Donald Trump didn’t invent the politics of hate and division. Neither did Johnson nor Farage. But he did exploit those politics for his own purposes.
Surprisingly, the shocking events at the Capitol in Washington took me back to May 3 1990 and Woolwich Town Hall. The one and only time I stood for election in the London Borough of Greenwich, the town hall came under siege.
The 1980s had been horrific for Labour in Greenwich. We’d survived the treacherous SDP but lost 2 MPs in the process. As the V-Chair Fundraising for Woolwich and Eltham CLP, I oversaw efforts which brought £50,000 a year into the CLP. May 3 1990 was going to launch our comeback.
But 2 years earlier, whilst door knocking on Tormount Rd, I’d been shocked to have a door slammed in my face. People had always been so receptive on the doorstep.. When a woman answered the door she said, ‘I don’t care. As long as my husband and children are in at night, they’re safe.’
‘But’, I asked ’what if you have an emergency and need to call someone?’ The reply came back ‘That’s why we pay our taxes’, ‘Yes’, I countered, ‘But who do you think sets the taxes?’ and she slammed the door shut. It wasn’t having the door shut in my face that bothered me, it was those words, ‘I don’t care.’ And she was shaking when she said it.
So, back to 3 May 1990.
I was running a CLP street stall in Woolwich when I was asked about the proposal for Charlton Athletic Football Club to return to their spiritual homeland at the ‘The Valley’. For some years they’d shared Selhurst Park with Crystal Palace. At that time, I worked out of an office in Charlton Village and from my window I could see the sad site of the semi derelict Valley which had been closed for some years. The chap asking my opinion was a Labour supporter but he wasn’t happy that Labour councillors had rejected proposals for the club’s return. ‘Of course,’ I told him. ‘I’m in favour’ and I mentioned that the Planning Committee rejected an earlier planning application because of local objections to commercial development proposals for the site. ‘If you disagree then do something about it’, I told him, ‘there’s elections to the council this May’.
The majority of Labour councillors were on board but they hadn’t delivered for the fans so direct action was called for and, in this instance, they decided to take the democratic route. The Valley Party was created to fight the elections.
Most Charlton fans were traditional Labour supporters but they were determined that their ambitions should be raised up the political agenda and they saw the council elections as a channel to highlight those ambitions. Our council elections campaign was energised. We ran street stalls next to one another, posters went up, Woolwich became a sea of red, being the colour of both Charlton and of Labour.
So, on election night our Labour campaigners met up in Woolwich Town Hall for a reception in the Labour Group offices, to attend the counts and to watch the results coming in. The Tories and Liberals were there as usual. Conversations were polite, as ever, and reasonably friendly.
Around 10:30 pm, I was in the Labour office enjoying the hospitality when a policeman looked round the door. ‘Please keep the door locked’, he said ‘the town hall’s under siege and we’re worried for your safety.’ We went into lock down. Shortly afterwards we received a phone call to say that 200 Valley Party fans had occupied the building and a riot was taking place. I didn’t believe this. I knew that Charlton fans had a great reputation and that most supported Labour. I sneaked out.
True enough, Woolwich Town Hall was packed with Charlton fans but they weren’t threatening anyone. They were singing songs. There was no alcohol involved just lots of red and white tammies and scarves. Indeed, the massive statue of Queen Victoria was bedecked in Charlton colours and fans were posing for photographs. I recognised a few of them and we talked. They’d not won any seats but they’d made their point. What’s more they felt empowered and if nothing else they had generated masses of publicity. ‘Don’t worry’. I was told ‘when the general election comes, we’ll vote Labour’. I went back to the Labour office to give my report.
Ten minutes later, our local policeman re-appeared. ‘We’ve heard that someone’s being held here against their will.’ He wouldn’t reveal the source but we suspected the Tories. We invited him in and he was satisfied that it was a vicious rumour.
The outcome was Labour held on, the Valley Party won no seats but they did take Labour votes, 15,000 of them. At the General Election two years later, Labour won back Woolwich and Greenwich from the SDP. The Valley Party was wound up but in 1992, with Labour support, Charlton Athletic FC returned to the Valley.
Now these stories don’t mirror what happened in Washington but I believe there is a link. People feel that politicians don’t work for them. There is a disconnect between people and political parties. In the US, 74million people voted for Trump. In the UK, 17.4million voted for Farage and Johnson’s Brexit policy.
Since 1992 my political activity has focused at home in Yorkshire. My tyres have been let down. My car deliberately rammed. I’ve been chased down a street by a farmer waving a shotgun. In 2005, the Defence Secretary and I were assaulted by angry fox-hunters. I’ve been assaulted at street stalls and in 2016 my Vote Remain posters were smashed and posters were set on fire.
What really shocked me about what happened in Washington is that politicians are so shocked. I’m amazed it hasn’t happened before. I don’t condone what happened but we need to recognise the disconnect between lawmakers and the people. The system isn’t working for them. I saw it most recently at the 2019 General Election. People rejected Labour because they’d voted Brexit but Labour was proposing a second referendum. We weren’t listening to them so why should they listen to us?
Tip O’Neill used to be the Speaker of the House, He once said ‘All politics are local.’ He was right.
All politics are local.
Our democracy is fragile and at risk. It’s incumbent upon us to take a long look at ourselves to see where we’re going wrong. When people say ‘I don’t care’ we need to say, ‘I do care. How can we help?’ Only when we start listening and not telling people what their priorities are, will we be able to save our democracy. The politics of hate will win, if we don’t rebuild and learn the lessons of Washington and of Woolwich.