Don’t forget the old git vote

by Peter Watt

I was on a train the other day when a couple of kids got on acting like total muppets. They were shouting, running up and down the carriage, throwing rubbish and swearing. Selfish and self-centred, they had no consideration for anyone else on the train. They acted as if the world revolved around them. The guard asked them to calm down and they let fly a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse. The rest of us kept quiet.

I considered the possible impact of low incomes and deprivation on their lives. How this had probably lead to feelings of helplessness, low levels of aspiration and the resultant attitudes and behaviour that we were experiencing.

Except that that is not what I was thinking at all. What I was really thinking was, “bloody yobs”, “kids of today: I blame the bloody parents”, and best of all, “it wasn’t like that in my day”. I really was the proverbial old git. It wasn’t just this incident; I increasingly find myself saying to people that my own children don’t know lucky they are:

“They have lots of toys, get to go on holidays and never really want for anything. But it never seems to be enough. When I was younger I was always grateful for what I had, knowing that I was more fortunate than many others”.

It’s not true, of course, as I was just the same at their age. It is probably a law of nature that every generation thinks that the one that went before was somehow better, more community spirited and friendlier. But even though, objectively, I know that that the kids of today are no worse than when I was younger, I still feel that they are.

I get as wound up by what I feel to be falling standards of politeness as if it were actually true. I get cross that younger people seem to be more selfish, that parents seem to care less and that exams are easier. I know that these things are not literally true, but the point is that emotionally I feel them to be. Of course I could be an exception. Everyone else could be more rational in the way that they react. My fellow passengers may have been looking at those yobs, thinking, “Bless. Just like me when I was young and high spirited”. They really might. But I would be willing to bet that if there were any thinking that, they were seriously outnumbered by us old gits.

The Tories are very good at playing up what we on the left might class as “old git issues”. They talk of a broken Britain that needs mending. They are comfortable blaming people for things: the workless generations, criminals, falling moral standards and the poor. And we look down on them for talking like this.

Rationally it seems not to be the right response, and, anyway, being judgemental about people (unless they are Tories or Liberal Democrats) is not what we do. We know that the correct response is to understand a bit more, support and accept. And we know things are not as bad or as broken as the naysayers would have us believe. We prefer to see the good in people.

Seeing the good in people is all very well. But if other people don’t see it that way we end up looking silly and out of touch. Imagine if the guard on the train had smiled indulgently at those kids. And had told the passengers that they reminded him of when he ran a little wild. We would have been outraged at his callous disregard for our feelings. And we would have been right.

So the lesson is that we communicate our values and approach in ways that will be understood by people who do not share our world view. If we can’t, then we risk looking out of touch. But if we can, then a broader spectrum of people will support us. Because they feel that our overall approach addresses their concerns. Asbos, for instance, weren’t the only tool that we used to tackle anti-social behaviour. But, for many, they spoke of our tough intent. We began tackling welfare dependency as part of our drive to reduce inequality. We knew that many people felt that the welfare system unfairly benefited those not working, so we talked about how we were making work pay. It is how we won three successive general elections. We built a coalition of voters with different world views and attitudes.

The Tories know this. It is why they tried to attract more liberally minded voters with their green language and embracing civil partnerships. Now they are also building up a sense of toughness and fairness on issues including welfare reform and the economy.

We, meanwhile, are beginning to set out our own stall to the electorate. It is early days and we want to develop a distinct Labour approach. But we must, at all costs, avoid deluding ourselves that we can differentiate ourselves from the Tories. That we can win by just appealing to those who read the Guardian and the Mirror. We know this in our heads. But let’s be honest: the temptation, the gut instinct to react differently, will be strong and we must take care not to forget the lessons of our past.

Take it from me, someone who is slowly coming to terms with my old git status. You need votes from people like me to win. Forget us at your peril.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.

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9 Responses to “Don’t forget the old git vote”

  1. Dave says:

    > ..being judgemental about people (unless they are Tories or
    > Liberal Democrats) is not what we do. We know that the correct
    > response is to understand a bit more, support and accept.

    How about understand a bit more, support, and battle hard to change things for the better?

    Wouldn’t it have felt better if everyone on the train was able to stand up and face these yobs and tell them to behave? Instead of being intimidated into disengaging with the problems at hand.

    When you’re setting out your stall to plan to appeal to more voters, remember that the common Labour attitude of being so strongly judgemental against Tories or LibDems just because they’re Tories or LibDems is like bigotry. I would avoid voting for any party that has an argument of “because they’re Tories” or “because they’re Labour”, and if I’m honest I hear more of that from the red team than anyone else.

  2. oldpolitics says:

    I wouldn’t underestimate the likelihood that your emotional response is objectively correct, as well. It’s received wisdom among the commentariat that things have always been bad, but it most often seems to be supported by made-up quotations from historical figures, and anecdata comparing the very worst children of the past to the daily events of today. When all else fails, the answer tends to be to point to different things about the past which were bad, and claim that it all balances out somehow, as if we can’t hope for a better society overall.

  3. Stephen says:

    I’m afraid that the “old gits” will always be among us and that we shouldn’t be seeking to ignore their’s or anyone’s view.

    A perhaps more interesting point is whether the young and others are really taking a more antagonistic and aggressive view towards the rest of society, and if they are whether the only response should be one of punishment and restraint as an alternative to trying to stop the problem in the first place. On the first question, I think the answers is a lot more mixed than some people might imagine. It may also be worth reflecting that Thatcher’s childrens are now parents.

  4. BenM says:

    Is this website intended to turn Labour into Tory-Lite? Look, all countries suffer from boisterous youth, many have a culture where older people aren’t cowed by this but challenge it face on.

    Here in the UK we have a media culture which paints our youngsters as knife and gun-toting vigilantes. New Labour didn’t challenge that, it just joined in.

    “We began tackling welfare dependency as part of our drive to reduce inequality. We knew that many people felt that the welfare system unfairly benefited those not working, so we talked about how we were making work pay.”

    So no attempt to educate people that £60 a week is a daft choice of lifestyle if that’s really the choice people on welfare made (as opposed to the caricature repeated by tabloids and unchallenged by New Labour)?

    Tories are the party of knee jerk reaction and over-simplistic policy suggestions. There is no need to copycat that approach, but to properly flesh out a more realistic alternative which deals with root causes of the UK’s economic problems (left untouched by New Labour’s so called tough rhetoric).

  5. Tyburn Tory says:

    You should have got involved. You are part of the problem.

  6. Maxy says:

    Clearly Douglas Alexander has been asleep on the job. What happened to all that talk about holding the government to account on Libya? We see action after action which shows that mission creep is evident. In general the LP’s approach to Libya has been woeful. Long after Gadaffi has been removed which has after all been the intention all along, Libya will be plagued by endemic civil war as was the case in Lebanon, which lasted for twenty five years!! Regime change is illegal under international law and yet there seems to be silence on the opposition back benches. Does this mean that had the LP been in government, the same approach would have been taken?
    I for one am deeply dismayed by the one sided coverage of the Libya conflict and do not believe that we the general public are being told the whole truth. The LP must bear some responsibility for this by failing to hold the government to account.
    As for this Military action being sanctioned by the UN Security Council, how is it that Russia, China, Brazil, India, South Africa, Turkey and the Arab League have all come out and said that the military actions undertaken in Libya go far beyond the mandate of the 1973 resolution. Who can now hold the coalition to account over this escalating military conflict?

  7. AmberStar says:

    @ Maxy

    I agree with you about Libya. The UNSCR remit is being exceeded by the NATO coalition.

    Jim Murphy made several statements about the deployment of helicopters being an unacceptable escalation of the mission in Libya. Unfortunately, his comments received very little media coverage. And what the Uk Opposition say about Libya will not change the situation – nonetheless, Labour should continue to try to hold the Uk government & NATO coalition to account.

    And the remedy is for one of the UNSC countries – Russia or China – to take a strong stand. But they seem not inclined to do so at this stage, preferring to wait & see.

  8. AmberStar says:

    Do we really want Labour to continue to be a Party that panders to ‘old gits’ with managerial non-solutions like asbos?

    Asbos themselves simply became something else for ‘old gits’ to complain about. “These asbos are useless, we should have proper birching, flogging & deportation like in the good old days”.

    “There should be a law against it” used to be the mantra of ‘old gits’ & London taxi drivers 😉 So New Labour passed a law against ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ was). And those laws became something else for them to moan about: Too many laws, big-state authoritarianism, a chap can’t blow his nose without there being a law against it etc. etc.

    Peter, if you want to spend the last third of your life being an impossible to please ‘old git’, that’s your choice. But I am asking you nicely, do not try to drag a potentially rejuvinated, young & vibrant Labour Party with you.

  9. What’s the point of this? It doesn’t offer a single bit of analysis of or solution to the problem it sets out. Some people believe everything they read in the papers? Some people are too cowardly to confront teenagers? Some former general secretaries of the Labour Party don’t believe in the power of politics to change people’s lives but merely see it as a power seeking game? Don’t think we needed you to tell us this!

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