When I voted in 1997 it felt like a great civic duty. It felt like somebody had to do something to finally get rid of the apparently invincible Tory governments that stretched back almost as long as I’d been alive. To my righteously indignant teenaged brain the Tories winning in 1992 was a terrible wrong, one that my generation was set to help rectify, because those before us had dropped the ball.
Looking back, it’s easy to see how Blair was such a winning candidate. He didn’t stand for anything specific other than not being a Tory, but that was enough for me. When he was bringing in tuition fees just as I started university he wasn’t a Tory. When he was waving his arse at millions of anti-war demonstrators before enthusiastically planning and waging a war of aggression he still wasn’t a Tory. When he was there beside Bush, wearing that sinister hammerhead grin of his as Britain colluded in torture, he still wasn’t a Tory.
I could always look at Blair and tell myself that sure, he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on him for his role in the Iraq invasion, but it wasn’t like the Tories wouldn’t have done the same. That became the rationalisation for his worst excesses, that the Tories would have done it too. What Blair did bring was mitigating factors. The minimum wage, the increased public spending, reducing poverty, they took the edge off. For all that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did wrong the last five years of coalition rule have reminded us that, no, they were not Tories.
But we get to 2015 and things feel a lot different. When Rachel Reeves pops up to tell us that Labour will be “tougher than the Tories” a on benefits and when Tristram Hunt proclaims that Labour are “aggressively pro-business” it makes me wonder just who these people are and why are they even in the Labour Party to start with. Who joins the Labour Party so they can be tough on benefits claimants? Who joins the Labour Party for the sake of business interests? I could understand it if these kinds of ideas were held by people who had sneaked into the party and were sitting quietly at the back waiting their time, every party has its oddities, but to have them front and centre with an election coming up? In a country crying out for change it is alarming to see the traditional major parties all trying to look as alike as possible.
Increasingly I feel like a man without a country when it comes to British politics. The rhetoric of the Labour Party doesn’t comfort me in the slightest. I like Ed Miliband, I like that he opposed bombing Syria and I like that he stood up to the Daily Mail over their attacks on his father’s memory. That’s two things already that Tony Blair would never have done, but I still don’t get a sense that he is here to change anything.
We’ve seen the Tories at work in these last five years, dismantling and selling off anything of value within the British public sector like a well-connected crew of thieves. There’s no talk from Miliband about getting anything back. Not the trains, not the energy companies, not the Royal Mail. It feels like there is no opposing force to the Tory party, no major party intent on reversing what they have done. Instead we are presented with the option of having the Tories in power to asset strip the country, or have Labour in power to enter a holding pattern.
I feel no tribal connection to Labour and increasingly I don’t see myself wanting one. I have always loathed the self-congratulatory plundering of the Tory party but as time passes I see less that appeals to me in Labour. When I look at Labour MPs in the House of Commons I get the unerring sense that they have more in common with their Honourable Friends across the room than they have with me. Maybe this was always the case, but at least Tony Blair’s mob made an effort to hide it for the first couple of elections at least.
So why do I keep holding my nose and voting for them in general elections? Fear, I guess. A holding pattern is better than a crash. It’s all well and good to talk about breaking the dichotomy when you’re insulated from the consequences of Tory rule but when you’re hanging precariously above a safety net that could be hauled out from underneath you the perspective changes. I don’t even know that Labour would keep the safety nets, but they’re a better shot than the other lot, so they get my vote. It’s not decision I make with any particular pride.
If this was the only future for Britain, Tory asset-stripping interspersed by patches of torpor under Labour, I wouldn’t have much room for optimism. But I have faith in democracy yet. I think that the Westminster parties have done such a spectacular job of alienating Scotland in recent years that there will have to be consequences and I think we’ll see them in this election. Other parties might do well too, but it’s hard to argue with the influence that forty or so seats in the hands of a party outside of the traditional Westminster coterie will have.
So as I prepare to hold my nose and vote Labour once again I can do it for the first time in a long time with hope that something will change.
- Now read Robert Webb on how Ed Miliband wants to look normal, and whether you can imagine him eating a pear