Arrived in Remain-on-sea (also known as Brighton) for Labour party conference. As an old-fashioned trade unionist hailing from a working-class heartland who supports Brexit, opposes mass immigration and doesn’t believe someone with a penis can be a woman, I feel about as welcome as a hedgehog at a nudist colony. The conference centre and fringe mills with the usual throng of delegates and activists. Many are unquestionably decent people fighting for a better world. But it is largely an army of the woke, liberal middle-classes and young toytown revolutionaries — as though the social services department at Camden council and the Labour club at the University of Sussex have arranged a joint charabanc trip to the coast. In other words, unrepresentative of large chunks of Britain — particularly those parts that were once the bedrock of Labour support. Too much Hampstead, not enough Hartlepool.
The week kicks off with a People’s Vote march, patronised by the patronising. ‘Trust the people’ runs the slogan on the banner at the head of the procession. Er, I thought we did — back in 2016. One wonders what that doyen of democratic socialists George Orwell would have made of such doublespeak. Front and centre is Emily Thornberry, flanked on either side by fellow Labour MPs. Thornberry appears, in her choice of attire, to be recreating the EU flag: she sports a bright blue blouse and is garlanded with some kind of necklace of golden stars. But hold on. Is this not the same Emily Thornberry who while out canvassing in the Rochester and Strood by-election some years ago spotted a house adorned with a St George’s flag and thought the spectacle so peculiar as to be worth tweeting a photo alongside the caption ‘Image from #Rochester’? For the liberal left, patriotism is an evil, of course. Supranationalism, though, is just dandy.
I see library footage on a news channel of Boris Johnson slinging insults at Jeremy Corbyn over the despatch box and feel a strange sudden sense of déjà vu. I know I have witnessed this performance before. The penny drops. It is winter, 2002. I and my fellow firefighters, on strike over low pay, are shivering on a picket line outside Islington fire station. Local MP Corbyn, ever the ally to workers in struggle, is standing with us. From the corner of my eye, I spot a figure with a red face and blond hair approaching us on a bicycle, pedalling like billy-o. As he whizzes past, he throws curses — ‘Get back to work!’ or something similar — at our huddled band of brothers. It was local resident Johnson, of course. It dawns on me that the seeds of contempt between the PM and leader of the opposition were sown on the cobbles of that snow-flecked north London street 17 years ago.
While waiting in the wings at the Sky News live point in the conference centre, primed for an interview with Adam Boulton, I make small talk with an MP. ‘Oh, you’re that guy!’ she remarks after I introduce myself. ‘Which guy?’ I ask. ‘The one who keeps going on about working-class values.’ ‘Er, yes. What of it?’ ‘Well, what exactly do you mean by it? Tell me.’ I realise I am on trial and patiently set out my argument that working-class people desire cultural security as well as economic security, and that Labour’s transformation into a metropolitan, middle-class party which relentlessly pushes a liberal cosmopolitan agenda has alienated many people in our traditional heartlands, such as those in my home town of Dagenham. ‘Do you mean white people? If you mean white people, just say white people,’ she demands. Her insinuation is nothing new to me. I tell her I don’t mean white people. But she plainly doesn’t believe me. She wanders off, no doubt satisfied in having upbraided a closet racist and certain in her own mind that the people of Bolsover and Mansfield are with her and not me.
Spoke at a fringe meeting organised by the Blue Labour pressure group, which is striving valiantly to return the party to its traditional values of work, family and community. Alongside me on the platform is the group’s founder, the inestimable Maurice Glasman, a Labour peer. A decent turnout, and we feel a bit like recusants after the Reformation, preaching our own unofficial gospel while the authorities patrol beyond the doors. Much reference to Labour’s early tradition and its roots in Christian socialism, mutuals, trade unions and the concepts of vocation and reciprocity. Music to my ears. ‘We are in an interregnum,’ says His Lordship, quoting Gramsci, ‘in which the old is dead, but the new cannot be born; where there is fraternisation of opposites and all manner of morbid symptoms pertain.’ I think he means that the kaleidoscope has been shaken violently, and we must fight to determine where the pieces settle. I pitch things a bit more lowbrow and tell the gathering that we need to honour the referendum and move heaven and earth to reconnect with our core vote. People nod and mutter their approval. This is my Labour party — proud, patriotic, respecting of history and democracy. It’s the party my grandparents voted for. For as long as people like this are inside it, so will I be. I am approached afterwards by someone who tells me he agrees with everything I said. He is no older than 25. There is hope.
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