Claire writes …
Back in the dim distant past of the 1980s, I was a youth member of CND, because in 1981 we were all terrified that 'Protect and Survive' was about to become reality, and that Reagan and Thatcher would be pressing the red button sometime soon.... But at the CND meetings, the bunch of people I was hanging around with all seemed to be members of the Labour Party too, and I realised I might just be one of those dangerous Lefties. These people thought the same things that I did, believed the same things to be right and wrong, hated the same things I did, and had a cracking taste in alternative music. I was brought up in a very mixed-up household, with my ranting Daily Mail-reading Thatcherite parents, and my card-carrying fascist-bashing Grandmother, but in Hackney, Socialist stronghold of the Est End of London. So, as soon as I was old enough, risking serious parental wrath and potential disowning, I took the plunge and joined Young Labour too in 1983.
Thatcher gave us all someone to really despise, and as her first term rolled on, England was not a great place to be for anyone young. Youth unemployment at massive highs, rents rising by the day, it seemed like it couldn't actually get any worse. Then, it did. Thatcher's fights with the Unions, the Miners' Strike, the selling off of Council Houses..... and then it became even more personal. Our only means of escape from all this doom and gloom, Education, was about to be closed off to ordinary people. Grants, which enabled even the poorest of students to study, were to be abolished in favour of Loans. This alone mobilised us to move to action. We campaigned, we wrote letters (no internet then), we marched. Lots. I was nearly crushed by a Police horse whilst lying on Westminster Bridge (once), and nearly arrested (quite a few more times). The only saving graces, the sense of unity, and that we had much better music than the Tories.
In was in this climate that I left London to study in Manchester... Hackney had always felt like the poor relation of the rest of London, kissing cousin with the City but miles apart in terms of opportunity, that cousin that no-one talked about and tried to avoid at weddings. But the winter I spent looking round Universities in the mid 80s made me realise that despite this, we were better off than we had ever thought. I saw spectacular Victorian arcades filled with pigeons and echoing husks of shops in Leeds, eerily desolate docks in Liverpool, a deserted Town Centre and full Job Centre in Newcastle. The North-South divide was alive and well, and more acrimonious than ever. Politics suddenly jumped from theory to grim reality. This was just so unfair, that geography alone could decide your chances in life.
And Manchester, my new home, red-brick, grey, grimy, with miles of slum clearance as far as the eye could see- with nothing replacing it but hope. Swathes of rubble with the odd pub sticking out like a last remaining tooth. The City Centre looked like it had been horribly abandoned in 1973, after a particularly bad night out. The hours I spent waiting for orange buses in the ever-present rain, reminding me of the plentiful easy transport permanently at my feet in London, as I wrung out my socks when I got home. By day at the Poly, learning about the popular rebellions that had led us to this point in history, by night with The Smiths providing the soundtrack to my life.
I stayed involved. I campaigned, leafleted, marched, demonstrated with the local Labour Party (more very soggy socks). I became involved with student politics, and served on the Executive of the Students' Union in my second year.... the year when Students' Unions were massively punished for their actions in lending money to striking miners, and the Government began forcing through rules to 'depoliticise' student politics. Fighting to provide the services to our students that the dwindling student grants were failing to provide. The 1987 election felt like a nail in the coffin of student life. I attended the NUS conference, but it felt like we were able to do less and less without being stopped from doing so. I was told at the time that I could have had a political future, but my parents talked me out of 'silly politics' and into looking for a job.
When I graduated – unless you could afford to be in the right place, there were still no jobs. I wrote over 1000 applications to be rewarded with 2 non-productive interviews. I stayed in Manchester with a series of dead-end no-hope jobs. Still campaigning, still willing something to change. Something in me had changed, I could see the unfairness of it all in glorious Technicolour. Something in me no longer felt at home in the South, I wanted to be here, making a difference. Labour for me was like an extended, diverse, but ultimately unified family. I decided to retrain as a Community Arts Worker, to make a difference in the community, but by the time I finished the course I paid for, the Poll Tax had come in and no-one was hiring them.
The next five years I spent in Hebden Bridge and Bradford, more campaigning, more street-tramping, many more soggy socks. Thatcher out of power in a putsch, Major sneaking in a-la-Theresa May. We all became hopeful..... then it passed. I trained as a Further Education Lecturer, and spent one glorious year in a proper job, before John Major reformed the statute of Further Education Colleges, and I was back at the Job Centre.
I didn't like the direction that the Labour Party was going in, all the views I held dear were being watered down and given a corporate gloss, but for me it took something away from the raw energy and enthusiasm I had always felt before. It began to feel like the unified family had some unspoken grudge between themselves, a more concrete one than ever before. It all began to feel more than a little hollow and hopeless. I felt like I would rather be in a credible opposition than in power as nothing more than Tory-Lites. I was campaigning less and less.....
It was whilst retraining yet again (as a Youth Worker, I am nothing if not persistent), that I met my ex-husband and moved to Paris. Life as an ex-pat is a weirdly isolating experience. My husband worked for a very political ministry under Lionel Jospin's government, so I knew, understood, and followed French politics, but I couldn't vote in national elections. It was more than frustrating in the year when Jean-Marie le Pen passed the first round of the Presidential Elections, it was frankly terrifying. I could resist and keep my distance no more, and tramped the streets of Paris for the Parti Socialiste to make damn sure he didn't make it through the second round, complete with pushchair, bawling baby daughter, and lucky campaigning hat.
On my return to England, single-motherhood, the M.A. I finally took after 16 years of saving up, and politically restricted jobs meant I behaved myself for the next few years. Much against my better judgement, as in 2010 the Tories reared their very ugly heads again.
So what finally made me pick up my lucky campaigning hat once more? A perfectly innocuous leaflet from 'The Platform' in Morecambe, in the summer of 2014. After I had had my morning rant at David Cameron's shiny smug face on the news, it came through the door. I looked through it, and felt well and truly depressed. If at 40-something, there was nothing in it that I remotely wished to see, what was it like for young people in Morecambe? Just as bad as in the 1980s, if not even worse. Since I had lost my job in 2011, I had been jumping through the multiple hoops of ATOS, the DWP, and Benefit Sanctions that led to a Christmas visit to the Foodbank, plus an eviction, and watching everyone else around me in the West End doing the same. So I decided not to get mad, but to get even.
I was angry, very angry. I couldn't sit around whilst the world was being destroyed for my children. So I rejoined the Labour Party. They had been gradually moving back to what I saw as a real Labour Party, and somehow I had my spark back. I had become an impromptu advocate for half of the neighbours, anyway, the ones who had been denied the education that I had enjoyed.
I had been volunteering at various festivals, helping develop the Morecambe Variety Festival, helping with community projects, trying to make a small difference, so here was my chance to do so even more.
Just as I was mulling over what to do next, I was at a Fun Palace event at More Music, dressed in full Steampunk Attire, as I was there with the group from 'A Splendid Day Out'. Exactly what drew Mags Pattison to me, as I sat there in a corset and crinoline holding forth on the state of the country to my friend over a cup of tea, I don't know, but that's how it happened.
“You should stand,” she said, as I was mid-rant.
“For what?” I said, and laughed.
I didn't know she was a City Councillor.
This was totally insane. I was also the mother of a 6 month old baby boy too, I should perhaps mention at this point, and I also have not one but two chronic pain conditions..... Needless to say, Mags wouldn't give up on this idea, and much to my shock, I passed the selection to stand for both City and Town Council. I found myself suddenly back in the heart of the extensive, eccentric Labour family that I had lost somewhere in the 1990s, and, the soggy socks and the lucky hat were back on the campaign trail, complete with baby and pushchair.
I had barely been back in the Labour Party for five minutes, I hadn't done any hustings since I was a student..... I tried not to panic. Much.
Westgate Ward somehow chose me, and a fantastic running-mate in Tracy Brown, and in May 2015 I was elected as both a City and Town Councillor. No-one was more surprised than me. It has been an extremely steep learning curve, but I am enjoying every minute of using my diverse experience to change things and help other people. In many ways, having been in bad situations myself makes it easier to help others who are.
My parents are somehow learning to cope with this, and the fact that I am still not reading the Daily Mail. My Dad contents himself with asking me if I read Chairman Mao's Little Red Book each night at bedtime. I somehow restrain myself from saying 'I told you so'. I haven't told him that his grand-daughter has joined yet........