July 8, 2013
Bradford’s summer has rolled up its shirt sleeves, offering its inhabitants a rare but welcome mixture of bright sunshine, blue skies and genuine warmth in the air. As I look out my window, there are no rainclouds on the horizon, rather, a pleasant haze has settled on the city. Earlier, I drove to Bradford Interchange rail station: the taxi drivers in their ranks were no longer huddling in their vehicles for warmth as is their wont during winter but rather visiting with each other. No jackets were worn. Happy chatter predominated, despite the fact that after all, it’s another Monday.
Perhaps the city’s general good mood will be sustained by the sunlight’s continued strength: in such weather, the pedestrian precincts of Bradford become an alluring mix of light and shadow, the Victorian buildings with all their alabaster grandeur standing silently by. Perhaps also it will be kept alive by the afterglow of a pleasant weekend; I can fully sympathise. I’ve just had an enjoyable few days, mostly spent in the company of the Bradford Labour Party.
If one reads the newspapers or watches the news, it is tempting to believe that Labour is presently locked in a life or death struggle with the unions, in particular, with Unite. Blairites and Brownites appear on television and mischievous presenters try and provoke conflict between them. Tom Watson has left his high office as Labour’s chief campaigner; Ed Miliband is portrayed as a latter day Sisyphus – every time he pushes up against the vast boulder of the media’s disdain, and eventually beats it, it rolls back down again, supposedly thanks to the lubricant issued by Len McCluskey. Labour certainly needs to take back control of the narrative: at present it suggests that unions are as reputable as crime syndicates, though there is a strong case for suggesting payday lenders (and Tory donors) like Wonga are the real criminals. To put it another way: somehow, the media has decided that unions, made up as they are mostly of people on modest or average incomes, are worse than the avatars of finance which got us into our current economic predicament and are presently perpetuating the malaise. Ed must stare at the top of the hill, look at the boulder placed in his path, sigh, and push against it yet again.
Yet, all this seemed far removed from my weekend with Labour. It began on Friday evening with a Bradford East constituency meeting at City Hall: this was my first official engagement with the party and in preparation for it, I donned a red shirt. My other half Caroline and I were greeted outside the entrance by Councillor (and formerly Bradford’s Lord Mayor) Naveeda Ikram. Her greeting was effusive, only surpassed by that of my local councillor Ruth Billheimer a few days earlier; I don’t think I’ve ever been welcomed to any organisation so warmly. We went inside: Bradford city hall is as splendid on the inside as it is outside. Its theme is essentially Victorian gothic, windows have stained glass symbols representing the various sections of the city. As we entered the wood panelled room in which the meeting was held, I was greeted with a round of applause by all the members around the table: I was momentarily stunned. All I’d really done was leave the Liberal Democrats. For their part, the local Liberal Democrats weren’t all that concerned that I had departed. Earlier in the week, I had been feeding my cat when I heard a knock on the door; as repairmen had been and gone I wondered who it could be. I rushed down and opened it: there stood a Liberal Democrat councillor I had met a couple of times. He seemed earnest enough, and a smile stretched his grey bearded face.
“Can I speak to Dr. Defoe, please,” he asked. I repeat: we had met on a couple of occasions. He had also mangled my surname.
“Yes, that’s me,” I replied, “we’ve met.”
He was flustered for a moment. He continued, “Well, Ruth Billheimer was boasting that she you had joined the Labour Party. I was in the area and wanted to check if it was true.”
“Yes,” I replied.
He lowered his head slightly. “So it is true. Good bye, then.”
I shut the door. There hadn’t been any attempt to persuade me to return. I tried not to laugh.
The meeting featured the Leader of the council, David Green: he had the air of a man who had too much to do and too little time in which to do it and yet feeling horribly responsible for it all. Having met him, it was less surprising that he had good naturedly submitted to the Twitter hashtag of #blamedave.
He gave us an update on the Westfield situation, which seemed positive. However, he also told us facts of which I had been previously unaware: for example, the Department of Education is demanding that school funding is “equalised”, i.e., a school in the suburbs gets the same as one the city. There is a problem with this approach: city based schools often require extra funding and facilities in order to overcome problems associated with poverty or improving language skills. Thus Bradford’s attempts to bolster schools in more deprived areas were likely to be undermined, leading to poorer outcomes. Furthermore, David told us that the cuts in local government spending were likely to be so severe that Bradford would struggle to do more than offer the bare minimum of services. Nevertheless, he said, the council had delivered on projects like the City Park and would continue to do so.
After the meeting ended, Caroline and I went to Nandos for dinner. We sat at an outdoor table and looked out over the City Park: young people were gathering, the pub next door was filled to overflowing with young people, and youthful music, with its insistent pounding beat, was playing. Had the project been a success? It would be difficult to disagree. Standing by was the City Hall, illuminated brightly against the advancing night.
The next day began with my first “Labour Doorstep” event, held in Keighley. The intention of “Labour Doorstep” is to visit voters, ask them about their future voting preferences and address any issues they may have. I awoke early (partially at the insistence of my cat), made coffee, put 3 folding chairs into my car’s boot: they were for the Canterbury Carnival later in the day.
I was a taxi driver, ferrying Ruth, Caroline and a keen young activist named James to our destination. James’ knowledge of Bradford politics is encyclopaedic, and he apparently has the phone number of every Labour politician in the area. He’s fourteen.
I don’t know Keighley particularly well and my satellite navigation knew even less, its calm, strangely accented voice consistently threatening to lead us astray. Nevertheless, we found the small play area on Arctic Street where the activists were gathering. The sun streamed down: the salubrious warmth began to bake me. It was so bright I wasn’t conscious of the fact that I was wearing sunglasses. For a brief time, I stood there talking to Ruth, talking to my other half, talking to other activists: it was like being at an extended family reunion. Everyone was friendly, some were eccentric, we all had something in common despite being wildly different in other respects. We were even asked to pose for the kind of group photos one sees emerging out of family reunions; many had taken out their mobile phones for taking a variety of snapshots. No doubt if there was a conference hall behind us instead of a playground, we would have sat at long tables, broken bread and talked the rest of the day.
Clipboards, maps and leaflets were distributed: my other half, Ruth, James, another Bradford activist named Michael, a Keighley councillor called Adrian Farley and I were split off into a team. We had to drive to the location: my navigation system went insane again and I ended up at the entrance of a golf course. After trying to coax my satellite navigation into providing a sensible location, we ended up where we were supposed to be: it was along a pleasant road leading to the golf course: on either side were stone cottages, some were relatively new, others were Victorian or older. Few cars were in the driveways: this was one time where pleasant weather was unhelpful. Summer in its shirtsleeves invites out of the house to enjoy its splendour not necessarily hear about the clear and present dangers to the National Health Service.
For the most part, I was watching and learning: I observed as Ruth met a voter who had just finished tidying his yard. He was an enthusiastic Labour supporter and they chatted pleasantly as they stood in his open garage. For the most part, however, few were at home: leaflets from the local Labour councillor were folded and pushed through mail slots.
I personally encountered my first voter while accompanying James. He knocked on the door, and an elderly woman wearing a navy blue blouse emerged. James told her who we were and she stated quickly that she had supported Labour, but voted Conservative at the last election. A swing voter: however, she said she was still happy with her choice and shut the door. A swing voter, perhaps, but one who had swung in the wrong direction.
It was time to go. The sun was still streaming down and I was regretting my decision not to wear a hat. Naveeda arrived in her small Toyota and picked up Ruth: our next destination was Horton Park and the Canterbury Carnival.
En route, we passed St. Luke’s Hospital. James informed us that it was right on the dividing line of Bradford East and Bradford West constituencies: one half had David Ward for an MP, he noted, the other had George Galloway. We passed the magnificent Little Horton Mosque: a beautiful and imposing structure made of red stone and punctuated by brilliant green domes. James remarked:
“Whenever I hear people say that immigrants come here and just take benefits, I remind them that immigrants built places like this.”
We arrived. Following Naveeda’s car, I had the rather surreal experience of driving along the park’s paved footpaths. The sun was still strong, families were out on the grass, children were playing, the tidy flowerbeds were in bloom. Our little convoy passed by a pond, then climbed up a gentle incline. We parked. Labour had a stand in the shade of a tree: across the path stood a bright orange patterned tent, no doubt this was where the festivities would take place. Naveeda drove on: Ruth, Caroline, James, and I along with Ian, our local campaigns officer and several others set up our stand. We blew up red balloons, set out packets of crisps and orange drink pouches. We tried in vain to fasten the balloons to the table with stickers, eventually Sellotape sufficed. We were ready.
Business was slow at first: a pair of workmen in florescent vests asked for water, we gave it to them. Others sought similar refreshment. We began giving away red Labour balloons to children: unfortunately we had no helium. I discovered a talent for blowing them up and fastening string with slip knots to the ends. We got the parents to sign the petition we had with us, demanding that Cameron cease and desist his changes to the NHS. More children filtered in. The pace of giving away balloons increased. A number of young faces peered at us from around our table, every expression indicating a desire for a balloon. A young blonde boy in a bright green shirt admired Caroline’s red rosette: she gave it to him along with a balloon.
Eventually the Carnival arrived. Naveeda was at its head, carrying a bright red star attached to a tall wooden pole. More children crowded around, more signatures were collected. A Bradford West activist named Khaleed who had come along to help went into the crowds gathering more signatures. Ruth, Naveeda, the Deputy Mayor and Lord Mayor posted for a photograph. A young Indian man performed acrobatics at the top of a pole held by his compatriot: he spun around at the top, impersonating the action of the blades on a helicopter.
We ran out of balloons. We ended with a bang: I accidentally burst the last balloon in my efforts to blow it up. We ran out of pages of the petition to fill: every last space had gone. Naveeda revealed a sumptuous picnic of spicy samosas, onion bhajis and chicken which was second to none. The vegetable samosa in particular had real fire and kick, belting me pleasantly with spices the moment I bit into it. I sat with my colleagues underneath the tree and ate. Nearby, a hawker was selling secondhand clothing for 10 pence per item. The families were beginning to disperse across the park. The sun was beginning its downward arc, slowly processing into twilight. I drank some water: it would be soon time to go.
Already, Ruth and James and Caroline and I were talking about further events. Summer in its shirtsleeves would bring out more fairs and gatherings: we would carry the message outward. Nothing was necessarily inevitable: the cuts weren’t going to help, the changes to the National Health Service had led to an increase in waiting times. The Tories were trapped in an ideology that made a fetish of the market, which was contrary to the spirit of the Health Service. The whole idea of charging foreigners for using it was merely a gateway drug, trying to get the public used to the concept of paying. It was possible to do something different. Perhaps summer in its rolled up shirtsleeves made hope more apparent: it’s difficult to think of such a day when doused by November rain, difficult to see the possibilities when your information comes solely from the popular press. We would have to carry enlightenment with us and spread it outward.
It was time to go home: the next day promised a trip to Halifax to pick up some end tables acquired on eBay and watching Sunday politics programmes. That evening, I happened across a clause in the Labour Party rulebook:
“The party is anxious to encourage the recruitment of new members and to ensure that new members are properly welcomed into the party and opportunities offered to enable their full participation in all aspects of party life.”
I thought, yes, I was just at the start, but at the same time, it felt like I’d been there for much longer. This past weekend, I’d been properly welcomed: indeed I felt like I had come home.