitement (would I have had the same feeling if a baboon, or even John Prescott, been elected in 1997, I wonder). I recalled how Scargill had filled me with anger and exhilaration as he spoke, even though what he said appalled me. “You know,” said Susan, “I’ve had a thing about Tony since I was 16.”

At this point a minder from Millbank came up to us and said, “We want you two to be in a photo with the Prime Minister. Can you stay standing here, please?” We obliged while the Prime Minister walked up to us. By this time I was feeling rather awkward, so I went into political campaigning mode and grasped his hand in a firm shake, smiling encouragingly. Tony was somewhat taken aback (wasn’t that his job?) but someone distracted him from this awkward moment by saying something about football – to which he responded keenly. As he turned round for the photograph, Susan made to put her arm around his waist. Seeing the bewildered expression of the Millbank minders, Tony turned round, by which time Susan had put her arm down and was smiling innocently. He turned back again and the camera flashed as we fell about laughing. Not surprisingly, it hasn’t been used anywhere yet, thank God.

Tony (as I call him now) then made a speech. Worryingly, it began with the assertion that his fate was in our hands. He then went on to explain his lifetime’s political mission within the party. In the 1980s, he explained, people felt that if they voted Labour, someone else might be better off. What he wanted to convince them was that if they voted Labour, they would be better off now too. At that point Cherie strode through the crowd and announced that Leo had “made a speech”. Tony replied, “Well, that’s promising, but unfortunately he can’t vote for another 17 years.” And that, give or take some familiar and unmemorable new Labour rhetoric, was that.

I soon found myself on the steps of number 10 looking at the camera crews as they assembled their equipment. I realised that I had left my bag inside the building. Turning to the armed police officer on duty, I asked, “Um, I’ve left my bag in there. How do I get back in?”

“Try knockin’ on the door, sah,” he replied.

On reflection, I think the day taught me the full meaning of the verb, ‘to patronise’.