My next birthday will be an eerie one for me because I will turn 43: the age my mother was when she died of cancer in 1990. Have I mentioned before that my mother died when I was 17? I have? What, repeatedly? Change the what? Change the record!? Oh, OK. Anyway, that happened and it was quite a big deal. I mention this not because I’m having some sort of midlife crisis (of course I am: it’s an ongoing project and you’re reading part of it now) but because I tend to think of her during elections. She was a bit of a lefty, you see, and by the time I was 17, I was sure that I was, too. Certainly she was an influence but probably no more than Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jesus Christ or Ben Elton. It wasn’t that Mum and I were particularly big fans of Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock; it was rather more negative than that. What we had in common was a steady loathing of the Conservative Party.
Now, I’m not one of those guys who think that all Conservatives are evil. This is a solipsism from which I was saved by the reality that nearly everyone else in our family was, in essence, a) a decent, loving person and b) a Tory. A father, a stepfather, four grandparents and a beloved great-aunt – all dead, all Conservative voters. But it’s worth making a distinction between the voter and the thing that they’re voting for. Life is long but too short to hate people. Still, it’s entirely legitimate to hate a set of ideas.
And a tone of voice. Every day, I walk past the newspaper stand of the local shop and see the headlines blurting from the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the rest of them: how business “leaders” are scared of Labour, how Ed Miliband is a threat to literally everything that was ever dear and good, how Nicola Sturgeon is personally about to tie him to a chair and beat him around the head with a concrete (if it’s the Mail, inevitably) haggis until he calls the Kremlin and invites Putin to come over and strangle the Queen, and so on. And I think, wow, these guys aren’t kidding around. The right-wing establishment – the Tories, their self-interested newspapers, their self-deceiving friends in the City, their self-serving business supporters signing their bullshit letters – are throwing everything at this. Not just the kitchen sink but the plumbing, the sewers and the attendant rats. They can’t bear it. They can’t bear to be challenged. In the fathomless depths of its arrogance, they just can’t cope with the thought that anyone else could be allowed to run the show.
That voice – dismissive, patronising, male. The only debate worth having is about money; the only people who should be talking about money are a) economists or b) any Tory. Even female Tories, if necessary, because: “Women should be encouraged.” We won’t have women-only selection shortlists, obviously, because, y’know, they work. But they should be encouraged. “Margaret Thatcher didn’t need women-only shortlists,” comes the gloating retort. No, she didn’t. She also didn’t need more than five hours’ sleep each night. She was also, in her aggression, her insistence on confrontation over dialogue, her vulnerability to cliché, her suspicion of nuance, her contempt for other women, her self-romanticising, big-screen picture of her own risk-taking narrative, an uncanny mimic of traditional, unreflecting masculinity. All boys are expected to grow up to be some kind of male impersonator. But some girls actually choose to. She was better at it than half of the men in her cabinet and made Alan Clark look like a feminist.
When the Conservatives elect as their leader an actual human being, someone as clever and approachable as Ruth Davidson, for instance, I’ll be impressed. It will never, ever happen.
And we seem to have acquiesced to the notion that the economy is somehow “their” territory. Why? They screw up the economy every time they get anywhere near it. We are supposed to believe that the global financial crisis happened because Gordon Brown made museum admissions free. In an election dominated by the topic of debt and austerity, we’re supposed to have “moved on” from the debate about where the debt came from. I’m so sorry, I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist. The banks – under-regulated by Labour and the Conservatives alike – lent money to people who couldn’t afford to pay it back. This was done by financiers who had lost touch with any notion that the laws of reality, never mind fraud, had anything to do with them.
Banks started to go bust. The government had to bail them out with taxpayers’ money to prevent the country from turning into one big edition of Swap Shop. How this sequence of events has turned into “cleaning up Labour’s mess” is one of the great intellectual magic tricks of our time. The economy was on the mend in 2010; the recovery was artificially delayed by unnecessary, ideologically driven spending cuts. Blaming Labour for the global financial crisis makes as much sense as blaming Ramsay MacDonald for the Wall Street Crash. Not that this stopped John “Black Wednesday” Major when he made precisely that claim. Absurd. I write this in the full knowledge that I will be told to “stick to acting” because talking about money is a man’s game and as a “Labour luvvie” I don’t qualify.
Well, up yours, darling. Imagine a country run by people who spent their whole childhood “in care”. That’s what we’ve got. Large sections of the Tory party, the judiciary and the media and many of the bankers who crashed the economy went to private boarding schools where emotional self-sabotage was the only way to “be a man”. “You’re very lucky to be here,” they are told, “and you don’t show your gratitude by crying for Mummy.” So they don’t really “do” empathy. They can’t afford it. That’s why David Cameron talks about parental leave like a policeman trying to judge a flower show. It’s why Boris Johnson drops Latin tags into conversation and this is seen by his peers as a mark of intellectual flair, rather than the needy posturing of a child. Guys, by all means have another term in office, on condition you see a psychiatrist twice a week for a year. I honestly think they’d rather lose.
In the case of Scotland, I have retired from a brief but thrilling career in suggesting to Scottish voters what they might want to do. They tend to have a couple of suggestions for me in return and that’s all well and good. I like the leader of the SNP as much as I dislike her predecessor. What I would say is this: the people of Scotland voted last September by a small but clear majority to carry on sending MPs to Westminster. It is not for the coalition or their wretched newspapers to question the “legitimacy” of the MPs whom those voters wish to send.
I happen to think that the interests of social justice in Scotland would be best served by a Labour government and within the redistributive framework of the UK but I don’t live in Scotland and I’ll leave it with people who do.
As for Nick Clegg, he has spent five years blaming Gordon Brown for everything when surely the person he kept meaning to blame was himself. The odd intervention here and there doesn’t justify the way he and his party propped up a right-wing government and waved through all of the Tories’ most counterproductive policies while he occasionally rolled his eyes at David Cameron and whined: “You’re terrible, Muriel!” Clegg and Danny Alexander have been falling over each other to collude in the Tory lie that “We’re all in this together” because of Labour spending. What spending would that be? Oh, spending on things such as the NHS and introducing waiting-time targets so that, I dunno, say, a 43-year-old woman with cancer doesn’t have to wait months for a mastectomy that comes too late to save her. That kind of spending.
In 1990, my mother was at the mercy of an NHS after a decade of underinvestment (which had several more years to go). Schools and hospitals had buckets under the ceiling to catch the rain. You do remember, don’t you? The patients on trolleys in corridors and the lessons in Portakabins, the closing libraries, the riots, the homeless people sleeping rough? The hysterical rows in the Tory party about Europe, the press denigrating the Labour leader, the insistence that the poor protect the wealthy? You remember, right? What it used to be like when the Conservatives were in charge? We need only look out of the window: they’re back and they’ve been very busy. You can protest against them but under our knackered system, only Labour can kick them out.
I didn’t have the money to help my mum when I was 17 but I have a bit now. Come on, Ed: tax me. Tax me till I fart. Build those million new homes, freeze the rents of young people, reopen the libraries and the Sure Start centres, bring in the living wage, cut tuition fees, send another arena full of furious, heartbroken, working-class teenagers to university and stand well back. Reinvest in our health service, collar the corporate tax evaders, dismiss the non-doms, scrap the bedroom tax, let teachers teach, ignore Rupert Murdoch because you owe him nothing and restore some sense of purpose and decency to our public life.
I don’t need the Labour Party to have the kind of leader you’d want to put on a T-shirt and God knows they continue to oblige me. Ed Miliband’s favourite track is probably “Persuading in the Name Of” by Reform Against the Machine. It’s not my rage he needs, it’s my vote. He can’t do any of the above unless he’s prime minister. I know what to do about that. What will you do?