Out Of The Cage

Written By: Paul Routledge
Published: April 21, 2017 Last modified: April 21, 2017

Leave personal vanity at the door of the social club in the city suburbs. This is the real gig economy.

You don’t get paid, and you can get a lot of stick but you sometimes get thanks too because they know you do it for the greater good of Thigmoo – this great movement of ours.
I mean the Labour Party gigs that you get asked to perform. Pie and peas – only the Tory party has a rubber-chicken circuit – is as good as it gets. Sometimes, it’s only popcorn in little bowls while somebody fetches a pint from the bar.

If it’s a proper dinner, you can bet it tastes like NHS hospital food, at one of the trusts in special measures. Beef in numerically-controlled slices, with gravy that came from a pipette. Cook and chill, before you get on your hind legs to schmuck and thrill.

Or at any rate, bring some fun to the faithful. Last week, it was for Selly Oak CLP in Birmingham. Last month, it was for Dame Rosie Winterton at the Trades and Labour Club in Doncaster, and who can refuse the former Chief Whip? Next up, the Haworth branch of Keighley CLP, at the request of the redoubtable Norma Hodkin.

I almost always say “Yes”, because it’s always different, always interesting and very often disconcerting. “Challenging”, as empty-brained ministers would say. But not really. Labour Party members and anyone else who turns up as just as curious about you as you are about them. It makes for a good rapport.

I’ve been to Bradford, Swansea, Manchester, Harwich, Bishop Auckland, Barnsley, Grimethorpe, Pudsey, Brighton College (a failure), Rugby (public school, a score-draw), Birmingham (twice), Blackpool, Scarborough, somewhere in Wiltshire and others that fade into a confused memory of eager, upturned faces you know you can never quite satisfy. And I don’t even want a parliamentary seat.

You get all sorts. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the lady’s brickbat at Selly Oak. “I thought you’d be more salacious,” she complained. How do you react to that?  With a nervous smile and an apology in my case.

I’ve had it harder. At a Pensioners’ Convention conference in Blackpool, my suggestion that free national rail travel might be a demand too far was greeted with a stentorian Scots rebuff from the back of the Spanish Hall: “Y’er werse than Thatcher!” The best I could muster
was: “I’ve been called worse things, but not many.”

This is the politics that the Westminster media doesn’t see. The membership in the raw. It’s both invigorating and dispiriting. In Birmingham, it was a real pleasure to meet up with old lags of the AEU National Committee, which always met in Eastbourne for two weeks in the summer and was the cushiest reporting number ever for a labour correspondent.

I well recall the Clydeside heroes Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid, both no longer with us, but I couldn’t remember their Midlands contemporaries. They soon made up for that, with anecdotes about the Left-Right battles in the town hall by the seaside. But I was dismayed by one veteran who said he’s going to quit Labour because of Jeremy Corbyn.

My pleas of “keep the faith, baby”, apart from seeming inadequate, fell on ears that, if not deaf, didn’t want to hear. They were not alone. There was a distinct undercurrent of disapproval of Our Great Leader. Except for a small group at the back. I joined them and we had a good argument.

It being only 30 March, TS Eliot’s cruellest month came two days early. I was asked, straight out, what advice, if asked, I would give Comrade Corbyn. No opportunity to equivocate. Quick intake of breath, and I answered: “Stand down, now.” There was a murmur of approval from the audience.

This is just a snapshot of real life outside Westminster, in the West Midlands. I don’t suggests it’s typical of the membership at large – though I know that at least a dozen have lapsed in my CLP of Skipton and Ripon. The haemhorrage is much greater in other parts of the country, but there’s unquestionably a sullen lack of interest and activity among some of the Jezza-joiners.
For Labour, the 4 May council polls will have a much greater impact internally that might be expected.

About Paul Routledge

Paul Routledge is a political commentator for the Daily Mirror