John O’Farrell has changed since the 1980s – unlike the underbelly of the Tory Party

February 20, 2013 11:08 am

Things Can Only Get Better is a wonderful book. When it appeared in 1998, it made the name of the young author John O’Farrell, and set him on a course to be a popular novelist and minor celebrity. The book’s success rests on its honest portrayal of student radicalism and London Labour Party politics in the 1980s. It depicts with self-deprecating humour the earnestness, the passion, the frustrations and at times the futility of being left-wing when Thatcher was in power. The book sold in its thousands, not least to all of the Labour supporters who shared the passion, frustration and futility with its author. Sections of it could be about me, and they probably could be about you too, if you’re over 40. I was in the same pub as O’Farrell in Wandsworth in 1990 when we lost the local elections. Even the Labour Club I chaired, at Salford University, gets an approving mention for being the loudest on demos.

The narrative arc of the book, though, is about something deeper. It describes the gradual realisation that socialism is about more than prolier-than-thou pretension and ideological purity. O’Farrell gently mocks the silliness of the CND face-painters and his mate whose republicanism means he cannot bring himself to travel on the Jubilee Line of the tube. He slowly realises that to be elected, the Labour Party has to at least meet the voters half-way, listen instead of shout, and try to win support beyond the National Union of Mineworkers. That journey, through the Kinnock years, to Smith, and then Blair, is a journey shared by a generation.

That the honest depiction of a young man finding his way through the mine-field of left-wingery should become ammunition in the Eastleigh by-election is no great surprise. It is the stock-in-trade of by-election strategists to play the man, not the ball. If one of the candidates has written a book, so much the better. You’ll remember the Bill Clinton character, played by John Travolta in Primary Colours, reading out-of-context excerpts of his rival’s book on a Talk Radio show. Or the glee that the Labour Party had with Alan Duncan MP’s book Saturn’s Children, which suggested in its first editions that heroin should be decriminalised.

I don’t imagine the voters of Eastleigh will be shocked to learn that as a young man, John O’Farrell felt a murderous rage towards Margaret Thatcher, since recanted with the maturity of the years. I recall that at school the day after the Brighton bombings, a teacher rebuked me for suggesting the Tories were about the declare martial law.

Indeed, to save the Conservative Research Department a job, here are some of the other revelations from the left-wing firebrand John O’Farrell’s book. It’s been a while since I read it, but here goes:

  • The young John O’Farrell was useless with women
  • He once spray-painted half of Exeter with the correctly-punctuated slogan ‘Jobs, not bombs.’
  • He was sniffy about royal weddings, and his mate’s views on the monarchy made Hilary Mantel look like the editor of Majesty magazine
  • He supported the miners in 1984-5
  • He preferred Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Neil Kinnock to Norman Tebbit, Cecil Parkinson and Nigel Lawson
  • He wrote jokes for Gordon Brown, who went onto become a Labour prime minister
  • He worked in television (and probably for the BBC, or ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’ as Norman Tebbit would call it).

If the Tory researcher really did their homework, they could probably find out that he lives in a nice house in fashionable Lambeth, and probably employs someone to do the hoovering.

In short, as a young man John O’Farrell was concerned with racial equality, women’s rights, world peace and unemployment. His concerns led him to contest council elections, knock on doors and give out leaflets. That’s what the book tells us. The question for those who are attacking him is: what did you do in the 1980s, when communities were being torn apart and individual lives destroyed? Buy shares in British Gas? Work as a commodities broker? Get a job at the Conservative Central Office because you thought Thatcher was marvellous (step forward David Cameron)?

The Eastleigh by-election has told us nothing new about John O’Farrell: we already knew he was socially-concerned, democratically-active and once belonged to CND. But it’s taught a great deal about the modern Conservative Party, whose candidate came to prominence for having to be held back by bouncers on a daytime television show, whose views on abortion, gay rights and immigration are an abomination, and who would be a complete disaster if elected an MP. One way to explain Maria Hutchings’ candidature is that the Tories wanted someone to blame when they lose the by-election. But the other, more convincing, argument is that she represents the true, nasty, viciously-right wing underbelly of the Tory Party, which, unlike John O’Farrell, hasn’t changed a jot since the 1980s.

  • Guest

    He may have changed – good. But it bothers me how anyone, even a student, could think such things. In any walk of life outside of politics, it would not be acceptable or normal for a young person to feel ‘murderous rage’ towards another human being. Wanting to lose the Falklands war essentially means he wanted British service personnel to be killed whilst fighting an army who had invaded other people’s land, wanting to remove the right of people to determine their own future – i.e abolishing democracy for the Islanders by force. I’m not sure that view is ever acceptable, moral or compatible with Labour thinking, even if they subsequently mellow with age.

    His comments on Thatcher may have been woefully expressed – but the simple truth is that many in the Labour movement actually fundamentally agree with that view. We all know how many Labour-minded people are actively looking forward to celebrating her death when it does comes. And that is a fundamentally nasty position to be in. Believing, even for a second, that it would be a good thing for a British Prime Minister to be murdered by terrorists makes me question the morality of those who thought it.

    It is difficult to say other parties are the ‘nasty’ ones, when such behaviour is defended amongst our own.

    • John Ruddy

      You still havnt read it, have you? Within seconds of thinking it, he knew it was wrong of him to think that! He wrote it to demonstrate his anger and frustration at that moment in time. Who amongst us has not had a fleeting thought of anger about someone? I’m not one for quoting the bible, but “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, and “There is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repenteth than over 99 who are righteous”

      • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

        John, I made reference to the fleeting nature of it by saying ‘if only for a second’. There is a difference between having a ‘fleeting moment of anger’ and a ‘fleeting moment of supporting terrorism’ in my view. But all in all, I agree with you on the forgiveness aspect. My only issue is that the forgiveness Labour people offer to their own, is never displayed for those in other parties who say unpleasant things. When a Labour member says something dreadful, they are forgiven and defended. When a Tory member says something dreadful, they are not forgiven nor defended – quite the reverse. I don’t see the moral consistency in that. Anyway, I’m failing at my promise to stop commenting here…

        • http://twitter.com/ElliotBidgood Elliot Bidgood

          “When a Labour member says something dreadful, they are forgiven and defended. When a Tory member says something dreadful, they are neither forgiven nor defended – quite the reverse”
          True, but the same is true the other way round – such is political tribalism. Not that two wrongs make a right of course, but neither side is immune to wanting to believe the best of our own figures and believe the worst of theirs.

        • http://twitter.com/renieanjeh Renie Anjeh

          It was 30 years ago and was a fit of anger when he was an extreme leftie. There must have been horrid things that u said ages ago. Anyway, his conversion to the centre ground gives me hope about some in London YOung LAbour.

      • Hugh

        It would be helpful if you could provide us the full quote for context.

        • John Ruddy

          Since its quite a large passage in the book, perhaps you could borrow it from your local library, or even buy a copy yourself!

        • John Ruddy

          Since its quite a large passage in the book, perhaps you could borrow it from your local library, or even buy a copy yourself!

        • trotters1957

          Would you have celebrated the death of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, George Bush, Pinochet, Saddam, the Ayatollah etc etc? There are in fact a lot of people whose grave I would dance on, Thatcher is one of them.

          • Hugh

            Sorry, I’m confused, I thought the argument was that he wasn’t actually wishing for the death of Thatcher.

      • charles.ward

        “In October 1984, when the Brighton bomb went off, I felt a surge of
        excitement at the nearness of her demise and yet disappointment that
        such a chance had been missed. This was me – the pacifist, anti-capital
        punishment, anti-IRA liberal – wishing that they had got her. ‘Why did
        she have to leave the bathroom two minutes earlier?’ I asked myself over
        and over again
        ’.” [emphasis mine]

        Hardly a “fleeting thought” dismissed “within seconds”.

      • charles.ward

        “In October 1984, when the Brighton bomb went off, I felt a surge of
        excitement at the nearness of her demise and yet disappointment that
        such a chance had been missed. This was me – the pacifist, anti-capital
        punishment, anti-IRA liberal – wishing that they had got her. ‘Why did
        she have to leave the bathroom two minutes earlier?’ I asked myself over and over again’.” [emphasis mine]

        Hardly a “fleeting thought” dismissed “within seconds”.

        You can go to the book’s page on google books and search the content, just searching for “bathroom” brought up the passage for me.

        In the section before this (I can’t copy the text from google books) he talks about how he had these feeling for some time and fantasised about killing her himself, with a machine gun at the Tory party conference.

        Further reading doesn’t make the O’Farrell apologists case any better, it makes it worse.

        • Hugh

          Come, now, you’re not being fair. He then goes onto say, “I just hated her so very, very much.

          “But with some justification, it has to be said…”

          It’s clear that he was utterly ashamed of having thought such a thing.

          • Dave Postles

            You are a very decent person. I’m afraid some of us will not be able to meet your standard, so forgive us when we lapse.

          • Hugh

            I’m not sure it is terribly sanctimonious to point out that the claim his comments have been misrepresented is total nonsense, but there you go.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=715486331 Alex Otley

          Meanwhile the Tory candidate is so incompetent and such an embarrassment to her party that she has been banned by her party from a candidates’ debate on Radio 5. The Tories are getting an MP to stand in for her because she is ‘too busy’ – read “unelectable”.

          • aracataca

            Nice one Alex.

      • JoeDM

        He has openly supported terrorists and terrorism against the British people.

        The Labour Party should be ashamed of itself.

      • JoeDM

        He has openly supported terrorists and terrorism against the British people.

        The Labour Party should be ashamed of itself.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=715486331 Alex Otley

          His book in no way endorses those views, which you would know if you read it. As far as I can tell nobody brought it up during the 2001 election when he stood for Maidenhead, just 3 years after the book was published. If this was such a huge outrage then why did his book receive positive reviews from the same press that is now attacking him?

        • Alexwilliamz

          Clue in the passage “anti-IRA” can i remind everyone this was a book, written with some degree of drama. It was not a political treatise or endorsement to act in certain ways. Let’s get some perspective, as a young person did anyone never have naughty thoughts?

          • AlanGiles

            “as a young person did anyone never have naughty thoughts?”
            Yes – often about Lady Isobell Barnet and Margaret Leighton – but never murderous ones! :-)

          • AlanGiles

            “as a young person did anyone never have naughty thoughts?”
            Yes – often about Lady Isobell Barnet and Margaret Leighton – but never murderous ones! :-)

    • aracataca

      ‘the simple truth is that many in the Labour movement actually fundamentally agree with that view. We all know how many Labour-minded people are actively looking forward to celebrating her death when it does comes’

      Evidence?

      • John Ruddy

        I think most sensible “Labour-minded people” realise now that anything like that is self-defeating.
        The groups that do want to celebrate her death are those who dont WANT to get elected like the SWP and their ilk.

      • John Ruddy

        I think most sensible “Labour-minded people” realise now that anything like that is self-defeating.
        The groups that do want to celebrate her death are those who dont WANT to get elected like the SWP and their ilk.

        • aracataca

          Agreed but what is really infuriating about ‘Guest’s’ remarks is that he has made a sweeping generalisation without any evidence whatsoever to support it. He hasn’t even tried to garner evidence – it’s just a great big idiotic rant.

          • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

            You asked for evidence for my assertion that many ‘Labour-minded people are actively looking forward to celebrating her death when it does comes’.

            Stand at Labour-minded TUC selling party packs for her death – http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/4533645/Fury-at-union-party-packs-if-Margaret-Thatcher-dies.html

            Labour Councillor Keir Morrison wearing a t-shirt regarding partying upon her death – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1384726/Ed-Milibands-regret-link-Maggie-grave-man.html

            Labour Councillor Linda Hobson celebrating when she thought Thatcher had died, then saying ‘if only’ – http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/310579/Labour-councillor-hoped-Margaret-Thatcher-had-died

            Labour Councillor and leader of Bolsover, Eion Watts: “There’ll be a party up this way when Mrs Thatcher passes away, we’ve already got it organised and are just waiting for the day.” http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/wave-of-protest-at-thatcher-film-watch-video-1-4118065

            Labour Welsh Assembly Candidate, Joe Lock, posted a link on Facebook to a group called Is Margaret Thatcher Dead Yet? with the comment “can’t be long, fingers crossed” – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-13199824

            Labour Councillor Florence Anderson supporting the idea of bombing Tory conference and comments on Thatcher’s death –
            http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-17069083

            John McDonnell MP ‘joking’ that if he could go back in time, he would assassinate Thatcher http://labourlist.org/2010/06/gmb-leadership-hustings-live-blog/

            And this was without really searching. These aren’t nobodies, these are councillors, leaders of councils, candidates and MPs in the Labour Party. You asked for some evidence of my assertion – this is it. I wonder if you’ll say ‘fair enough, that’s a lot of evidence’, or whether you’ll make up some other excuse to say I’m idiotic.

            PS I don’t know why it said ‘guest’ – but it obviously was me that wrote it. Regards.

          • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

            Breaking ranks while under fire and attempting to do for O’Farrell what you did to Livingstone? Goodness, how I’m glad you’re not in my Party.

          • http://twitter.com/renieanjeh Renie Anjeh

            No, I think there is a difference. Jonathan is just stating his opinion about events thirty years ago.

          • Alexwilliamz

            Keep forgetting that he stood as a candidate. Has some one hacked his account, as it reads like a conservative wet troll.

          • aracataca

            Many of the quotes are from august and totally independent organs like: The Express, The Mail, The Star, The Sun etc.

          • aracataca

            These are some people in the party not ‘many in the Labour movement’

            Some Lib Dems called for the death of Tony Blair at their conference
            ( see below) but I am not stupid enough to think that ‘many in the Lib Dem party’ (to purloin and paraphrase your own remark) want to see him dead. Stop generalising and start thinking.

          • John Reid

            the TUC arent the labour party,

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

            No surprise that it was you, Jonathan, given your track record. Joined the Tories yet?

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=715486331 Alex Otley

            I think Jonathan Roberts might just be Luke Bozier trolling the Labour Party.

      • charles.ward

        Well here is a picture of a Labour councillor wearing a t-shirt looking forward to celebrating Thatcher’s death, who’s the guy with his arm around him?

        These t-shirts were sold at the TUC conference and the TUC leadership don’t seem to disapprove. Don’t the unions count as part of the “Labour movement”?

        • AlanGiles

          I don’t think gloating about anyone’s death is a very healthy thing to do. I have to say, I despised Mrs Thatcher and her policies, in much the same way I despised Blair for some of his excesses, but at no time would I ever wish either dead, or even ill.
          I think it perfectly acceptable to despise somebody, but I have never been able to feel “hatred” for anyone. Perhaps it is a failing in me, a lack of passion, perhaps, but hate and hatred is an emotion I never feel.

          • rekrab

            Alan, the ingrained hurt caused by the Thatcher years never healed,proud men lost their jobs, wife’s children and self dignity, their only defence was hatred itself.It’s a slow burn to reach that promise land, new ways of doing things have undoubtedly been found but the senseless everlasting gap of have’s and have nots are as current as they were way back to the year dot.Anger may be a creation that was implemented rather than sourced.

          • http://twitter.com/renieanjeh Renie Anjeh

            True but that is no reason to support terrorism. Anyway, it is common knowledge that O’Farrell was a hard liner at he time.

          • AlanGiles

            Believe me, I have every sympathy with those hurt by both Mrs Thatcher and Blair, but rather than hatred, I feel the final downfall is the thing to wish for – I have to confess to a certain degree of happiness when the one thing people like these understand – power – is taken away from them. November 1990 and June 2007, are months I will never forget.
            I am only sorry that Blair went on to still be taken seriously (“peace envoy” indeed. “Faith Foundation” – a.k.a. Tone’s Employment Agency for old Mates and their Heirs), but at least his “power” such as it is is on the wane and one of his old lickspittles (Purnell) has returned to the BBC.
            I just can’t relish the thought of Blair’s death or Mrs Thatcher’s long illness, perhaps because what you wish for others might come back on yourself, or those you care about.
            Whenever I am angered by the lies and deceit of a Duncan-Smith or David Laws or Hazel Blears I am comforted by that famous old saying of another politician, whose name escapes me, “all political careers end in defeat”.
            Defeat and loss of power – that is the real punishment.

          • aracataca

            Not everyone can reach the giddy heights of moral rectitude, generosity of spirit, forgiveness and general saintliness exhibited by you Alan.

        • aracataca

          And here’s what the delightful and charming Lib Dems sang at their conference:

          http://labourlist.org/2012/09/lib-dem-conference-goers-sing-tony-blair-can-fk-off-and-die/

          No one has said that all Lib Dems want the death of Tony Blair. Grow up. There are lunatics in all parties.

        • aracataca

          They did (and do) disapprove. In fact, at the time the TUC leadership were clambering over each other to get on the radio to express their
          disapprovement.

          • John Reid

            when Mo Mowlan was dying what was Normat tebbit saying about her “mad” was one word “ugly” was another

        • aracataca

          Ooops. The picture is from that august, noble and completely unbiased organ The Daily Mail ( again!!!). Do (or perhaps the word should be can) you read anything else?

          • charles.ward

            Yawn, unless you think the photo was faked, what’s your point?

          • Hugh

            If I recall it’s the Mirror that is keener of faked photos.

    • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.blott Matthew Blott

      You tit.

    • http://twitter.com/RichardBrennan Richard

      I wonder how many in the Tory party expressed similar nasty views about Gordon Brown or Tony Blair when they were prime minister.

  • Steve

    excellent article Paul. It’s a shame Salford Uni Labour Club has gone from that to essentially a quiz team now!

  • Donald Stavert

    I did my best as a councillor in the 80’s to thwart Thatchers policies and roll back her attack on our communities but i was shocked by the brighton bombing and outraged that people could try to change things through killing and terror. It was an attack on democracy so an attack on us all. Good luck to John O’Farrell in a democratic contest with the nasty party the party of the selfish.

  • Richas

    The comparison in terms of political tribal hate that is most relevant here is the right’s hatred of Gordon Brown.

    Most of us on the left really disliked Maggie. Some of us hated her and some of us still do. I never really managed hate. She was devastatingly effective as a politician and I hated the Tory success of the era and pretty much all her policies. Sadly the left’s hatred of her was not just that she beat us so often but it also had/has a misogynist element to it too.

    Today the right’s rabid anti Gordon Brown (and similar but slightly lesser hatred of Tony Blair) is rooted in their effectiveness at beating the tories and achieving real social gains like the minimum wage and tax credits.

    I celebrated when Thatcher left office in tears. Partying upon her death seems a bit silly to me. Both Blair and Brown had better exits so maybe it is the right that will be most desperate for grave dancing.

    As for when the bomb went off, my fear was how much worse the Tories would be if such an assassination had happened. A bit of shock that the IRA could get that close, genuine fear at the authoritarian response (and voter sympathy) that such a killing would result in with the tories in power already.

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