“Hold the lift boyo” said Neil Kinnock. It was NEC day and Pat Francis, the head librarian was giving me a tour of “Walworth Road”, our then HQ, which sat a stone’s throw from the Elephant and Castle shopping centre.
“Come on Hatters” said the jaunty leader to his deputy. As the four of us took the lift from the ground to fourth floor, I was overcome with awe, unable to speak in the presence of such greatness.
My job was to assemble the party’s daily press clippings for the shadow cabinet, NEC and HQ researchers. The senior librarians read the broadsheets but gave me the tabloids to sift. Each day I would read every red top from start to finish, clipping political stories before pasting them up using a giant pritt stick, then photocopying 50 copies to be sent over to Westminster.
On a good day, Neil Kinnock would get his press cuts by noon. If I lingered over the pop and sport pages, it would be after lunch. These days, we all get the media brief emailed to our iPhones at 6.30am. Are we more enriched because of it? I often wonder.
Walworth Road was a minotaur’s lair of a building. As it was my job to distribute the press clippings I got to know everyone very quickly.
There was Ted Higgins, who legend had it used to be an actor on the Archers. Ted was on the executive of CAMRA and would drink an extraordinary amount of hand pulled ale at the Tankard pub on his lunch break, that lasted between 11.30 and 2.
There was Jack Stallard, the Labour Party artist. He used to tell me fables of parties at Number Ten Downing Street with Harold Wilson and of the long conversations he used to have with Attlee.
Mike Gapes, now an MP was a young researcher in the International Department. He worked with Julian Eccles who had pinned to his wall, a photocopy of Dennis Healey’s Hansard entry where he used the word “bullshit” in a parliamentary debate.
The press office had Andy McSmith, now in the press lobby for the Independent. Anna, now Baroness Healy was in there too. Back then, the press team were probably not aware how their lives were to dramatically change, after the appointment of Larry Whitty to the General Secretary post and Peter Mandelson to Director of Comms.
Lesley from the switchboard and Felicity from the bookshop, along with Ian Haworth, David Hughes, James Tait and Mike Davies from the finance department, regularly took me to the legendary Pizzeria Castello restaurant, which at the time, made the best pizzas in London. They also introduced me to Frascati wine, which was supposed to be sophisticated in those days. It’s gone now, but the Pizzeria Castello rivalled the Gay Hussar for political intrigue. I would often see John Prescott and other politicians caucusing in there.
The Walworth Road boardroom was used for NEC meetings, parties and aerobics classes, which I used to attend on the lunchtimes I wasn’t in the Tankard with Ted Higgins.
I worked in the library with Ruby Ranaweera, who was very kind and made the most amazing carrot cake I have ever tasted. She used to manage the photograph library and taught me how to bind books, beautiful tomes, like those from the Left Book Club, authored by the likes of GDH. Cole, André Malraux, Clement Attlee, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Ellen Wilkinson and R. H. Tawney.
Down in the basement was Stephen Bird, the archivist. On a quiet day he would show me the treasures – letters from the Webbs and Eleanor Marx, the first minutes of the NEC and original posters from the forties and fifties.
There you would find collections of CLP election addresses from bygone eras. Stephen would always show me the interesting stuff. I have a memory of a leaflet from the 1970s with Ken Livingstone arguing for the abolition of the GLC.
The photocopier was located in a distant corner of the library. Whilst ostensibly copying the shadow cabinet press clippings I would read anything I could get my hands on. An original copy of the 1945 manifesto was a favourite. It was lyrical:
“The gallant men and women in the Fighting Services, in the Merchant Navy, Home Guard and Civil Defence, in the factories and in the bombed areas – they deserve and must be assured a happier future than faced so many of them after the last war. Labour regards their welfare as a sacred trust.”
I used to devour Roth’s Parliamentary Profiles, which many years later I discovered were partly researched by writer and comedian Dom Joly. His profiles were fabulously quirky and rich in texture.
The photocopy corner was a congregation point for the few young people that worked at head office. A couple of years after I started, I used to talk with Porky the Poet, as Phil Jupitus used to call himself. He won’t remember this but Phil gave me my first Housemartins badge. I worshipped that band.
The Labour Students and their vicious enemies The Labour Party Young Socialists would often be there complaining about the antics of each other. I liked them all but being only 17, I found most of the disagreements baffling. Nothing changes I guess!
I also used to spend time chatting to Geoff, the miner who was seconded to Labour HQ to collect money for the strike and organise solidarity meetings. We used to drive to gigs after work in his battered up car, listening to the Art of Noise. Whenever I hear Close to the Edit, I think of him. For the life of me I can’t remember what pit he was from but I’d love to see him again. I hope he gets to read this blog post.
Being a teenager so close to momentous political events was a privilege I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. And what times they were, with Labour so close to the edge of destruction.
What did those early years teach me? Know your history. Love your music. Don’t drink at lunchtime. Find time to read. Keep your spirits up and focus on the real enemy. And one final thing from the ’45 manifesto – that sacred trust with the people? It means something. Never forget it.
After a particularly raucous week in Westminster, it seems fitting to mark the anniversary with The Art of Noise, in honour of Geoff the miner.