Saturday, 22 February 2014

Hillhead (part 2)

The story so far is here

And so battle commenced.

In one way it followed the usual pattern. An introductory leaflet; The then compulsory plastering of every lamp post with a "Vote Labour" Poster. The organising of a Saturday "street presence" at all of the main shopping areas equipped with handouts for all voters, lapel badges for supporters and red balloons for weans of any political persuasion. And then the beginning of the attritional work of the door to door canvass with the results being transferred, still then manually, on to the "Reading system" sheets, ready for polling day.

But we were if anything too well resourced for this project and anyway this was "old" politics, engaging with voters only in a mechanistic way. Since internally the Party of that time was awash with meetings why not take these meetings to the public! For we were not short of great speakers.

So a series of public meetings were organised where Tony Benn, Dennis Healey, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and others addressed packed halls on the iniquities of the Tories and the treachery of the SDP. That was largely all they talked about since these were just about the only two matters on which we were united. We certainly didn't agree among ourselves about the merits or otherwise of the recently demitted Labour Government, let alone why it had been defeated. Or indeed about what economic policy should be pursued by the "incoming" Labour Government we believed the Country was nonetheless crying out for. And not just economic policy. On Europe, Defence never mind what should be the internal rules of our own Party, it would be fair to say that there was far from unanimity of opinion. Even when it came to the treachery of the SDP we weren't actually agreed on what this treachery was, with the Left maintaining it was the final evidence that these people had never been  "Labour" at all, while the right felt that they had been abandoned by their former allies in the field. But, as I say, we were agreed they were treacherous and the Tories were evil and that seemed more than enough for these packed public meetings where, if questions were allowed at all, they seemed to consist of invitations to the platform to agree that something or other was particularly treacherous or particularly evil.

Meanwhile, back in the real campaign, the doorstep response was not perhaps proving all that it might have been. The main argument against Jenkins, that he would only ever pay any further attention to Glasgow if he won, did not seem in fact to be leading voters to the conclusion we wished. Indeed, if anything, quite the opposite. The fall back position, that he had abandoned the Labour Party also proceeded from the assumption that the elector agreed with the canvasser that this was a bad thing.

There was however clearly some distaste amongst the poshest of Tories at least for the politics of Piggy Malone. Unfortunately however that distaste did not extend to an alternative involving the closure of Glasgow Academy, let alone the overthrow of the entire Capitalist system.

It also, it must be conceded, didn't help when the Labour candidate, pressed for an example of a personal interest beyond his faithful participation in the rounds and rounds of Party meetings then required of any activist, revealed that he had devoted an earlier part of his life to attempting to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.

But if you were a little anxious after a night's canvassing , as it became too late to disturb the electorate in their homes, you could always catch the end of one of these public meetings and console yourself that the number of unanswered doors earlier was probably because the voters had been out attending one of these events.

And so eve of poll. I was then a very young lawyer working in the Easterhouse area in the far east end of the city but still living in Paisley. So my journey home each evening involved only a minor detour to take me to the front line. On eve of a poll, as I had done for a fortnight, I headed straight from work to the main Labour Committee Rooms just off Dumbarton Road. To discover there was nothing to be done. Such were our resources that every last minute leaflet or knock up card was already in the process of being delivered. Every Mikardo sheet already filled in and pasted on to its table, Every polling station standing board already waiting by the door of the rooms to be put in place just before 7am.

"There must be something I can do" I protested. "Why don't you go to the eve of poll rally and swell the numbers" was the suggestion. And so I did,

Although, as it turned, out when I got to the Partick burgh Halls, the numbers didn't really need swelled. For the hall was, literally, full. So much so that an overflow event to be addressed by Brian Wilson had been set up in a building next door.

But I didn't want to attend any overflow event so I called in a favour to be found a standing place at the back of the balcony. The event was chaired by Alex Kitson, the great Labour and TGWU stalwart, and the main speaker to be Michael Foot himself. The hall was buzzing before a word was spoken and then things got better still. For in opening the meeting Comrade Kitson announced that he was privy to an opinion poll to appear in the following days Daily Telegraph. And that this poll predicted that Labour was on course to win the Hillhead by-election! At this the hall exploded. If the Red Flag was not sung spontaneously it might as well have been. It took about ten minutes for order to be restored. And then, without a single note, Foot spoke.

He spoke in that familiar, halting, manner of his. So outraged by injustice that he seemed sometimes to be struggling for breath. Excoriating the Tories and all their works, not just over the previous two years but for all of history, and then conjuring up the ghosts of Bevan, of the Red Clydesiders, of Keir Hardie himself to damn Jenkins and his followers for having abandoned the cause which remained truly the only hope of the World. Tomorrow we would show them what the people of Britain thought of them! What the people of Scotland thought of them! But, above all what the voters of Glasgow Hillhead thought of them! It was brilliant. I was crying. I don't mind admitting it, And I wasn't alone.

The evening, it must be admitted did not end quite so brilliantly when our local champion delivered a pre-written text, clearly written in anticipation of a different sort of audience and including within it an appeal for anyone to ask him in question they wished. There were none. For the only question anybody in that audience wanted the answer to was why couldn't the polling stations be opened immediately.

And polling day was brilliant as well, I was doing knock ups and as you went about the constituency it seemed every second person you met was a Labour activist. By about Eight  O'Clock every single sheet: First knock up, second knock up, third knock up, fourth knock up on every single Reading Sheet had gone and we were reduced to knocking doors in known Labour areas where we had no actual canvass return but proceeded on the balance of probabilities.

At close of poll everybody piled into the committee rooms in numbers modern health and safety would never allow. Amidst the crush their was a cry for our general, Jimmy Allison, and he was lifted up to stand on a table. After the cheering died down he spoke.

He said all the usual things. Thanks to his fellow full time organisers (cheers). Thanks to the local Party volunteers involved in directing the campaign (cheers). Above all, thanks to all the activists from all over Scotland (more cheers), even Edinburgh (a few good natured boos), who had fought such a magnificent campaign. And then he said this. He knew many of us now intended to go and wait in the open air outside the count for the result as we had at Garscadden and Hamilton and Berwick. He would recommend against that. For we weren't going to win. Jenkins was going to win. We weren't even going to beat Piggy Malone for second place. Jimmy himself was going home to his bed and he suggested that we do likewise.

And with that he climbed down from the table.

We didn't take Jimmy's advice. We went to the count. But as the night wore on it was clear Jimmy had been right.

Why that was and what modern parallels and lessons might be drawn from it will be the subject of my third and final chapter.

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