Right now, I’m busily working away on a couple of projects, which is why I’ve not posted this last week.
I just finished one of them, and some of you might like it; it’s called Glasgow Scooped, a kind of free digital tabloid.
You should check it out (click this link for a copy) especially as the first issue has a cracking interview with Glasgow East candidate Natalie McGarry in it.
Whilst I was looking for contributors for Issue 2 I got talking to a mate of mine called George Paterson. He’s contributed a piece to that issue, as he wrote a good one for issue 1 of Enjoy the Silence?, this blog’s political magazine. (Issue 2 of that will be out shortly. I’m waiting on a couple of pieces for it right now.)
His piece for the next Scooped is on the brilliant Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, and reading it just then got me thinking about that movie, and something I’ve wanted to write here for a long time.
I’ve avoided it because I hate the personal pieces … but this one fits.
There is a moment in Almost Famous involving William Miller, the movie’s protagonist. He’s a 15 year old kid whose brilliant writing has got him a Rolling Stone assignment covering an up-coming band named Stillwater. Rolling Stone doesn’t know his age, or the pressure he’s under.
The band itself is in the process of pulling itself to bits over giant egos and one very badly produced t-shirt. On top of it all, William has fallen in love with the band’s groupie (although that’s not what she calls herself), Penny Lane. He is out of his depth, missing his deadline, and on the verge of screwing up his relationship with his mother. Life is a mess.
He’s on the tour bus with the band, who are sitting in sullen silence. No-one is happy, and then Elton John comes on the radio, singing Tiny Dancer. One by one the band starts to sing, and before long the tension in the air has gone.
“I need to get home,” William says, turning to Penny, in one last ditch attempt to get his world back on track.
She looks at him, puts a finger to his lips and says “You are home.”
That moment always gets me thinking about home, and what that word really means.
See, this election has put me at odds with a lot of people who are my friends, and in little moments with myself too.
It’s pulling me all over the map.
And I hate it, because I know I shouldn’t feel like this, that it makes a mug out of me, that this is nothing but the old familiar steady beat of the tribal drums that I can hear in my brain … but it’s there all the same and sometimes I can’t shake it.
I joined the Labour Party when I was just 16.
To give you an indication of how important that was to me, I didn’t even join the trade union movement for another year.
I felt like Labour was where I belonged, that it was in my blood, that being a member was significant, that I could make a difference.
Back then it was obvious to me that Labour were a party that cared about common people, that it wanted the best for us.
I believed this without knowing why I did. It never dawned on me for one minute that it might not even be remotely true.
I would be lying if I said the lessons to the contrary didn’t start coming early. I remember a year in, sitting at a Glasgow Young Labour meeting as the executive team was gutted in a coup from the right. Jim Murphy had played a role in organising that.
I wasn’t on the committee, but I was running for election to it, and losing that stung, but not half as much as hearing the comments of those who had beaten us, mocking us for “backward ideas” and being on the left.
How could people within the Labour Party not want you in a leadership position, based on you being a lefty?
I wasn’t some middle class student either; I was a newly minted GMB youth committee member, solidly working class, in the Parks Department at the time, a local branch chair in the party at that. In short, just the sort of guy they said they wanted … young, ambitious, sharp … and with as good a background for the Labour Party as you could ask for.
Allegedly. Because when it came to the crunch they didn’t seem to want my kind of people.
At first I was tempted to take it personally. Why shouldn’t it?
But friends of mine in the party, including a number of obvious rising stars, were given similar treatment.
In fact, my own personal reversals were nothing compared to what I saw some of them put up with. One, a guy almost everyone knew was going to be a huge talent, they seemed more interested in throwing out of the party altogether.
He went on to work for STV and now writes for Al Jazeera, and as recently as last year he was still being told he didn’t have the stuff to get on their approved list of parliamentary candidates.
It’s hard to take these people seriously.
Pamela Nash had “the stuff” and this guy doesn’t?
Who are they trying to kid, except themselves?
Over the years it became harder to live with what I saw and heard.
On the night after the 1997 election, whilst every Labourite in the country was still hung-over, the Glasgow Campaign for Socialism team met in Candleriggs and we had a good discussion about the future.
I was despondent that night, I really was. I told the guys “socialism was defeated last night.” The landslide result had proven the rightness of the Blairite view … that’s how I saw it at the time, and I knew it would be rammed down our throats forevermore.
“Socialism wasn’t defeated,” Bob Thomson told me. “It wasn’t on the ballot.”
Our job, he said, was to make sure that next time it was.
And so I stayed. I stayed longer than I felt good doing. I stayed through the single parent benefits outrage, the first major rug pull from under my feet, when the Tory Peter Lilley stood in the Commons chamber and mocked Labour MP’s with the words, “This way for the cuts!”
They didn’t care. It didn’t embarrass them one bit.
They walked in there and they voted like they were told, with only a few holdouts.
This wasn’t a blip either. The party sold its soul to Bernie Ecclestone shortly thereafter.
I remember being a day visitor to conference in 1996, and seeing the number of corporate sponsors who had stalls there.
Then there was the debate over foundation hospitals and PFI, where I sat during one long, afternoon, in mounting anger, which in the end I didn’t keep containted, as a Labour activist ran a workshop on why “choice” was important to “our customers.”
Customers? What kind of talk was that, by Christ? We were a political party!
And what was this “choice” all about?
Well, on that day it was about giving parents the “choice” over which schools they sent their kids to, instead of that being based on their local authority area. It all sounded very nice, but you didn’t have to be a genius to see the sting I knew was in the tail.
In the year that followed, when the “choice agenda” was forced through, schools began to close everywhere. Those that stayed open were renovated under PFI and the parents who complained were told “hey, you now have the choice about where else to send the kids.”
But if your “choice” had been the local school they were shutting? Well, tough. You now had the “choice” to put your kid on a bus and send him or her ten miles from their friends and their teachers.
And what has PFI cost us? Billions. I’ve always wondered who was in the meeting when that one was suggested to the room.
Who knew “progressive politics” could make big corporations filthy rich?
It was an illusion that the taxpayer was getting value on that one. It was, and it remains, one of the great scams of the Blair Revolution.
I left once in a moment of madness where I joined the SWP before finding out, to my horror, that I was joining an organisation of bigots (under the guise of non-sectarianism, wow …) and middle class revolutionaries who drove Rovers and most of whom had never spent a day in a blue collar job in their lives. And they were mad too, quite simply 100% mental.
They’ve since gotten worse, and when I heard they’d covered up a rape within their ranks I wasn’t even remotely surprised.
The second time I left was in the follow-up of Iraq, and I never went back.
I stayed out of politics until the independence referendum brought me around.
Yet Labour was home.
Yes, there were rooms in that home I didn’t particularly like, but there was something comfortable there, something familiar.
I look at my Facebook friends list right now, and at those I’d regard as my closest friends, and I’m amazed how many of them I know from the days when I was still a party activist, by how many I met whilst at party functions.
I am less surprised to find few are still members.
I have lost touch with many of those who were my friends back then, because their political outlook, and world view, are frankly loathsome to me and I wonder why I didn’t know that a lot sooner than I came to.
Some are now moderately far down the career track, and but for Labour’s almost complete implosion north of the border quite a few of them would be climbing the ladder up here, and virtually assured of safe berths somewhere or other not far down the line.
These include a once close university friend who is now a councillor, and whose anti-SNP hatred is such that he’s part of an administration where he shares power with the Tories with no qualms at all, in spite of the SNP being the largest single party on the council.
He is probably one of the guys going around right now reeling out the lie that a vote for the SNP is a vote to allow David Cameron to remain in Downing Street, knowing full well that his own local authority has made the suggestion absurd.
During the referendum he and his unionist councillor buddies voted to have the Scotland flag removed from council buildings. In Stirling, as if there was no castle just up the hill, as if Wallace came from Cornwall, as if his statue never stood within spitting distance of home.
That word again. Home. How can some treat it with such disrespect?
And believe it or not, this guy actually thinks he’s on the left.
Yeah … whatever helps you sleep at night Mr G.
See, the thing was, he and others were figuring out they had careers to build, and to look out for, at a time when my revulsion at what I’d seen the parliamentary party do had reached its nadir.
That they so quickly became arch defenders of the flag some of them claim to despise, that they so readily climbed into bed with the Tory Party and the class enemy, and their allies in business and the media, to rob this country of a chance to run its own affairs … I can’t understand it all all … except I kinda do, and I should have been less surprised and horrified than I actually was.
But see, these were the very people who kept me in the party for as long as I stayed.
These were the people who told me that we were the carriers of the flame, that we were the people to whom the party belonged and that it was our duty to keep hope alive and win the party back.
And I believed that. I believed it for years beyond sense and logic, and I believed it because, to me, Labour was home.
Labour was where I “belonged.”
It still tugs at me, all those memories of time spent on something I thought was meaningful, time spent on something good and right.
I look even now at Ed Miliband and I wonder if perhaps he’s the guy we were waiting for all along, that maybe I got out too early …
I look back at good days, and I ask myself stupid questions like “what if you’d just hung in there? Couldn’t you have made a difference?”
I look at those I knew back then, making their way forward, and I wonder if, deep down, they too still carry the flag?
Those “what if” questions can kill you, they really can.
I try not to think about it these days, not when they are so full of genuine hope.
And when I do I think about it, I think about it like this;
I was a guy who met a girl and fell in love. We had glorious times, times when it seemed we were the only two people in the world. The honeymoon felt like it would never end and over time, when things started to seem out of whack I looked back on those good times and they held my nerve.
“She loves you,” I’d think. “You’ll get through days like today.”
And I did. For a while, anyway.
But for every good one there were ten bad ones, and at first I measured that by how good the good days were, and I told myself “They are worth some doubts and some hardships, because while you’re in them … it’s like life itself.”
Then, one day, something shocking happened.
I learned something about my loved one that was so monstrous that it stopped the train in its tracks and I was forced to confront reality.
All this time, she was going behind my back.
Worse, everyone around me was at least partially aware of it.
I was, quite literally, the last to know.
And so every now and again I grieve.
I grieve as everyone who’s had their heart broken does.
I grieve for what I’ve lost, for something I thought was special.
I spend days in introspection, sitting here in silence, oblivious to the outside world, going over every conversation and shared moment, and in some of them I see the signs now, at last.
But it’s those other memories, you see … they are the ones that really haunt me, those shining moments, like songs I hear on the radio, or little snatches of old conversations played back in my head, reminding me of better times.
And that’s when it hits me, the real pain, the true apogee of the horror.
For I’m grieving for something that never was.
I am grieving for a phantom, for a ghost, for an illusion, for something more ephemeral than real.
I never really lost it, because I never really had it.
All the times I thought were special, I was being used.
I was being made a fool, and I was a willing fool at that.
That’s what hurts now, what really hurts.
Because all those nights after Labour events, in pubs after meetings, listening to the Blairites celebrate our rout, all that time I was secure in what I thought I knew, as every partner who was ever cheated on must have been similarly sure when the sky was blue and the sun was in it, and they and their beloved were walking hand in hand.
Labour was not theirs, it was mine.
They were the cuckoos in our nest, pushing out those who really belonged, and sooner or later we would turn the tables and take our party back.
And it was bollocks, my friends, all of it.
Because all that time the joke was on me.
The home I thought I knew belonged to someone else.
All that time, it was theirs after all.
I learned that during the referendum, and every day drives the point home more. I was the interloper, the guy who wasn’t supposed to be there. I think of Ed Balls in his Nazi uniform “just for a laugh”. Of Murphy, and his ever changing face. I think of Blair, taking us to war and now touring the world advising dictators, still lauded in the party I thought I was really a part of … and on it goes, and on and on.
You know “where the heart is”? It’s where they stick in the knife … and twist it.
“I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me,” is how some people describe this process now.
I feel for them most of all because they’re clinging to the illusion that it was ever theirs to begin with. I know they are, because, like I said, even now, when I know better, I have those little moments from time to time.
But they never last. Not like the newfound certainty I feel when I look at where things are headed.
And so my heart goes out to all of them, those still struggling on the outside, and to those who still struggle inside that party today, and I hope that one day they’ll arrive where I am now.
Tonight I’m standing on the outside, looking in, at something I was once committed to, a place where I felt like I belonged.
And I get it, finally.
As a Son of Scotland and soldier in the independence campaign, and a proud part of the 45%, I can say it, and mean it.
I am home.
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