Sunday, 14 September 2014

Scotland vote prompts memories of another election

For some reason, whilst reading yet another news item about Scotland's independence referendum on Thursday, my mind wandered back to Wembley in the early-1960s and another election, which was to play a big part in making me who I am today.

Ray Dent was an avuncular man, full of humour and wisdom, always a twinkle in his eye. Short and rotund, and chain-smoking to the point where ash and his jacket were indistinguishable. He was always sitting, always there before me, be it in the pub or in his small office on the first floor of the then Wembley South Labour Party's 'New Hall', so named because the old hall burnt down. The Hall faced onto Ealing Road and was sandwiched between St Andrew's Presbyterian Church and Union Road.

I joined Wembley South Young Socialists in early-May 1960, just a couple of weeks before my 16th birthday, recruited by Clive Kent (a friend still). When me met, horror of horrors, I was in the Young Liberals, who I had joined a year before, not long before I left school. I was already writing about socialism then. I went, originally, with another friend. None of us fitted in, but the girls were fun and it was all part of life's learning curve.

Then one evening a group of three or four Young Socialists turned up. I remember Clive, who seemed to be their leader, and Ken Leech. A Welsh lad Terry Carroll may have been there too. A few of us YLs quickly realised we had more in common with the YS and I remember David Rose, who went to Barham Primary School with me, a lad called Perry and Paul Boatfield (a friend still), who was then about 14 and came along to the YLs with his older sister, all deciding to join Wembley South Young Socialists, who doubled in size the moment we joined.

For a while the groups overlapped, especially the girls. Monica from Sweden and Mavis, always so proper. Jeanette from Alperton Secondary Modern like me. Somehow the YS grew and I ended up, first, Secretary, then Treasurer for a while. Most Saturdays we would stand on Wembley High Road, outside Woolworths with a banner and a loudhailer, on some steps I brought from home shouting 'Kick out the Tories' and campaigning against The Bomb and whatever other cause took our fancy at the time.

In all this we were encouraged by Ray Dent and a few others, like Len and Joan Snow. Then there was Ernst Friedlander, a 1930s German refugee from Berlin and his wife. All of them people I remember with affection, even though Ernst would chide us for some of the things we said outside Woolworths. He was Wembley South Labour Party's Press Officer and would go on to become Mayor of Brent in the early-1980s. Somewhere along the line, some wise person in the adult section of the Party, decided a better use could be made of the YS if we had a ward to fight. They gave us Sudbury and Clive took the lead and acted as Agent.

Memory tells me it was a good campaign and gave me a love of elections, which I have never lost. We thought that should our candidate win we would change the world.

The Secretary of Sudbury Ward Labour Party was a wonderful, elderly, lady called Mrs Mansfield who, like Ray Dent, was round and jolly. She welcomed us into her home and was a source of continual encouragement. Somewhere among the myriad of packed boxes awaiting our move (still an ongoing saga) there is a Labour polling card from the November 1947 Wembley Borough Elections bearing her name.

Sudbury was a Tory ward, with tree-lined streets. The road I lived on, off Wembley High Road, had no trees. Most of Labour's membership was drawn from these streets and there were enough loyal voters in other parts of the ward for Clive and the Labour candidate (whose name I cannot remember, but I am sure was an engineer) to believe we were in with a chance.

The campaign wasn't about persuading Tory or Liberal voters. It was about persuading non-voters and genuine 'don't knows' to swell the ranks of existing Labour voters. Once a voter was identified as being anti-Labour they were ignored, We wanted them to sleep through election day and wake up the next day feeling as sick as a parrot.

In those days pub landlords didn't bother too much about under-age drinkers, especially in the company of older drinkers. I was taken for my first pint by work colleagues when I was fifteen. At the end of an evening canvassing we always retired to a pub, where we would report back to Clive and hand him our canvassing returns. Sometimes Ray Dent and another older Party member, Mrs Housego, would be there.

As the Wembley Borough Elections got closer, so our candidate (whose face I can clearly see as I write this) and Clive became more convinced that we were in with a chance — we might actually win!

On election day we were not just excited, we were hyper. The day began early, six o'clock if I remember correctly, as Young Socialists swarmed all over Sudbury, under the leadership of  Clive,  with a 'Morning of Poll' leaflet, which went to every house where there was a named Labour promise. We manned the polling stations from start to finish and the older 'adult' members in Sudbury joined in, treating us like equals. Age didn't matter (official polling cards did not come in until 1974. Before 1974 you had to issue your own polling cards and voters would hand them to the Labour Party teller when they left the polling station after they voted).

At the count, my first though aged just sixteen, us teenagers stood around the Sudbury tables in Wembley Town Hall waiting for the first ballot papers to arrive. We knew what to do, We had our marking pads so that we could sample ballot papers as they tumbled from the boxes and they were first placed in unsorted piles (the number of ballot papers per polling district are counted first to ensure they total the same as the marked voting lists from individual polling stations. Only after these have been agreed are ballots papers sorted by how votes have been cast). Clive briefed us well. We all knew what to do. I remember Tories looking at us, a seemingly illiterate horde of Young Socialists, ravenous for victory, with disdain. What did we know? We were loud and totally inexperienced when it came to elections.

We were dismissed that night in Wembley Town Hall as we had been throughout the election campaign.

In truth much of that day in May 1962  was a blur (or was it '63 — I will check when I go to the National Newspaper Archives in Wetherby in a few months time to look at old copies of the Wembley News). It did happen and I was there. In the end we lost, narrowly as I remember it, with others gathering around the Sudbury Ward counting tables as the excitement mounted.

It was that night I decided I wanted to be a Labour councillor and a Party agent like Clive. I am proud to say I subsequently went on to do both things and probably enjoyed the latter more, whilst being forever grateful for the confidence I gained from my thirteen years as a councillor in Birmingham and Nottinghamshire.

I learnt in an instance that night that even losing could be exciting. There was always the next time. Fifty-two years later, I still feel the same, but only now, minutes before my memory of Ray Dent and what he said to me that night, have I come to fully appreciate the significance of what he said:

'Don't be too upset, this was just a dress rehearsal for the big one'. I knew what he meant. The coming general election, albeit two or three years away (it came in 1964). I knew by then enough about politics that local Labour Parties were constituency Labour Parties first. Winning local power was a bonus. The paramount job was to elect Labour MPs; that you could only change things from the top down, yet my ambition to be a councillor was driven even then by the belief that real and lasting change comes from the bottom up. I knew enough history from my modest secondary modern schooling to know that democracy and other rights were won by trade unionists, suffragettes, socialists and communists.

Wembley South Young Socialists was, for a year or two at least, one of the largest YS Branches in England and we took up local issues, campaigned against the closing of Kingsbury Swimming Pool and demonstrated on the steps of Wembley Town Hall in our swimming costumes.

I was always a little different to mainstream Labour, a supporter of exhaustive ballots in all elections from those days. I took the view then (and still do) that if the Labour Party chose its officers and election candidates using exhaustive ballots, then why should the electorate in local and general elections have to use a first-past-the-post voting system?

All the things I treasure most about civil life have their roots in local communities and local government. At best, Westminster has taken these examples and adapted them for a wider good . At worst they have ignored them or destroyed them.

When Ray Dent's words echoed across the decades earlier today, as I thought about  Scotland's referendum on Thursday, I realised that, at the time, I didn't hear the irony in his voice. Today I did.

If I had a vote in the referendum on Thursday, I would vote 'yes' for independence, so as to ensure that that the 'no' camp win by the narrowest of margins. The good news is that whatever the outcome, Scotland should win

It is also a great moment for English politics. There has never been a better opportunity to wrest power from Westminster. I promise to do my bit.

And as I finish this post, another name from those far off days comes into my head — Bill Molloy. He won Ealing North, a previously safe Tory seat for Labour in 1964 when the blessed Harold Wilson and Labour had a majority of just a few seats. I remember working for him. He was left-wing and only after being defeated in the 1979 General Election did he let himself down by accepting a peerage.

29 September 2014 – A FOOTNOTE: On Friday evening just gone we had a visit from another Wembley South Young Socialist, Tom Lake, together with wife Jill, both still active in the Labour Party. I associate Tom with the word 'university'. I managed to get to sixteen without ever hearing the word or it registering in any way. He was the one 'going to university'. I had to look the word up in my dictionary. Before Friday I have had no contact with Tom for fifty years, but there he was, outside our house, instantly recognisable and the years melted away. The threads which linked us together still in place. It was Clive Kent who made contact with Tom a few months ago and it turns out Tom has a sister living in Forest Fields, very close to Lenton where we live.

Then this morning we had a 'phone call from Paul Boatfield, already mentioned in this blog posting. He remembered more about Tom than me. Paul added that I used to write letters to the Wembley News using his name (which I can't remember doing, but I don't doubt Paul for one moment — afterall, I did spend about nine months in the Young Liberals, long enough to learn about less than honest behaviour).

Add this a lovely long Saturday lunch and afternoon in the company of Keith Reeves, originally from Harrow Weald, who I met through the Central Middlesex Federation of Young Socialists, and Ivy, his wife, like Tom and Jill, both active in the Party still and you can see that my teenage past has been very much part of the last few days.

Clive (mentioned in this blog) talks about 'closing the circle' — when you come across something from your past you want to square off. A contradiction of sorts I know and some may ask, 'Why?'. Most of the time the 'invisible people' (to quote my only friend from my childhood days, who re-connected with me last year) in your life don't matter, but when some have been part of moments and events which have help shape your life, then there is satisfaction in knowing.

1 comment: said...

4th April 1964 I married the current Mrs Paton in St Andrew's Church. Bitterly cold and snowing we were surprised by the crowd outside. Apparently H Wilson was on next door but all the ladies came out to see the wedding instead.