An ag­o­nis­ing Labour of love

Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Con­fus­ing Years In The Life Of A Labour Sup­porter

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - BOOKS - FRAN­CIS WHEEN

The au­thor John O’Far­rell loves Labour the way other peo­ple love their dogs: how­ever of­ten his party bites the post­man or makes a mess on the car­pet, he sighs fondly and says it has a heart of gold, re­ally.

Sen­ti­men­tal sap that he is, he some­times watches an old BBC video of the 1997 Gen­eral Elec­tion night. When Tony Blair pro­claims ‘a new dawn’, O’Far­rell can make out his own head in the crowd, ‘cheer­ing and jump­ing up and down to Things Can Only Get Bet­ter’. He wishes he could freeze-frame that op­ti­mism.

In 1998 O’Far­rell pub­lished Things Can Only Get Bet­ter, a hi­lar­i­ously mis­er­able ac­count of a Labour sup­porter try­ing to keep his spirits up in the era of Thatcher and Ma­jor. But the story had a happy end­ing – not least for the au­thor, who topped the best­seller list.

This se­quel, by con­trast, has only a happy be­gin­ning. Af­ter 1997, from his point of view, it was down­hill: at first a gen­tle slide into dis­il­lu­sion (not so gen­tle with Iraq), then a hel­ter-skel­ter de­scent into Brexit and Trump.

He sought con­so­la­tion in small achieve­ments rather than big slo­gans. Af­ter cam­paign­ing suc­cess­fully for the cre­ation of a new lo­cal sec­ondary school, he ran it for the next eight years as chair­man of governors, hav­ing to sit on a board with a Tory ex-Min­is­ter.

A friend said: ‘I thought you hated the Tories?’ O’Far­rell cor­rected him. ‘Hated. Past tense… No one ever built a new school with hate.’

When in saintly chang­ing-theworld mode, he risks be­com­ing cloy­ingly pi­ous. But in the nick of time he usu­ally finds a cloud in the sil­ver lin­ing – luck­ily for the reader, as O’Far­rell is much fun­nier about fail­ure than suc­cess. To most Labourites, for in­stance, the 2001 Elec­tion was an­other tri­umph. Not so for our au­thor: he was the party’s los­ing can­di­date in his home town of Maiden­head, and his ac­count of that cam­paign is the high­light of the book.

His proud par­ents still lived there. On a lo­cal ra­dio phone-in with ri­val can­di­dates, he heard a fa­mil­iar fe­male voice ring­ing in to say that she agreed with John O’Far­rell.

‘Mum!’ he said later. ‘I’m 39. I can man­age!’

‘But the oth­ers were all against you…’

‘Mum, they are the other can­di­dates, they’re sup­posed to be against me!’

One of them – the vic­to­ri­ous Con­ser­va­tive – seemed un­able to talk to vot­ers ‘with­out sound­ing like a Fifties B-movie ro­bot’. Her name: Theresa May.

In the 2017 cam­paign, May’s ro­botic mantra was ‘strong and sta­ble’. In 2001 it was ‘the coun­cil have had to make some very tough choices’, as she shrugged off lo­cal Tory-im­posed cuts. The third time they were on a panel to­gether, O’Far­rell got in first: ‘Theresa May will prob­a­bly just try and say the coun­cil have had to make some very tough choices…’ May’s re­ac­tion? ‘She paused for a nano-sec­ond while her brain con­sid­ered the con­cept of orig­i­nal thought or cre­ative sen­tence con­struc­tion. Then she said: “The coun­cil have had to make some very tough choices…” ’

Harriet Har­man with John O’Far­rell at the 2013 Eastleigh by-elec­tion. Be­low: a Con­ser­va­tive Party poster ahead of the 1997 Elec­tion

John O’Far­rell Dou­ble­day £16.99 ★★★★★★

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