I want to tell you about something that I saw while doing my paper round on election day in 1997. Even though I was at college by then, I helped my sister out when she couldn’t do it. Something like that. I was 17 and just off voting age. I had no real interest in politics at all.
All I’d known that people had been happy when Thatcher resigned a few years earlier. The morning she went the vicar from our village was speaking in our school assembly and the headmaster rushed in to share the news. All the teachers started cheering and clapping, and we, as exuberant schoolchildren, all joined in too.
I grew up in Emsworth. It’s a lovely place and really conservative. But something was clearly wrong with the country if vicars and teachers in dyed-in-the-wool conservative shires were cheering the resignation the prime minister. Thatcher’s government had become nasty and vindictive. It did not stand for Britishness or the British values. It stood for naked greed and everyone was sick of it.
I feel like that now with the present government. I know that there are potential Conservative-type governments that I could vote for. But not this one. Again it sits in the corridors of power, concerned only with materialistic greed - using the fear of the unknown to set neighbours and families against one another. It has a famine mentality that sucks away the hope from this potentially great country.
Back to 1997. On that election day an old man in Victoria road in Emsworth stood at his garden gate handing cups of tea to strangers. He had a big “Vote Labour” sign strapped to his fence and he beamed big smiles at every passer-by. As I nursed my tea, he asked if I was voting. I said that I couldn’t. I said that my mum was worried about a Labour government and that I didn’t think it mattered.
Are you rich then? Is your mum rich? He said and he looked down at my bike, my shoes, and he knew that we weren’t.
I blushed and said no. I grew up as almost the poorest kid in my peer group. Happy. Clever. But pretty poor. And he said, well she doesn’t have anything to worry about then. I said that I hoped so, handed back the mug and got on with my round.
What struck me that day was the excitement of that man, how politics actually meant something to him. Even today, I marvel at the optimism of someone who was voting in a totally safe tory seat and yet still campaigning. I realised that I would soon be old enough to vote and that I would also have to think about what mattered. I decided I would follow things with interest.
I would learn later that this was not the first act of genorosity toward my family by a member of the Labour movement. The house I grew up in came to us via a Labour councillor, who swapped her two bedroom house for my parents’ tiny flat in … you guessed it … Victoria road.
And now, on the eve of another election, I think of those people who changed and shaped my life - my family, my teachers, the crazy vicar who got arrested protesting the poll tax, that old man with his cups of tea, the councillor who helped my parents find their house, my house. I am as excited by tomorrow as that man was back in 1997.
To me, Jeremy Corbyn speaks to those values of generosity and solidarity in the same way. I’m pretty certain that he won’t be our next prime minister - but by God I’d be so proud to be British if he were. And I’ll be handing out cups of tea to passers-by for a MONTH.