Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered  in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a  majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Exeter 2017 General Election Hustings Debate

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Exeter Boat Shed, Tuesday June 6th 2017, 7pm

Which candidate will win Exeter in the General Election?

On the evidence of yesterday’s hustings debate at the new Exeter Boat Shed on the Quayside, it should be another win for Labour’s Ben Bradshaw. Bradshaw has represented the seat which was previously a Conservative stronghold for twenty years winning it five times since 1997. He may well be on course for a sixth win.

A good crowd turned out at the Exeter Boat Shed, a promising venue despite the current lack of toilets and shortage of seating. Devon Live editor Patrick Phelvin was adjudicating.

All six candidates standing in Exeter were present:

Jonathan West (Independent): A single issue candidate, Jonathan West’s candidature is entirely based around securing a second EU referendum. This position may have attracted some sympathy from the audience, as 55% of Exeter voters opted to “remain” in the 2016 Brexit vote. After a short introductory statement, Mr. West by prior arrangement, did not take part in most of the debate.

Vanessa Newcombe (Liberal Democrat): A former city and county councillor, Ms. Newcombe gave a fine, if occasionally too muted performance. She connected best with the audience in advocating electoral reform and in relating her own experiences of sexism during her political career.

Ben Bradshaw (Labour): By the simple technique of standing up to answer every question, Mr. Bradshaw gained an easy advantage over his rivals. He also gave the most well informed and punchiest answers reflecting his years of experience. Noting that the very first question, supposedly on national security was neither a question nor on national security (it was, in fact, a statement opposing UK foreign aid), Mr. Bradshaw attacked UKIP for not fielding a candidate in Exeter and thus effectively helping the Conservative candidate. The questioner (who claimed some theatrical experience) had admitted to being a former UKIP member and had made several factual errors in his statement. National security is a sensitive issue currently and a second question (this time an actual question) was asked. This debate was postponed from May 23rd due to the temporary suspension in all campaigning due to the Manchester Arena bombing. Later, Mr. Bradshaw performed well, attacking Theresa May’s stance on Brexit and her decision in 2011 as Home Secretary to abolish control orders. He also advocated electoral reform. He was forced to defend his own lack of support for his leader Jeremy Corbyn, a potentially dangerous issue for him especially as Mr. Corbyn has grown more popular recently. Unusually for a Labour candidate, Mr. Bradshaw reaffirmed his view that the Conservatives are likely to win nationwide with an increased parliamentary majority.

James Taghdissian (Conservative): Although always competent and articulate, the well-spoken Mr. Taghdissian was playing to a tough crowd. His view that the Prime Minister is a better leader than Mr. Corbyn found little favour here despite the fact nationally, even after the recent slump in her personal ratings, polls indicate most Britons agree with him on this. A strong performance though Mr. Taghdissian might have benefitted from delivering punchier, less rambling answers. He fully conceded Ms. May had abolished control orders when she was Home Secretary.

Joe Levy (Green): A younger, soft spoken though always audible candidate, Mr. Levy made a good impression on the audience. Potentially a rising star, Mr. Levy could well be a man to watch in the future.

Jonathan Bishop (Independent): Although undeniably highly qualified academically, Mr. Bishop may have lost audience sympathy with his rude insistence on butting in to answer one question as he was “the only member of the panel qualified to answer it” and by his general manner and unusual views on police wages and the value of woman Labour MPs.

Currently, Exeter is a lone island of red in a sea of Tory blue in the south west. Will it stay that way? After tomorrow, we’ll find out.

October 2017 update: Results of June 2017 General Election in Exeter

Candidate/party Votes
Ben BradshawLabour 34,336
James TaghdissianConservative 18,219
Vanessa NewcombeLiberal Democrat 1,562
Joe LevyGreen 1,027
Jonathan WestIndependent 212
Jonathan BishopIndependent 67

Ben Bradshaw won his sixth victory easily with more votes, a bigger share of the vote (62%) and a wider margin of victory than ever before (his Tory opponent won 32.9% of the vote). Turnout in Exeter was 71.7%, the highest since 1997, the year of Bradshaw’s first win and higher than the average UK turnout in 2017 (68.8%).

Mr. Bradshaw’s prediction that the Tories would substantially increase their majority in parliament turned out to be wrong. The Tories have lost their majority. In fairness, he certainly wasn’t the only one to predict this incorrectly.. He has now adopted a more pro-Corbyn position.

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The Liberal Democrats: A poem

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Do you know what we are for?

We’ve no idea anymore.

Progressive change was once our mission.

Before we joined the Coalition.

Do you remember 2010?

“Cleggmania” was all the rage back then.

We soon held the balance of power.

But this was not our finest hour.

On election night, everyone failed to win,

The Tories needed us to get in,

Did Clegg thus demand safeguards for the nation?

Or to protect the NHS from “reorganisation”?

Did he do all he was able,

To get a seat at the cabinet table?

Today the record says it all,

The Lib Dems have achieved sweet sod all.

Face facts voters, to our shame,

If your library’s closed, you’re as much to blame.

The sad conclusion to our story,

Is that you might as well have voted Tory.

General Election memories 4: 1992

Peterborough,
April 9th 1992

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The world changed a lot between 1987 and 1992.

The Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War in the process. Nelson Mandela was freed in South Africa, but a new threat emerged in the Middle East in the form of Saddam Hussein.

In Britain, there was less change. I was fifteen now, but Britain was still under the same government as it had been under when I was two years old.

But even there, there had been change. By 1990, the Tories finally recognised that Margaret Thatcher (by then intent on promoting the Poll Tax and inclined to speak about herself using the royal “we” as in “We are a grandmother”) was far more unstable than anyone on the supposed “loony left” had ever been. Keen to avoid certain defeat, they brutally dethroned her. A necessary measure, certainly, but one the party does not seem to have ever fully recovered from, even now.

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Instead, we now had John Major of Huntington, Peterborough’s neighbouring seat as Prime Minister: a far more agreeable choice. Amiable and pleasant, Major would turn out to have no aptitude for leadership whatsoever, but we didn’t know that in 1990. He hadn’t been tested. Even with a recession on, the Tories surged from a position of certain defeat under Thatcher to the point of being virtually neck and neck with Labour under Major. But this still represented Labour’s best chance in my lifetime, up to that point. Labour were about 2% ahead of the Tories throughout the 1992 campaign. At least, that’s what the opinion polls said.

Of course, as mentioned, I was now fifteen, not ten, so was undergoing a bit of change myself. My voice was wobbly and would often break at the end of sentences. I drew, swam and cycled less. I still read comics (now, arguably more grown-up ones like 2000AD: I had two letters published in the Galaxy’s Greatest comic at around this time). I was also starting to move onto “grown-up” novels like 1984 and Catch-22 although still mostly read Terry Pratchett books, meeting the great fantasy author himself during a book signing in Queensgate shopping centre. I ignored his younger friend completely: someone called Neil Gaiman. I’d also helped write a comic (“Flob”) with some friends. My contributions were I think mostly Viz-like and I doubt they have stood the test of time very well.

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

Home life had changed little. My older brother was about to get married and my sister, also now in her twenties, was close to the same situation. I was so self-absorbed at this point, I’m surprised I even noticed.

We had an Amiga computer and a Sega Game Gear. But this was 1992. Unlike teenagers today, I had never been online, sent an email, written a text or played a Wii. If you had told me I would one day be a blogger or work on a DVD magazine, I would not have not have understood what you were saying. A better, simpler life? No. It was rubbish. For one thing, if I wanted to know who directed Flight Of The Navigator, today I could find out in seconds. In 1992, I would have to go to the library (assuming it wasn’t a Sunday) and look it up in Halliwell’s Film Guide. And yes, that is the sort of thing I like to know sometimes (it’s Randal Kleiser, incidentally. He also directed Grease).

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Change was not a key feature of life in my secondary school either. The Third Year became Year 9 (my own year) but that was about it. The headmaster was very traditional. We were required to stand every time he entered the room until he told us to sit down again a few seconds later (presumably we would have got in serious trouble if we’d refused to stand? Nobody ever attempted this).

Our school’s founder Henry VIII stared down at us from his expensive Holbein portrait in the dining hall. We were not a public school but there was a boarding house nearby mostly filled with the sons of those employed on nearby airbases. These jobs mostly no longer exist. Homework was called “prep”.  The arrival of “short sleeve order” was occasionally announced in assembly. God knows what it meant. I never understood. It may have actually been called shirt sleeve order. I don’t remember getting in trouble over it anyway.

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The school was hardly very representative of Peterborough’s large Indian and Pakistani population either (the Polish influx had not yet arrived). David Lammy (later a minister in the Blair and Brown governments) had been the school’s first black head boy a couple of years earlier but he had been exceptional. There is barely a brown face in any school photos at the time.
School election: 1992.

I did not excel in my new secondary school environment doing badly early on and quite well by the Sixth Form. I was in between these two points in 1992 and was doing okay. The school Mock Election held a week before the actual one piqued my interest although I would have been far too self conscious to stand myself.
Our school was relatively small: about 750 pupils. About 600 or so voted. In reverse order of success, the candidates/parties (people’s names are changed) were, as far as I remember:

The Meritocrats: A silly novelty party fronted by the older brother of one of my friends (I don’t think the younger brother even voted for them). They had funny posters featuring identical pictures of the candidate over a statement saying: “Ian cares for the environment” or “Ian cares for babies.”But the “silly vote” was entirely swallowed up by the Revolution Party (soon to be discussed) and this one only got about 25 out of six hundred and something votes.

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Labour: The Labour candidate was actually a friend of the Tory candidate in my 1987 junior school election. I was incredibly socially awkward at this point but I attempted to hang out with her and a couple of boys who were running their campaign. I didn’t contribute anything meaningful. I attempted to submit some cartoons of John Major (about the only politician I could ever draw, then and now) but these weren’t great and understandably were not used. I couldn’t colour in and am not sure the jokes worked anyway: one was an attempt to parody the famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster from 1979.

That said, the posters they DID use – “hilarious” ones featuring a photo they had found of the school Tory candidate standing next to a wheelie bin beneath the legend “Is this man looking for a new job?” were crap too. Presumably they were suggesting he was looking for a job as a bin man? Of course, standing next to a bin wouldn’t achieve this. And he didn’t need a new job anyway? He was still at school. It didn’t work. That said, the Labour lot were an intelligent well-meaning bunch but my school was always overwhelmingly, hopelessly Tory. My younger brother who was at the school later confirms that the Conservatives even won heavily at the school in the mock election of 1997. Yes, even in 1997! I don’t think Labour got even a tenth of the vote in 1992.

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The Lib Dems: A boy from a lower year whose name I’ve forgotten. He did well as a candidate and got about 120 or so votes I think. I’m doing pretty well to the remember the campaign as well as this, to be honest. I doubt many other people can, probably not even those who were actually candidates at the time.

The Tories: Another boy from my year, a Scot, a Christian who despite my fledgling socialist and atheist tendencies, I was on friendly terms with. He came a good second and now, I believe, has a politics-related job.

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The Revolution Party: Peterborough was teetering very close towards electing a Labour MP (potentially its first woman MP too), one Julie Owens, just as the national election seemed poised to give Labour the keys to Downing Street. But my school was not very representative in this respect. A debate on banning fox-hunting in one class ended with a clear vote opposing any ban: pretty unusual for any group of urban British 1990s teenagers then, or I would suspect, now. The news that Margaret Thatcher had fallen in 1990 was greeted by concern amongst some classmates that Labour might get in by many, some fearing this would lead inevitably to a nuclear war. In short, most pupils like their parents, were Tories. But they were still teenagers (mostly) and there was a hint of rebellion in the air. The general feeling was that our traditionalist headmaster who was widely assumed – quite wrongly I later learnt – to be a Tory and would be most annoyed by a silly gimmicky party hijacking the election. This last bit probably is true.

So this is what happened. Fronted by a Sixth Former, the Revolution Party had the best election poster (which stated simply that “Lenin was a chap”) and used cheaply bought stickers featuring the dog Odie from the Jim Davis Garfield cartoon strip as their symbol. Although hardly very anti-capitalist in retrospect, this really took off as a gimmick. For about an hour or so during one lunchtime, I got slightly carried away and briefly wore an Odie sticker on my maroon lapel myself. But I didn’t repeat my 1987 betrayal.

I still voted Labour. I wasn’t that disappointed when Labour almost came last though. The real result during the school’s Easter Holidays would be different, I knew. Peterborough would fall to Labour and Neil Kinnock would lead Labour back into power.

John Major in 1992

The real election.
I did not stay up to watch all the results for some reason: a fortunate move in retrospect, although my younger brother, by now eleven but still indifferent to the result, camped out in our back garden in a tent. This wasn’t because of the election. It was just something he liked to do. Apparently some people still like to go in tents for fun today.

Like most people I expected Labour to win narrowly. While as the ITV puppet-based comedy Spitting Image pointed out, “You can’t hate John Major,” the Tory campaign seemed weak at the time. Initially Major began with staged unconvincing “informal chats” with party supporters. “What would you say to younger people to warn them of the dangers of a socialist government?” was typical of the challenging questions the PM met with. The Tories thus soon resorted to the “Major standing on a soapbox in the street” strategy. This is now remembered fondly. But even this was attacked at the time notably by Edwina Currie, in retrospect, probably vengeful after the end of her affair with Major in the Eighties. She complained Major looked more like an Opposition leader than a PM on his soap box.

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The great irony of Labour’s Neil Kinnock’s career was that having effectively saved the Labour Party from destruction in 1983, he had now become their biggest obstacle to power. John Smith, Robin Cook, Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw, Jack Cunningham, Bryan Gould, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair: the frontbench otherwise looked hugely talented in 1992. Kinnock meanwhile seemed to have greatness within him but was flawed. He was a great orator on occasion and as with Ed Miliband tabloid attempts to smear him as “devious” never really seemed convincing. But he rambled too much and basically didn’t inspire confidence.

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And the polls were wrong. The Tories won again.

Ultimately, even the news that the architect of Tory victory Chris Patten had lost his own seat in Bath (and unlike Portillo five years later had the decency to look thoroughly miserable in public about it afterwards) was no real comfort. “It’s a Tory Major-ity!” punned the pro-Tory Peterborough Evening Telegraph above a picture of grinning Brian Mawhinney who had also unexpectedly won again in Peterborough. Julie Owens would never become an MP while the father of a friend standing for the Liberal Party (which, like most people, I endlessly confused with the new Liberal Democrats) came fourth.
I was already developing an interest in US politics and switched my attention to Governor Bill Clinton’s increasingly promising campaign over there.

For Britain seemed lost. If Labour couldn’t win during a recession when could they win? I was going through changes but the nation wasn’t. The Tories seemed destined to rule forever.

But, in fact, almost the opposite would turn out to be true. I was 15 then. Now I am nearly 38. And it is the Tories not Labour who have failed to win a single General Election in the twenty or so years since.

As John Major would have said: “Who’d have thought it?”

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