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.