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

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.