Today I was outside the Co-op with my friends from Kentish Town Labour Party. It was a bit wet, but nice to see everyone for a catch up and refreshing to see both Owen Smth supporters and Momentum activists working alongside each other. That’s the Labour Party I know, not the bitter, divided organization that you see on TV.
We were handing out leaflets criticising the Tory plans to reintroduce grammar schools, though personally I am not really sure how many new schools can be opened on a budget of £50 million. There was a petition to sign called ‘Education not Segregation’ and it being Kentish Town people were on the whole being very supportive.
Then I started talking to someone very different. He was incredibly angry and reminded me of Terry, the Brexit voting dustman that I chatted to back in the summer. This guy was a similar age to Terry and lived over in Queen’s Crescent, the more working class side of Kentish Town. I am not sure what he did for work – he didn’t say – and like Terry he was very pro Brexit. He told me he had joined the Labour Party at the age of 22 and had become increasingly disgusted with what it had turned into. A relative of his had been killed in Afghanistan and he blamed Tony Blair for starting that and many other wars.
Like Terry, he shouted a lot and jabbed his finger at me and other Labour members. He was not polite or pleasant.He didn’t care whether or not we liked him and was determined to have his say. He revealed particular hatred for our MP Keir Starmer, who he felt had fobbed off queries about a new development over in Gospel Oak – a mix of council and private homes – and felt he should be deselected for not being loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. Yet he didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn much either, largely down to his previous association with Diane Abbott! It was very hard not to laugh as the ranting had a mischief and irreverance I rather enjoyed. I see it in the classroom all the time and have to reign myself in so as not to encourage it and create chaos.
I decided the best tactic was to make myself part of the joke. “You probably see me as a snobbish little Labour Party troll,” I said to him.
This seemed to work, so I continued. “I don’t blame you for being angry. Your feelings are real. What I would like to know is what would make you change your mind about Labour. What can we do to make you feel different. I would like you to get a piece of paper and write down three things that you would like Labour to do.”
A look of surprise crossed our friend’s face. I nearly had him. But then one of my other Labour colleagues made an innocent remark about his son looking bored that set him off again. I think she was trying to protect me – fair enough as from an outside point of view he appeared very abusive. Yet there was nothing personal about his tirade – he was not abusing me but expressing his disappointment in politics as a whole. I don’t really blame him to be honest, any more than I blame people who voted Brexit. I don’t even blame people who support Donald Trump or UKIP, even though I find their views toxic and repellent. I blame a top down political system that tells people they are stupid if they don’t agree with policies that benefit a tiny minority. I am probably part of that tiny minority in many ways – the dice has been loaded in my favour. But I don’t blame people for being angry at the world – it is a logical response.
So what should Labour do? Number one – listen. Number two -listen some more. Be prepared to hear things that aren’t ‘nice’ or ‘polite’. Be prepared to hear problematic views on immigration. Be prepared to hear sexism, homophobia and bad language. But through listening we learn and gain perspective. Which leads to number three – clear and simple policies. Ask everyone to write down three things that would make them vote Labour. My three would be free university fees (I am a parent), more council houses (a basic need) and guaranteed state pensions ( we have an ageing population). Other people will have different priorities. But we will only find out by having difficult conversations like the one I had this morning. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it.