Confessions of a Floating Voter – Part 1 – From the Curse of Peladon to New Labour

Introductory Note – this has nothing to do with legal stuff, and is a personal ramble – think of it as a very extended “About Me” page, and pass over it if that has no appeal (and indeed why should it?)

 

I was brought up in Coatbridge. You might not have heard of it, a dwindling town, formerly dependent on heavy industries, which are now long gone. Staunch Labour territory – one of the places where it was rumoured that a traffic cone with a red rosette stuck to it could be elected.

That characterisation is rather unfair to the two members of Parliament who have represented Coatbridge for my lifetime. First of all there was James Dempsey, a former Provost of Coatbridge, who was the local MP from 1959 till his death in 1982.

Then, in the by-election that followed his passing, Tom Clarke, another former Provost, was elected to replace him. Both of them have had long and distinguished Parliamentary careers.

Indeed, as I will mention again below, I had the chance, when on a university trip to Parliament, to meet Mr Clarke in one of the tea rooms. He was remarkably personable, giving up some of his time to meet a starry eyed law student, whilst representing a constituency where the Labour vote traditionally was weighed, rather than counted.

So one would have expected me to be solidly and staunchly Labour.

However I’d shown an early interest in politics, and I vividly recall watching the news, between power cuts, in the winter of 1973-1974 (and particularly remembering the power going off one dark and stormy Saturday evening whilst watching the Doctor Who story “The Curse of Peladon” – I have never been as terrified in my life as I was by the sudden loss of power).

The Trades Union leaders were regular fixtures on the news (Moss Evans, Jack Jones, Len Murray, Arthur Scargill and the rest were as familiar as Barbapapa, Pinky and Perky and Mr Benn (not the former Viscount Stansgate, but the cartoon character)) – seemingly more than the politicians, and to my recollection they split time not so much with Messrs Heath and Wilson, but with Sheikh Yamani of OPEC and Yasser Arafat, as the 4th Arab Israeli war slogged on. The West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula seemed as familiar from the news as George Square in Glasgow. Regular reports from Saigon plotted the end of the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon was removed after a titanic struggle to make way for Gerald Ford, who promptly pardoned him, whilst making it clear he had not done anything wrong needing a pardon anyway.

I suspect I was a bit more politically aware therefore as I approached my teenage years than some of my contemporaries.

In the early 1980’s the spectre of the Cold War loomed over us. I remember going to sleep at night worried that by morning I would have been vaporised. I knew that the Soviets were not going to attack Coatbridge just for the sake of it, but we were close enough to the Faslane base and the Holy Loch, where British and US submarines were based to find ourselves, literally, caught in the fall-out if missiles had been launched.

Politics in the early 1980’s seemed remarkably polarised. The “Butskellite coalition” whereby Labour and Conservative took turns to be in charge in Downing Street without significantly, it seemed, changing matters had ended on the accession to No 10 of Mrs Thatcher, or the “Milk Snatcher” as she would forever be known.

Mind you, bearing in mind that the school milk was generally served lukewarm, and that on the coldest of days, there were not actually many children who missed it, from a taste point of view anyway.

Mrs Thatcher immediately succeeded in polarising matters, and Labour moved left under Michael Foot. The Labour and TUC conferences were given lots of screen time, and were the stages for massive in-fighting in the Labour movement. The Labour party seemed, to my young eyes, to spend much more time and energy fighting itself than it did fighting Mrs Thatcher.

Then, in 1981, came the political event which sparked my interest most. Up till then the choice was either Conservative or Labour, the SNP and Liberals being irrelevant, and coming from Lanarkshire, the vote would always have gone to Labour.

But the “Gang of Four” of Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rogers and David Owen split from the Labour Party and formed the SDP. Suddenly poll ratings went through the roof. The political mould seemed to be broken. Many people who had not been active in politics joined the SDP. There were projections that the SDP would have a crushing majority should there be a general Election.

However, the initial excitement faded. General Galtieri decided to invade the Falkland Islands, allowing Mrs Thatcher to dispatch the Task Force and, through the skill and expertise of the British Army, Navy and Air Force, recover them.

A triumphant war leader now, Mrs Thatcher ordered us to “rejoice” and she suddenly was set fair to retaining her position in the 1983 election.

As the election approached, the SDP led by Roy Jenkins formed an Alliance with the Liberals under David Steel. Already the seeds of the SDP’s destruction were being sown. However there still remained anticipation that something remarkable could happen on election day.

I was too young to vote then, and watched the night time coverage with Dimbleby and Day unfold. The Conservatives were left with a thumping majority, and the SDP Liberal Alliance only garnered 23 seats, despite 25% of the vote.

That alone convinced me that a fairer electoral system was needed, and was a topic I studied in depth in the coming years at university.

I was first able to vote in the 1984 European elections, casting my vote for the Alliance. In Council elections (and we had both District and Regional Councillors to choose) there was generally not an Alliance candidate put up, so my “X” went against the Labour candidate.

The next General Election was in 1987. By that stage I was well on my way to finishing my studies. I was reading as much about politics as I could. As the 1987 election came into view, I recall devouring the Alliance manifesto and the joint publication by the Davids, Steel and Owen, setting out their philosophy. Behind the scenes however the two parts of the Alliance were tearing each other apart, and the SDP, under David Owen, with the shallower roots, was the one to lose out.

At the election the Alliance share of the vote fell, although it was still at 23% nationally. However the electoral system meant that the Conservatives again had a sizeable majority, and the Alliance had far fewer MP’s than its votes justified.

In a party political sense, I should have voted for the Alliance that year, having given serious consideration to voting Conservative (this all because of my new political hero, Michael Heseltine.)

However, I had had the good fortune to meet Tom Clarke, as I mentioned, in 1986 and when I reached the polling booth the next year, felt I should vote for the man, not the rosette. My vote went to Labour. That experience helped me see that a strict proportional electoral system by way of party list for example, would be bad in that the personal link between an MP and his constituents would be lost. Politicians should be able to enhance their chances of election by their positive manner and behaviour, and to detract from their chances if negative.

To return to Michael Heseltine however. He had knocked the Roy Jenkins’ posters figuratively off my wall. I had seen him as Environment Secretary on the news tramping round derelict sites in Liverpool, following riots there, and grabbing the Council by the scruff of the neck to get things done. Regeneration was the watchword and he vigorously pursued his goal in a manner that seemed almost semi-detached from the rest of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet.

He then became Defence Secretary, a vital role at the height of the old War, but his crowning moment came when he walked out of Cabinet, and through the door of No 10 into Downing Street to tell the press that he had resigned from the Cabinet as a result of the Westland Affair. He then turned to his right and marched down Downing Street, apparently away from power for ever.

The “principled resignation” was not quite as unusual then as it is now, but this was one of the most principled for many a long year. Heseltine quit because it was the right thing to do, not because it was all part of some grand plan of action. The fact that he was a millionaire many times over from his outside business interests made the sting of leaving a bit easier to bear, but I am sure it was not a decision motivated by ambition in any way. It was, as I have said, what he saw as the right thing to do.

He followed that up the next year with a book “Where There’s a Will”. This spelt out his manifesto, effectively a return to “One Nation” Conservatism, with a rejection of Thatcherite dogma.

Public spending was not seen as anathema – to my eyes at least at that time there seemed little difference between the views of Heseltine and of Owen.

I suspect that if the 1987 election had been fought with Heseltine as Prime Minister, I might well have voted for him, but despite the fact that Mrs Thatcher wobbled badly, she survived, and led her party to a third consecutive election win.

By this time the Alliance was effectively no more. The manoeuvrings which led to a merger of the parties was well under way. David Owen, not prepared to accept a merger, led his SDP rump into the wilderness and all but ended his UK political career. From being the youngest Foreign Secretary for many a year, his career fizzled out disappointingly.

This seemed to me to be a dreadful mistake by the Liberals. The impression gained from the news and papers was that some of the Liberal hierarchy had really not liked the prospect of victory, or at least of a substantial role in Parliament. They would rather be big fish in their small Liberal pond, rather than small fish in a big and successful SDP-Liberal Alliance. That may be unfair to many in the Liberal party at the time, but there did seem to be, especially at the Liberal Conference, a fear of being tainted with the merest whiff of power. After all, the thought process seemed to go, the Lib Lab Pact in Callaghan’s premiership had led nearly to a wipe out of the Liberals. Better to keep small and under the radar, they seemed to say. They did not want any truck with the politicians who were striving to make the third force in British politics significant again.

For the next few elections, my vote at local and European elections, where possible stayed, despite what I have said about them, with the Lib Dems, as they became. General elections are different however.

Maybe I would have been happy to support the Conservatives if Michael Heseltine had been able to succeed Mrs Thatcher. However John Major sneaked past to take the prize and Heseltinian Conservatism, which seemed to have far more humanity at its heart than any other brand of Toryism in recent years, failed to catch on.

At the same time, the Labour Party, after its wilderness years, seemed to be getting its act together. Neil Kinnock was prepared to take on the extreme left – his conference speech when he condemned Militant for its running of Liverpool Council being a tour de force. I recall watching Derek Hatton, Eric Heffer and Arthur Scargill marching out of the hall in protest.

Sadly for Kinnock, he was having to devote so much energy to fighting the enemy within, that he could not focus his attacks on the government, and he failed to become Prime Minister, despite his oratorical abilities.

By 1992, he seemed expected to win, but a bit of premature triumphalism led to Major staying in power, and to Kinnock stepping down where he was replaced by John Smith.

Now Smith was the MP for the constituency next to the one I lived in, Airdrie. He was a well known figure locally and nationally. He seemed to be well respected and liked.

It looked as if the new guard of Labour politicians, lining up behind Smith, were poised for victory over a tired Government, ridiculed in the press and by Spitting Image. However in May 1994, John Smith collapsed and died, his known heart problems having claimed him.

The Labour Party then was left with a fateful decision, but in fact the decision was taken out of the Party’s hands by the two front runners.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, both comparatively new men of prominence in the Party, saw that if one of them stood for leader, they would win, but if they both did, then another candidate might burst through the middle of them.

As a result the Granita Restaurant in London was the scene for their infamous meeting where Brown agreed to back Blair for leader with, depending on who you believe, some agreement about Blair standing down after he had been Prime Minister for a certain period.

Ignoring the hubristic nature of the “agreement” it can be seen as the cause of much of Labour’s successes over recent years, but equally of their failures.

In 1992 I had become disillusioned by the Liberal squabbling, and the Major government seemed uninspiring and tired. The only choice at the General election therefore was to support Labour in the person of Tom Clarke again. This was, once more, a personal vote, not a party one.

Then came the rise of New Labour.

Tony Blair, with Gordon Brown and Alistair Campbell beside him, grabbed hold of the initiative. New Labour, as the party was re-branded, took control of the news agenda.

The Opposition spokesmen seemed new, keen and energetic, whilst the Cabinet were the opposite. The smell of “sleaze” wafted all round Downing Street. We even had Martin Bell in his white suit challenging Neil Hamilton in Tatton.

“Things Can Only Get Better” blared from the loudspeakers. I felt energised politically, in a way I had not been since the rise of the SDP and the heady days of 1982, prior to the Falklands War, when it seemed that the SDP was heading for power.

Election night 1997 is memorable for many reasons, one of which is because my second daughter was born the day after the voting took place. She came into the world the day New Labour came to power.

By this time I had moved to Hamilton, so the personal vote for Mr Clarke was no longer an issue (though he has survived perfectly well without me). But the rise of New Labour, the promises of radical action and, to my ears, significant echoes of Heseltinianism, made me join the landslide of people voting in the first Labour Government for 18 years.

It was a remarkable moment, and a time ripe with expectation.

 

 

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