There has only been one moment in a month of hustings when I thought that the audience might storm the stage, or break into a fight, and it wasn’t in Glasgow, or in the North. It was in the large, modern auditorium of Croydon High School, England, when, before an audience of 300 or so stockbroker-belt folk, Jon Bigger, the black-clad candidate for Class War, stood up, sucked air through his teeth and said “Well, given the happy event coming up as far as the royal family goes, I think a compulsory sterilisation program would be in order,” and you could feel all the air leave the room.
The ultra-modern auditorium seemed to wobble a little, and I thought it might suddenly implode. Over to the left-hand side, Class War’s small base of gothish, punkish, middle-aged reprobates were applauding and feet-stamping. Everyone else was watching them, teeth clenched, fists bared. Class War had heckled and jeered their way through the proceedings, with the chair speaking to them ever more sternly from the lectern. The audience had taken it all in the British spirit, though with less-than-good grace: Bigger’s opening remarks, non-abusive, had been met with none of the applause extended to anyone else, even the Green, a huge shaggy man-beast in a borrowed suit.
But that was mere matters of politics. Now this bounder had verbally assaulted the body of the sovereign — indeed, the material body of sovereignty, the UK’s literal DNA. On the podium everyone else had gone ashen, especially those leftish with some mildly similar things to say about the NHS, education, etc. Only the Tory appeared to be enjoying the proceedings, seeing enough of it stick to Labour to help a little.
When Class War continued stamping and whistling into the next speaker — “how many houses!?” to the Tory, a buy-to-rent enthusiast, a simple “racist” to the UKIP lady — the beaky-nosed headmaster turned his eye on them. “We heard you in silence,” he said, and couldn’t help himself adding “whatever you had to say. Now extend the speakers the same courtesy.” They calmed down a little. The UKIP lady, a small woman in her 60s, and a flaming red-and-black dress, cleared her throat and began again: “I–”
“Raaaa-cist!” Class War yelled.
Class War in Croydon South. You couldn’t make it up, as the papers who hate people like them say. The venerable class-struggle group, formed in the depths of the ’80s, as Thatcher gained a second term, and the Trot-left disappeared into political vodka cheesecake fantasies — ”world socialism in five, 10 years at the most,” leaders of the major UK Trotskyist group Militant said — Class War had sparked a hundred campaigns, small and big, and prepared the way for the aggressive resistance of the anti-poll tax movements. Now after many diversions and regroupings, the original core had reformed to contest nine seats, some of the choices based simply around where members lived now.
Thus were we at Croydon High, a fee-paying school, nestled amidst an outer-outer London circle of large pseudo-Tudor and Swiss Cottage houses; Ruislip, but larger, stand-alone piles. Croydon proper is a fraught line-end burb, a focus of the 2011 riots, being turned into a satellite city by the mass demolition of anything in it people could have felt nostalgic for, replaced by glass and metal towers not high enough to be striking. But the outer-inner city peels away quickly, I noticed in a black cab, which kindly and without request took us the scenic route (m’colleague Charles Richardson was along for the ride). The houses got very big, very quickly. A sign flashed past “Selsdon”. The Class War hustings in Selsdon. You couldn’t make i- … well, we’d used that.
Croydon South, home of Homo Selsdonus, Selsdon Man.
Selsdon Man? He was an early attempt at aspirational politics, or a record of its earlier failure. In 1973, angered that Ted Heath had turned the Tory government to the centre, a group of Tory free-marketeers met locally to come up with the first post-Keynesian free-market proposal. The politics that would dominate the next 30 years from ’79 on were defeated at the time by Harold Wilson dubbing them the ideal of “Selsdon man”, held to be selfish, greedy, outside of British collective life.
Thirty-five years later, Tony Blair would advance the idea of new type of Labour subject, a striving upwardly mobile family, whose identity was shaped not around their house, but their nifty, smooth family car. Selsdon Man had given way to [Ford] Mondeo man. It was greeted with some derision, as another Blairite gimmick, but the principle that underlay it was held to be unremarkable. Which was remarkable, the journey from a collectivist culture to one of such individualism that individualism could not even be seen for what it was. That was one reason why things were so tough for those in Labour who wanted a more vigorous politics to achieve one: people, even many of the poor, simply did not think anymore in the collectivist terms that would allow them to act en masse (and one reason why nationalism was succeeding so well — because it’s a collectivism of symbols, of the imaginary).
This couldn’t be illustrated better that by the Labour candidate for the seat, one Emily Benn. Yes, that Benn. The granddaughter of Tony, onetime aristocrat, who gave it up to sit in the Commons, and moved leftwards throughout his career (last seen, by me anyway, sitting between Jemima Khan and Bianca Jagger in the visitor’s gallery of Woolwich crown court, at one of Julian Assange’s extradition hearings, snoozing and waking for the best moments) had inadvertently started a Commons political dynasty: his son Hilary, currently a Labour MP and former international development secretary, and now Hilary’s niece Emily, here.
This was not her first play for a seat, having stuck her hand up and got the unwinnable East Worthing, at the absurdly early age of 21. Now she had been preselected again the age, and I had wanted to come along and see Labour at its most absurd, a caste the purpose of whose existence appeared to be to dispirit anyone who had ever thought Labour might be a focus for talent without privilege.
Class War v the Benn dynasty in Selsdon. What could be better? I thought as we were ushered through the vestibule down corridors by a phalanx of adult schoolgirls, the year 12 equivalent class it was later revealed, having been pressed into service to run the show as some sort of civics exercise, which is reasonable enough, but at the time it seemed clear to me that there was only one possible explanation: I had been hit by a car crossing the road to the hustings and was now in a coma in an ICU having an Ashes -to-Ashes moment, convening a fantasy hustings in my head. Jesus, I mean Class War in a girls’ school in Croydon? Come on. I’d even supplied myself with Charles Richardson, the way old friends suddenly appear in dreams, so we could talk major pseph during the boring bits (“Surely a four-party contest like Bristol West requires a modified poisson distribution …”) like before a bunch of ’80s anarchists walked in to reserved seats, ushered by girls in tartan skirts. It was like Tarantino was remaking O Lucky Man! in my head. “Vodka cheesecake!” I yelled to myself, which always seems to work in dreams — if one suddenly appears floating before you, it’s a coma. Otherwise, it’s real.
No vodka cheesecake, but the feeling of unreality did not lift. Emily Benn proved to be impossibly posh, in pearls and fine silks — but courtesy of an Indian grandmother, golden-brown, like a subcontinental friend of Virginia Woolf’s. “Labour is a party of values, and one of its values is delivering real improvements to people’s lives.” She was great in her opening statement, wiped the floor with everyone, articulating a Labour vision, and promptly fell apart in the questions, even the pretty easy ones being lobbed at her: “well, gosh, we … no one would want us to run up the deficits we did and to square spending with, errr …”
The content dropped out, the vowels squeezed wider. Class War had heckled her from the off — “Toff! You’re a toff” — but even they’d gone quiet, as it started to look mean. Bizarrely, the entire hustings was arranged left to right in degrees of skill. Class War, Tory — a smug young man who had “started a business with one van!” he had said (“yeah for three months until his uncle gave him a whole franchise,” Class War said later), the Green, a former IT public servant whose cogent good sense got regular rounds of applause, and then the fall-away: Benn, a Lib-Dem of the new breed of candidate, i.e. absolutely anyone who sticks their hand up to be hated, an idiot for “Put Croydon First” who couldn’t even put nuisance value to good use, and finally the UKIP woman, who had chosen tonight of all nights to dress in the colours of communist anarchism, red and black.
The seat is, of course, a Tory stronghold, their candidate slipping into the place vacated by a Tory grandee who managed, as a South London MP, to pay off a house nine miles further south of his constituency, on his expenses. Philp can look forward to decades in the House while building his businesses, fattening out, getting a country pile, joining a hunt, etc. So he almost relishes the Class War challenge:
“‘ow many ‘ouses have you got?”
“None of your business my friend, that’s the private enterprise system!”
Without them, he would have been going up against the Green de facto. There were few local issues here, none of the “my mother lay in her own piss for nine days, what are you going to do about the orthopaedic emergency unit?” Everyone goes private health. It was all economy, economy, economy, and propriety, propriety, propriety, here — the health of capital was a local issue. Here, more than anywhere, people believed in the idea that a national economy is like a household economy, and the path to prosperity lies through unending thrift, exercised in other people’s lives. Emily Benn might have given the contrary point here — but as she worked for an investment bank, she seemed rather inclined to a rather similar view.
It was a curious double-play. Hustings in safe seats are unreal in any case, democracy panto, pretending that a difference could be made in a single-member electorate. Their politeness and courtesy arise from their ineffectuality, and the closer you get to a marginal — especially a real existential wrench like Glasgow NW, between Labour and SDP — the rawer they can become, though it is often a turf war rather than a genuine political struggle.
Class War’s appearance as a raucous, chaotic, often funny encounter — “we want to hear the candidates,” one woman said to them, “then shut up,” they replied to her, which got a guilty laugh — had the appearance of panto, but it was the only real encounter on offer. The crowd there knew it, which was why they refused CW applause from the start, but they could do nothing about it. To exclude was to acknowledge a division; to include was to bring a rejection of the common ground of the other candidates into question. One suspects that was part of the reason why the Green candidate got such effusive applause — he was the acceptable communist wrecker.
Emily Benn got more than respect, gaining the faintest touch of deference — she is the daughter of a viscount, after all, her father having retaken the title that Tony Benn had abdicated. Like DNA, the individual iteration can be killed, but the damn thing won’t die. The whole thing ended with a nice twist by Class War’s Bigger, who used his summing-up time to stage a minute’s silence for those killed in the workplace (it being the international day of that). What could the buggers do then? They had all but jeered when he had spoken of the suicides and deaths under the new “fit to work” system applied to the disabled, but if they spoke through this … well they were just as bad as Class War! It was a small victory for the unrepresented, manifested there in silence, a move that took poise, and the particular type of courage required to teeter on the edge of ridicule, harder in some ways, than getting biffed.
There were tea and cakes afterwards, of course, brought by the hostesses. Vodka ch– well, that’s not going to work, is it? CW didn’t stay for that, thank God, they went to the pub, O Lucky Men. I tried to find the courage of the ridiculous to ask Emily Benn about her background etc, and half got it. She was immediately defensive, in a way that hadn’t improved with practice — “look he was just my grandad, OK, I loved him but it’s not a huge thing politically,” she said of a towering figure of the English postwar left. But that was true, too. She was born in 1989, still a teen when he retired, at a school up the road. She was running in an unwinnable seat where someone had to, she had her own agenda, which was that of Labour as a largely technocratic party, drifting right of Red Ed, back into Blairism.
“I do get sick of these questions,” which was fair enough, except it was said “yah, now eye do get sekov deezkesdions” and I didn’t ask what I should have, which was whether it was simply better for some people to stay out of politics as a positive anti-dynastic act. But there was a dream-like quality to the whole campaign by now, with the increasingly bizarre pretense that someone might get a majority, and thousands of hours of reality cued to that agreed-upon fantasy. Croydon South was simply joining the wider movement.
Round the corner, on the Selsdon road, we found Class War in the lounge bar of the Sir Julian Huxley, a pub of the chain named J D Wetherspoon, a name invented by the large drinks corp that owns it, to give a Victorian modern feel. Vodka cheesecake. They had set up like some court of wanderers, the renegade mediaeval monks and nuns of the Carmina Burana, in their ragtag finery.
Ian Bone, the most prominent co-founder, in his late 60s, sparky in a punked-up striped cricket blazer and three-day growth — “you’re Ian Bone, are you?” to general groans — reasonably happy with the state of play of resistance. “There’s no big things because there’s a hundred small things. Occupy’s become the student occupations, the squatting movement’s restarted …” True, but whether it’s enough is another question. The anger at coalition cuts spawned militant occupying movements like UK Uncut — but they rose and fell, never passed onto the next level of confrontation. I wondered if he was being mellow in later middle years, or whether I was guilty of false nostalgia. It hadn’t taken much to bring the hustings to a pitch, to make an unmoored and perfunctory process something suddenly at stake. Facts, however small, are better than dreams, the moments when the possibility of implosion is resummoned. At the bar of the Huxley near Selsdon, Charles was talking to Class War about Nozick. Vodka cheesecake.