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6 December 2018

The night that changed my life: Alan Johnson on joining the Labour Party

Three pints with Mick from four doors down was all it took for me to sign up.

By Alan Johnson

It was a Friday night in March 1974, and I was engaged in the weekly ritual of a night out with the lads – except tonight I had only one companion, Mick from four doors down. Tony from next door and Robert from next door but one were otherwise engaged: Martin from the end house was visiting relatives.

The several young families with small children in our little corner of the Britwell Estate in Slough mixed together convivially. We all had jobs to go to, reasonable rents and cars to drive; nuclear families harvesting the fruits of the postwar settlement.

I was 23, a decade younger than Mick, who worked as what was then called an ambulanceman. I was a postman.

We were close friends, from similar backgrounds – except that Mick and his brother had been guests of Dr Barnardo, their father having been unable to cope when their mother died.

Despite our council house security we felt there was something important missing from our lives. We’d discussed politics over many a pint of Double Diamond. Both of us had become semi-active in our unions and had the News Line (the newspaper of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party) delivered to our doors by a bedraggled young schoolteacher from Kingston upon Thames, whom we’d taken pity on as he toured the pubs on Friday nights like a Jehovah’s Witness selling the Watchtower.

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Mick was even more contemptuous of these cults than I was. We understood and appreciated the Marxist analysis but couldn’t relate it to the modern world where workers had the vote, our children a decent education and where communists and Maoists were engaged in repression and enslavement across the globe.

For me, George Orwell had been a constant antidote to the Morning Star, and Mick had always thought that Denis Healey had a better understanding of working-class life than Gerry Healy
(the despot leader of the WRP).

We both admired Jimmy Reid, the engineering union official who’d led the successful work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. But Jimmy had left the Communist Party of Great Britain and applied to join the Labour Party.

Why didn’t we? We could become local councillors; contribute to our community; do more than simply talk about changing society – we could help to bring that change about. It would fill the hole in our lives.

By the time the third pint was poured we’d made a firm decision – we would join the Labour Party together. We knew we’d be moving into strange territory, that there would be rules and standing orders to contend with during long, boring meetings in draughty church halls – but we’d face all that together.

The deciding factor was that we’d always have somebody to go for a pint with afterwards.

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special