As we approach the final furlong of another make-or-break General Election campaign, and once again both major parties are desperately reaching out to the working classes to help them cling to power, my mind turns back to the fateful election of 1997.
Although in many ways politically dissimilar to the current race for Number 10, there are irrefutable echoes: back then, incumbent Tory PM John Major, desperate to retain power, had a broken-record mantra of “Britain’s booming, don’t let Labour ruin it”. Sound familiar? The Tories had also bought off the working classes with bribes of right to buy council houses and cheap shares. Again – smell the coffee?
And now we even have Newzoids for then’s Spitting Image to remind us, when all’s said and done, that we’re only ever voting for a bunch of muppets.
Just last week, on the day of the Labour manifesto launch, I probed Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls live on Sky News, telling him the tale of my father, a lifelong Nottingham coal miner and, until recently, Labour voter who, along with the rest of my family and all their friends, have switched to UKIP, as many in the working classes feel abandoned by an aloof Labour party that is increasingly out of touch with the commoner.
I said to Balls: “Why do so many of the working classes feel abandoned by your party? I’m a working class lad who’s done well, and now I’ve done well you want to hammer me with more tax. Lots of people like me are being lost. Where my parents live, lots of people are switching over to UKIP. We see the Labour party as not representing the working man any more. What are you going to do for the working classes?”
What I got was a parrot-like rendition about the mansion tax and zero-hours contracts before adding UKIP’s decision to leave the EU is “stupid for working people”. Finally Balls classically deflected by claiming it was George Osborne, not Labour, who is “totally out of touch with working people’s lives”.
I concluded to Balls: “this feels like the final drink in the saloon. I’ve fallen out of love with Labour. People are going to UKIP, Mr Balls, because they’ve got the balls to talk about immigration, which is what people really care about”.
So I find myself at a political crossroads I never saw coming. I’m a life-long Labour voter who can’t vote for this Labour party. The son of a coal miner who’d seen my dad thrown on the scrapheap by Thatcher’s pit closures Blitzkrieg – and an eager participant in the Poll Tax Riots – I, too, was “Labour ’til I die” – or so I thought.
Yet the uncomfortable truth is neither of the two main parties seems to care about ordinary working people any more. Historically, we’ve only been needed to fight their wars or keep them in power. The rest of the time, we man the furnace in the country’s engine room, yet never get invited to the captain’s table.
Yet, for one day only, on this week in 1997, out of sheer desperation for votes the usual Upstairs, Downstairs of British politics was forgotten, when Tory party top brass unscrewed the cat flap and let the plebs into Number 10 – and I was one of them.
Back then, it was a simpler world of two-party Lab/Con politics (Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown was respected, but never in with a sniff). It was red rosettes, the North and the poor versus blue ribands, the South and “toffs”.
But the winds of change – and, more to the point, Tony Blair’s rictus grin – were giving the Tories sleepless nights. Labour had endured 18 years in the political wilderness after Maggie Thatcher ripped their heart out. But their long-awaited comeback was in full swing. Haunted by sleaze, the Tories had been savagely deserted by The Sun newspaper, and in their desperation for public influence on the common people, they turned, of all places, to the magazine I worked on in my first job in the media: Bella, a real-life and recipes weekly aimed at hard-working mums, housewives and their daughters.
While the title was often dismissed as unfashionable, our readers were not insignificant: we sold 500,000 magazines every week to people, Tory HQ decided, who might help tip the balance in their favour.
So they invited five Bella readers, the Editor and myself to meet the PM and some high-ranking ministers for a question and answer session, hoping the resulting feature article might buy them some votes.
First, we had a tour of the House of Commons, where its architecture of belittlement reduced our mumsy readers, as designed, to forelock tugging serfs.
Next, a Q&A Home Secretary Michael Howard, who gave me a withering, Headmasterly look when I plucked up the courage to ask him how he felt about the Tories destroying the coal mines. His reply – that the pits were “out of touch, unprofitable and, ultimately unsustainable” – might have been true, but it made me want to physically attack him.
At Downing Street itself, stepping through that infamous black door, the interior of Number 10 was disappointingly modest; decorated no more opulently than a recently-refitted Harvester in hues of biscuit and maroon with chintzy chandeliers and drab, nicotine-hued, forgettable oil paintings.
The mood in the Cabinet Room, while not quite “last days of the Third Reich” was tense: this was certainly the last vestiges of Tory power in our land. A be-tweeded Ken Clarke was in an affable, pleasantly boisterous, post-lunch mood (I’d spied him in the Commons bar earlier).
We were to talk to Major on the lawn out back, a delightful, secret, walled garden with climbing roses and a forlorn-looking, oversized chess set; a sun-bleached arboreal addendum that looked morosely untouched, except perhaps by the cleaning staff.
John’s pleasant wife, Norma, made us tea in her best china and as we took it on that sun-drenched lawn, for a moment, it was possible to forget Blair’s red army was raging through the provinces towards Number 10.
In person, Major was the only MP who looked funnier than his Spitting Image puppet. Initially, it was nigh-on impossible to see beyond his peculiarly-distended, chimpanzee-like upper lip. He was a nice guy but nice guys don’t cut it: by sticking to his economics script, and talking in platitudes about the NHS he failed to win any hearts. More than that, up close I could see him for what he was: frightened, human, and in more need of us, than we of him.
With two House of Commons pints and Norma’s milky tea fighting their way to get out – and mindful of the old adage “if you’re intimidated by the powerful, just imagine them naked or on the toilet” – I reported to the downstairs latrine.
Half-expecting the gold-tapped vulgarity of a despot or at least a minor rap star, its bland, modest fittings were another interiors let-down. It was then that I exacted a form of mild, if impotent revenge for the pit closures, when I decided to go for a number two at Number 10. Looking back, it was a pathetic act of defiance, yet it’s something I’ve been strangely proud of ever since.
Weeks later, I rose at 6am and voted Blair. He enjoyed a staggering, 179-seat majority; a landslide victory with the biggest margin since 1935.
Poor, polite, sweet old Norma Major famously cried as she evacuated Downing Street, but days later at Blair’s infamous Britpop victory party uber lad Noel Gallagher were doing charlie in the same downstairs loo I’d visited.
The hoi-polloi had been truly been let into the inner sanctum. But then, as now, only when we are needed: as necessary inconveniences who help keep the privileged in power.
Martin Daubney is a columnist for The Telegraph and was the longest-serving editor of Loaded.