Because I am an old timer, I remember the elections of yore, when there were political meetings. As I write this, open on the table before me is a newspaper featuring front and rear view photographs of David Cameron in shirtsleeves passionately addressing a packed meeting – or so it would appear from the front. The rear view picture shows a vast, largely empty barn, with the hand-picked attendees herded into a small corner for the cameras. This, for all the traditional parties, is the reality for their leaders.
So it was with some surprise that I found myself yesterday evening at a proper political meeting, much as I remember them from my youth. Unlike my youth, however, I didn’t find out about it by seeing a fly poster on a wall. Nor were there a phalanx of Socialist Worker sellers to be got past outside. But it was in a utilitarian function room in a community centre, and the people within were not hand chosen just to look good in photographs, or to represent some theme on an election planning grid – you know the sort; if it’s Thursday, it’s education, so line up some cute kids and plaint teachers. Well, it definitely wasn’t one of those meetings.
The meeting was the launch of the election campaign in the constituency where I lived as a child and young person – Birmingham Northfield. I cast my first vote there, and attended my first meetings there, even before I had the vote. I know the place.
There were around 50 people there to listen to Labour MP Richard Burden and some of the local councillors. Unlike the meetings I remember, there were no Communists and Trots on hand to heckle the speakers. Also new, to me at least, was the appearence of a voter with a genuine problem who was given an opportunity to share it with us, as her elected representatives listened respectfully. Anne-Marie is a woman with a disability who lives on £78 a week, and is facing homelessness as a result of the bedroom tax. She wasn’t grandstanding; it was plainly difficult for her to share her deeply personal story with a group of strangers, but she told it clearly and well. A key election issue made flesh. That’s what election meetings ought to be for.
When Burden spoke, he was at pains to spell out the difference he felt a Labour government would make. He recalled the tenth anniversary of the devastating closure of MG Rover, the last vestige of the British Leyland of my youth. Just three days before that awful event Labour had legislated to protect the pensions of the workers who lost their jobs that day. I couldn’t help thinking of a member of my own family who lost a pension when another local privatised company collapsed as a result of management greed and incompetence. Alas, there had been a Tory government then.
After the formal speeches, I chatted to some of those present. A psychiatric nurse told me of his experiences in an underfunded area of the NHS. A care worker who lived near my old home shared her views on non-doms and Ed Miliband (she didn’t approve of the former, but liked the latter, quietly confiding that she thought Ed “more intelligent” than Cameron.) These people did look genuinely like the community in which they live, not the oddballs and geeks of popular imagination. My spirits lifted.
I also spoke with the MP. The constituency in my childhood swung regularly between Labour and Conservative. So how did he think it was going this time? He described some of the attention the Tory challenger and her well-funded party was lavishing upon the area, with gimmicky photo-ops, concentrating on the sort of trivial issues, like the cleanliness of road signs, that exercise those voters with no real problems. As a constituency on the edge of the city, there was also a UKIP presence. But Labour has members on the ground, something that money doesn’t buy. He seemed quietly optimistic.
So what did I learn, apart from taking a trip down memory lane? That if you search them out, there are still real political meetings, even if there’s no way the ordinary voter can get near the party leaders any more. That a glass of wine in a community centre is astonishingly good value. And that politics has real consequences for real people. It matters.