Could we, or should we win again? Paul Bower on his difficult relationship with Labour

I left the Labour party in March 2003 when the bombs began to fall on Baghdad.  This ended a formal relationship that began on 4 May 1979, when I joined the day after Thatcher was elected.  My Labour leanings had roots in my childhood in a small Sheffield terrace with no bathroom.  One of my earliest memories is of my dad explaining to me why Harold Wilson and not Alex Douglas Home should lead the country. My dad died in 1968.  He was a toolmaker in a family firm where conditions were Dickensian. Health and safety was non-existent and there was no sick pay or pension.  He didn’t trust politicians, but he told me that Labour were our best hope. He suffered from a series of lung diseases and his life was saved by the NHS on at least three occasions starting in 1949.  If Nye Bevan and Clem Atlee had not created the NHS I would not have been born.              

In between working with bands like ABC, The Human League and Heaven 17 I campaigned vigorously for Labour. In the 1983 election I argued with voters who looked at you incredulously when you explained that Michael Foot should be Prime Minister. In 1985 I played a small in part setting up Red Wedge, the collective of radical musicians, comedians, writers and film makers who attempted to engage young people with politics and encourage them to listen to what Labour had to say. We supported Neil Kinnock’s efforts to bring the party into the modern world without losing its passion and principles.  We liked Neil.  

Our analysis was that Labour needed to reach out to young people who saw us as a bunch of has-beens who spent their lives in boring meetings passing motions nobody cared about. We believed that socialists should be passionate as well as practical, harnessing the power of modern communications and popular culture to engage the population on an emotional as well as intellectual level. One wit even branded our ethos “Soul-cialism” and got the French animator Serge Clerc to design us some t-shirts with that logo.   It was an exciting time.  The “loads-o-money” culture was rampant, but at last it seemed like the good, the creative and the talented were getting behind Labour.  My old Labour supporting friend Glen Gregory sang “we don’t need that fascist groove thang”  backed by the Style Council on the Red Wedge tour in Bradford.  The crowd went wild. We all had a few drinks after the gig to celebrate.   We were serious but we also had a lot of fun.  

Defeat in 1987 was followed by defeat in 1992, but like thousands of members I kept the faith believing that, for all its faults, the Labour Party was where the decent people hung out, – most of them anyway.   In 1994 I stood as a Labour council candidate in Chiswick, one of the wealthiest parts of London.   I had been here before in 1990 when I had stood in a Tory stronghold in Fulham and was thrashed.  Four years later, again I had no chance of winning.   

All three Labour candidates won Chiswick Turnham Green after the third recount on a 12% swing.  I was happy that the baby my wife was carrying (my wife Heather stayed up with us until 4.00 am for the declaration) might even see a Labour Government.   It felt good to beat the Tories. Over the next four years I concentrated on getting some improvements to a council estate, keeping the local reference library open and raising money for a playground.       

I stood down after four years to concentrate on my job at the millennium dome and my young family but I did my bit on Anne Keen’s campaign in Brentford and Isleworth. The first of May 1997 will always stand out as one of the happiest days of my life. I was never a massive fan of Blair but it was a joy to see great figures like Mo Mowlam, Robin Cook and Donald Dewar in the Cabinet. 

Six years later I was on the phone to the Labour membership centre explaining that I could not longer carry on supporting a party that went to war alongside George Bush and relied on suspect intelligence and the votes of the Tories to drop bombs on Baghdad. American friends had been e-maliing me for weeks.  

“What’s going on? Has Blair gone mad?  Why is he supporting Bush?”  

One friend, a retired Democrat lawyer just grunted; “ Blair.  He is star struck. He loves America.  Cheney will give him a medal, pat him on the back and then screw him”   

The young man in the Labour party call centre called me “mate” and tried to persuade me to change my mind, then downloaded a well rehearsed script on UN Resolution 1441.  Apparently, the invasion was the fault of the French for voting against the war. I continued to insist on leaving the party and then the young man started to lose his temper.  Clearly, I was not the only person who had called to resign that day. He accused me of being a pacifist (I’m not), anti-American (also not) and then continued by shouting,   

“Tony Blair will be proved to be a great war leader!”  

That was it. Labour had gone mad or had been kidnapped by aliens. I wish I could have thought of something witty to say but I instead I just told him to piss off and slammed the phone down.   

I was sad but I just carried on with my life and played no part in politics.  Others who made the same decision were heartbroken. It was described to me as being like a death in the family.   Some people I knew joined George Galloway’s “Respect” and went through a second political bereavement a couple years later when they tuned into Celebrity Big Brother. Other great friends stayed with the party and I respected and admired their decision.   

On 6 May 2010 Labour lost an election.  On 7 May 2010 I went on-line and re-joined the Labour party. Why?  Because it felt right.  Around 15,000 other people did the same thing in a few days. It was an emotional reaction. My daughters thought I was insane. For them Labour was still the party for ASBOS, dispersal orders for under 18s,  faith schools, trident, academies, tuition fees, ID Cards and 42 day detention. I did not have any clear answers for them other than to say that I believed that Labour could once again do great things, like saving my dad’s life, giving me a great secular education and putting me through university.             

So could we win again?  The question is, should we win again? It has been a long time since I spent long rainy nights “on the knocker” but here are a few thoughts:

Stop being the party of “you can’t do that” and start be the part of “we can do this ”.   

Remember that the British people don’t exist so that Labour policy makers can devise strategies to implement “behavioural change” on them. 

Stop treating young people as a threat or mass to be shaped and controlled.  We can’t expect youth to support us if all we do is lecture them. 

Move away from being the party of control and sanction to once again being the party of hope and freedom 

Negotiate with the rich and powerful because we have to.  Anything less would be impractical.  But lets never again become besotted by unearned wealth.  Labour party leaders should not be taking freebies on mega-yachts or schmoozing with Italian billionaires.   

Admit that we made mistakes.  Voters love it when politicians act like human beings.  We can only be forgiven if we apologise for the things we did wrong. 

But most of all remember the last political testament of John Smith when on the evening before he died he ended a speech with the words.  

“All we ask, is to serve” 

If we do that we have a chance of deserving the trust of the people. 

Paul Bower, “old man Labour”,  is a former Labour councillor and co-ordinator of Red Wedge.   If his daughters had been eligible to vote in May 2010 they would have voted for the Liberal Democrats.

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9 Responses to “Could we, or should we win again? Paul Bower on his difficult relationship with Labour”

  1. SMason says:

    Really enjoyed reading this – read a terrible article from a Labour MP yesterday claiming Labour had to have something for everybody. Contrast that consumer-y inanity with the modesty, kindliness, community feel of “the Labour Party was where the decent people hung out”. I also joined the party on May 7th, but for the first time.

  2. epictrader says:

    What a great article, terrific stuff. Pointless looking back I know, but It’s difficult not to imagine what the UK and our party would have looked like today but for the death of John Smith; someone I personally was a big fan of. Incredible to think that the direction of the party and nation changed as a result.

  3. paul barker says:

    An interesting story & very sad. Can I correct you on the membership though. Both Labour & the Libdems have seen membership rise over the first half of the year, both by around 14%.
    On the War, has Labour changed, have any senior Labour figures said sorry ?

  4. vern says:

    You only decided to leave New labour once it had started dropping bombs on Iraq. Presumably, if this had not happened, you along with millions of other poor brainwashed individuals would have thought of Blair as a great leader and New Labour a roaring success.
    The biggest mistake that you need to own up to is your own naivety. Apologise to everyone you know for your 40 year “lapse”

  5. AmberStar says:

    @ Paul Bower

    Maybe New Labour did lose the plot for a while – but the other parties are much worse. Be thankful your daughters were too young to vote. Imagine if their first outing to the polls was to vote, inadvertently, for this travesty of a coalition.

    By the way, I adored all the bands you mention; the Red Wedge tour was great so thanks for that. 😎

  6. blanco says:

    How can you forgive the party for Iraq when, just a few months ago in government, it was committed to continuing the same mistakes in Afghanistan?

  7. Paul Bower says:

    Thank you all for taking time to comment on my piece. I know that I am at times inconsistent in my arguments. The piece was meant to be a personal account rather than a rigorous political analysis.

    Labour did many great things after 1997. I was a councillor at the time and I saw the immediate effect the minimum wage had on people, particularly those working in catering. An extra £10 in your pocket makes a huge difference when you are on the breadline. It is not a trivial thing. Vastly improved nursery education, school repairs, workers rights, gay rights and devolution for Wales and Scotland should be added to the list. But you started to get the feeling that Blair was merely delivering what we had already signed up under Smith and Kinnock. He could not get out of it. After 2001 you struggled to defend the Government.

    We can’t go back in time either to the 1980s or the 1990s. New Labour is now part of history and we have to move on. It is an anachronism. It is sad that some MPs are still fighting the last war but one.

    Since I re-joined other members have been very kind. Far kinder than I was to returning members of the SDP. Unlike the early 1980s Labour seems now to be able to disagree without resorting to insult and accusations of betrayal. That is a huge improvement fronm when going to ward meetings was an ordeal. It is a welcome change.

    Final reflection. We have ot oppose the Conservative vision with a smile on our face, a sense of joy and something postive to say. Or as my 13 year old daughter said.

    ” Labour’s official website is rubbsih. All they do is slag off the Tories. What is their alternative?”
    So thanks again

    Paul Bower

  8. Gillian Reynolds says:

    Hi Paul, I am writing my undergraduate dissertation on music and politics, and Red Wedge is one of my case studies. Would it be possible to interview you in regards to your experiences with Red Wedge? Thanks for your time, Cllr Gilly Reynolds

  9. Alan Bower says:

    I am a 52 year old drummer in Cornwall, but originally from Shiregreen, Sheffield.As I’m struggling to find anuything out about my family, or who I am, its a long shot but can you provide any info about your Bowers?
    Many thanks

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