An agonising Labour of love
Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter
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 ★★★★★★