Book Review from the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
Things Can Only Get Better by John O'Farrell
It could not have been easy for them but Tory Party activists did an effective job in denying that there was any genuine suffering in this country while their party was in power. It was, they argued, largely a delusion. Millions of people were imagining they were unemployed, there weren't really hundreds of applicants for one job. Tens of thousands were being evicted from their homes because they imagined they couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage. Beggars on the streets were actually rich people, taking time off from fat cat jobs as commodity brokers or financial consultants. This general idea—that anyone experiencing the more extreme kind of poverty had only themselves to blame—was popular enough to help keep the Tories in power for 18 years. And that in itself was the cause of a kind of suffering for at least one man which, although real enough in its effect, had its origins in a delusion as powerful as the one which afflicted and comforted the Tory faithful.
John O'Farrell, a Labour Party activist for some of those 18 years, is better known as one of the writers of the TV political satire Spitting Image and occasional contributor of jokes to Labour leaders like Gordon Brown. He has written a book—Things Can Only Get Better (Doubleday, £9.99)—about how he suffered as one Tory victory followed another, as Labour split and blundered, electing leaders like Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock while Thatcher swiped them all with her handbag and, with her impenetrable arrogance, rubbed her opponents' noses into the misery of defeat.
All the way from posh, leafy Thames-side Maidenhead, O'Farrell was almost bred into becoming a Labour supporter. His father was a kind of political anorak and his mother was active in liberal-lefty causes like Oxfam and Amnesty International—although his brother regarded politics as not so much a closed book as one which had not yet been written. None of the family seemed to have any clear idea of why they should work for a Labour victory apart from some undeveloped notion that it would make the world a better place. But that is the kind of motivation which drives football supporters onto terraces each Saturday, to exult or despair, or pop fans to hope their favourite comes out on top:
"I had wanted Labour to win in 1970 because my dad did, just as I had wanted Dana to win the Eurovision Song Contest because my dad did."
Having settled on which team he would support and decked himself out with the appropriate rosette, O'Farrell had to endure a series of humiliating defeats. In 1979 the Labour manager, genial Jim Callaghan, could be blamed because he opted to delay the kick-off. His successor was even worse; eccentric supremo Michael Foot led the team in 1983 to a historic thrashing. Then came the younger livelier Neil Kinnock who first had to prove that his reputation as a fiery left-winger belonged to the days when he was trying to make a name for himself, before he too could preside over a losing team. In 1987 Labour's defeat proved one thing—that a meticulously cynical and stage-managed campaign does not guarantee victory. In 1992 it was if anything a more bitter defeat as the party confounded a great many of the experts in expectation and lost to the team of grey, boring, whining John Major.
Throughout these desperate times O'Farrell because deeper and deeper involved in Labour politics, invigorating a near-deceased ward party in Tory Wandsworth. At a quarter to ten on polling day in 1987 an exhausted volunteer came into the committee rooms suggested there was no point in going out again as the polling stations closed at ten o'clock. "Is it worth it?" screamed O'Farrell. "We lost Leicester South by seven votes last time round! Seven poxy votes! You could easily get seven votes out between now and polls closing. Is there anything more important that you can think of doing during the next fifteen minutes?" the volunteer went out again. Labour lost the seat by 57 votes.
No wonder somebody as passionate about the Labour Party suffered so much at their defeats—just like football fans when their team is relegated. In 1983:
"Why I stayed up to watch the results is a mystery to me. I suppose it was for the same reason that I cannot help slowing down and glancing across at horrific motorway accidents."
"As I walked through the Shaftesbury Estate at two in the morning I looked at all the houses with people asleep in their beds, blissfully ignorant of what a terrible thing they had done."
And in 1992:
" . . . when exactly were we likely to beat them? Never, was the simple answer. Never, ever, ever."
This brings us to question what "support" is all about. Why do people "support" a football team? Why support Manchester United and not Brentford? Or Arsenal instead of Torquay? Why "support" the Labour Party and not the Tories? Or the Liberal Democrats or the Natural Law Party? O'Farrell thinks ". . . other people's lives can be improved through the existing political system, whether on a local or national level, and that we all have a moral obligation to try to make this happen". That, except for the bit about a "moral obligation", is all right as far as it goes: but why should it then lead to supporting the Labour Party? O'Farrell goes on about " . . . the simple basic precepts of left-wing politics . . . helping people worse off than themselves . . . granting more freedom . . . improving living standards and fighting inequality". But when he got involved in politics we had just come through a period of 15 years 11 of which had been under Labour government. Those governments, under Wilson and Callaghan, had not exactly covered themselves in glory as far as working-class interests went.
Their records on wars such as Biafra and Vietnam was sordid and shameful. They had fought the working class on many occasions when groups of them had tried to protect their living standards against Labour's assaults. The infamous Winter of Discontent had followed from Chancellor Healey's attempts to impose a five percent limit on wage rises which, after years of restrain and promises of a better future, was the last straw. Callaghan did not lose in 1979 because the working class were swamped in prosperity but because they were fed up with the misery of Labour rule.
As might be expected, O'Farrell greeted Blair's victory in 1997 by getting drunk. The British people, he thought, had finally come good. What does he now think after nearly two years of Labour rule? What about the attacks on the benefits of single parents? What about the insidious smear that disabled people and compliant doctors are conspiring to defraud Social Security? What about tightening the screws on the unemployed? What about harassing damaged and disturbed youngsters? What about Blair's cosy relationship with mega capitalists like Murdoch, Sainsbury and Bernie Ecclestone? What about his eager support for Clinton's threats to start up another war in the Gulf?
It is time for another book from O'Farrell. This time he might call it something like "Sorry. But After All The Suffering, The Hard Work And The Expectations Labour Won—And Things Did Not Get Better".