No fun, please, I'm new Labour

An invite to No 10 may be the sexiest ticket in town, but elsewhere there's nothing remotely social

"Get up offa that thing . . . just dance and you'll feel better . . ." The irresistible sound of James Brown filled the hall. Obediently, I got up offa that thing - a standard issue municipal hall plastic chair - and started to shimmy self-consciously from foot to foot. I was firmly in the minority. Everyone else remained seated, or huddled around the ageing sausage rolls on the trestle table at the back. Finally, a short woman with a frizzy perm and glasses got up and headed purposefully towards the console. Hurrah, I thought, still performing my solitary shuffle. A Fonteyn to my Nureyev at last. But the woman did not stop. Face set, invitation in hand, she swept grimly past me across the parquet towards where the DJ stood morosely viewing the empty wastes of the dancefloor.

"It said on this," she yelled, stabbing the piece of paper belligerently with her forefinger, "that we were having a disco."

"This is a disco. It's James Brown."

"Well, I've never heard it before," the woman screeched as "Sex Machine" took its turn on the tables. "It's weird. It's crap. How is anyone supposed to dance to this?"

"Look, I'm doing this for free you know," snapped the DJ, as the Godfather of Soul's most successful single throbbed across the deserted floor, "I'm a local member."

"So am I. And I paid £3.50 for this ticket. I'm bloody well going to get my money back."

Welcome to the dysfunctional world of the Labour Party. And I'm not talking internecine cabinet strife here. Merely the grass-roots gathering no constituency is complete without, arranged for the purpose of raising funds and forging links between members. While the former is achieved to a certain extent, the latter almost invariably is not. Far from being one big happy, socialist family, eagerly discussing Tony's latest triumphs over the Pringles and chilled Chardonnay, local members are far more likely to press their backs against the wall, grasp their plastic pint glasses and stare at each other in horror. In my 12 years as a local Labour activist, I have discovered nothing remotely social about being a socialist.

Many are the pre-Christmas evenings I have spent stirring Safeway's mulled wine mix into catering pans of gently steaming Bulgarian Merlot and wondering who exactly is going to turn up to drink it. A few doors away, the balloons, and the notice announcing that yes, this depressing and deserted basement bar is the venue for the annual branch Christmas party, flap despondently in the draught from the corridor. Within, if the branch pre-publicity has had a truly electric effect, an uncomfortable handful might be lurking at opposite ends of the room from each other. And remain there the entire evening, unless some Kofi Annan-style deal can be brokered to bring them together. The highest point of any Labour Party party I ever attended was when one of the local councillors devised a quiz requiring participants to guess the identity of various chocolate bars which had had their wrappers removed. It is odd to think Brave New Labour is at least partially funded by a group of grass-roots activists trying to tell a Maverick from a Boaster (how like Westminster-watching in general), but indisputably it is. And the lowest point is always the same - more than a decade after thinking you've packed away your last student disco, here you are again humping heavy amps and turntables out of halls into the backs of vans.

This dire state of the parties would be understandable were we still in Labour's wilderness years. And it would be churlish not to acknowledge the role such events have always played in keeping the party's campaigning heart beating.

But now Labour is the glamorous, go-ahead government, and an invitation to No 10 the sexiest ticket in town, it seems odd that the grass-roots gatherings should remain so definitely in the beer-and-beards age. No influx of socialist celebrities has lightened the darkness of rank-and-file fund-raisers - admittedly the local MP, a cabinet minister, came to the Christmas party, but he, like everyone else, had to endure the slow torture of the heavily allegorical and utterly inaudible political panto which passed for entertainment. A more succinct way of illustrating the vast and unbridgeable gap between the glittering heights of government and the local activists who did so much to put them there is impossible to imagine.

On the other hand, as the minister probably realised, partying with Labour rank-and-filedom is useful in the war against that most dangerous of all political enemies - hubris. A year ago I landed a welcome offer for my first novel, as well as some invaluable coverage in the papers. The only obstacle between me and insufferable smugness was that the day after the book deal was signed happened to be a day I had promised to help hand out Labour leaflets about the London referendum. While my friends imagined me to be in bed drinking Krug, I stood in the freezing wind of the most brutal of brutalist shopping centres as passer-by after passer-by either ignored or abused me, and the rain lashed down relentlessly.

Similarly, during the actual writing of the book during the spring of 1997, I regularly left my keyboard to go last-minute general election canvassing. There are few more surreal experiences in life than writing a book about upmarket folk while canvassing for Labour in some of north London's wilder enclaves.

One comfort for diehard Labour partygoers is that the Conservatives, once bash-meisters par excellence, have seriously lost form of late. Gone are the days when pictures of wild-eyed Young Tories hysterical with lust and Liebfraumilch, accompanied by True Blue babes with their breasts bursting out of their ballgowns, were plastered all over the papers, and the green-eyed monster of jealousy clutched the heart of every would-be Labour raver. The Lib Dems, of course, never had much of a party profile anyway, and there is little competition, knees-up-wise, from the fringes of the extreme left.

I know this because I once attended some Marxist nuptials where the only outward sign of festivity was wedding cake cooked in a school-pudding aluminium tin. All slices had to be paid for to raise money for party funds. But even this depressing experience pales into insignificance besides that of an SWP member acquaintance who, attending a party in another member's house, found himself waiting an inordinately long time outside a relentlessly occupied upstairs loo.

Eventually, someone else came up and joined the queue. "Who's in there?" asked the newcomer.

"No idea," my friend replied flippantly. "An alien, probably." Events then moved very quickly. The loo door burst open to reveal a very angry black man and an ugly scene followed with the result that my friend was dragged before the SWP council to explain his racist behaviour. He's long since left the SWP and I've now persuaded him to join new Labour. Well, I told him, at least the parties are better.

Wendy Holden's first novel, "Simply Divine", is published by Headline, £10

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.