My daughters have just voted for the first time, in the London mayoral election. I’d been on at them to register as soon as they turned 18, then chased up registration to get polling cards for them, then nagged them on the day to make sure they’d go. No cynical teenage ignoring of an election in this house. I may even have said, “People died so you could vote.” You get the picture.
Come the day, both were quite excited. Off they went to school; then followed an afternoon of texts.
“Where’s the polling station?”
“At the primary school.”
“But I can see a sign to another one?”
“Yes there are several.”
“I’ve forgotten my polling card!”
“You don’t need it.”
“So I should take my ID, right?”
“No you don’t need any ID. Just tell them your name and address.”
“Hang on, I need my ID to buy a drink but not to vote? But I could be anyone.”
“Should I take a pen?”
“No, there’s a little pencil on a string.”
“What? I vote in pencil?”
They had me worried by now. It did all seem a bit laid-back, a bit village-hall. But by the time they got home, they felt empowered and adult. Another milestone.
The first general election I remember is 1979, when I was 16. Feeling trapped in a Conservative family in a Conservative, suburban village, my older sister and I decided we were Labour supporters, an act of rebellion that had more to do with buying punk records and straightening our jeans than actual politics. Labour v Tories felt to me like a natural extension of Punks v Squares. A girl at school wore a “Vote Labour” badge on election day and was told to take it off. Imagine being told off for knowing there was an election happening. Nowadays you’d be made head girl.
I stayed up till 1.30am watching the results trickle in, and wrote in my diary next day, “Most people at school were depressed. So – our first woman PM (pity it had to be Milk-Snatcher).” That gloom was to stay with me through several more elections.
In 1983 I was living with Ben in Hull. Our friend Simon Booth, from the very politically minded band Working Week, came to stay with us and we watched the defeat together on our tiny, portable black-and-white telly. He would cry out in dismay when someone lost their seat – big guns like Tony Benn, or MPs Ben and I had never heard of, like Joan Lestor. We would exchange glances and join in with his groans.
In 1987, despite our efforts with Red Wedge, the Tories won again, and 1992 was almost worse because of the unfamiliar presence of hope, which was dangled only to be snatched away. By the time Tony Blair triumphed in 1997, I had no idea how to respond or behave. I remember the most unaccustomed feeling of light-headedness. I hadn’t understood you could win elections. I thought of them as occasions for venting fury and impotence.
My daughters, on the other hand, have hit the target with their first shot. As the news came through that Sadiq Khan had won, they took it in their stride, taking for granted that your vote counts and that you have power. I worry that this has now set them up for a lifetime roller coaster of raised and dashed hopes, the inevitable consequence of being a Labour voter. William Hill, the bookmaker, has already suggested that the next Labour majority government is not likely to be until 2031.
They don’t know any of this, and so when they ask me what I think of Jeremy Corbyn’s chances in 2020, I look at their bright little faces, all lit up and expectant, and pause for a moment. “Honestly?” I say. “I fear he might lose horribly.”
As their faces fall, I want to say, “There, there, it will all be fine.” But instead I explain why what seems, to them, to be middle-aged defeatism and cynicism seems, to me, simple common sense.
“Oh God,” I think. “I’m one of the squares now and Corbyn is punk.”
This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster