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Things can only get worse? by John O’Farrell – book review

In a month when life-long party affiliations are being ripped up, John O’Farrell’s second political memoir is a timely read. O’Farrell tells us of his rocky relationship with his beloved Labour Party since the triumphant 1997 general election. Disillusioned with much of New Labour’s policy platform, he makes the political local and campaigns for – and then serves as chair of governors of – a local academy. He runs for elected office. And he writes.

Things can only get worse by John O'FarrellThere are two main themes to the book: it explores what it means to have integrity when politics usually demands compromise, and to work with others while remaining authentic. And it pays tribute to the unsung heroes of our communities, who serve in unglamorous roles, often unthanked or maligned. O’Farrell writes of the satisfaction to be had from helping ordinary people win ‘little victories’ that make a huge difference to their lives. Many books about politics – especially ones with lots of jokes in – are scathing about politicians. This is a warm book: it’s funny but affectionate and as far from a Quentin Letts sketch as you can get – and it’s all the better for it. O’Farrell has heroes – such as the brilliant Alf Dubs – and he’s not scared to show his admiration. Underpinning the two themes is the question: is a Labour government with all its necessary imperfections better than a Conservative one? And, as Labour limps through defeat in 2010 and 2015, the referendum campaign is lost and his party is joined by people more interested in posture politics than pragmatist power, should O’Farrell follow his wife and cut up his party card?

There is plenty of humour, with a joke every couple of paragraphs. (My favourite is when O’Farrell describes desperately trying to make small talk in a florist while a heckler yells from the street: ‘Flowers, yes, and they come in all different colours don’t they’.) O’Farrell points out one of the problems with satire, referring to the role of Have I Got News For You? in promoting the narcissist oaf Johnson. But he uses his jokes to illustrate his serious message, including a very self-aware joke comparing his potential retirement home to the great unknown of his academy school. 

The climax is the June 2017 election, in which O’Farrell umms and ahhs before, perhaps inevitably, voting Labour once again, backing the party’s manifesto if not their candidate (O’Farrell lives in the Vauxhall constituency and his MP is Kate Hoey). Part of me is glad about this: the world is too full of the likes of Dan Hodges and Tom Harris railing against their once-loved party. And the conclusion allows O’Farrell to tie together his themes: politics, he seems to say, is where people can come together to do the right thing. It might be messy but it can be a force for good. (He doesn’t really mean ‘politics’, he means the ‘Labour party’ but he’s being true to his tribe so it’s OK.) 

Two years on, there are many people who still think that Labour’s performance in 2017 was, insofar as it beat expectations, Jeremy Corbyn’s personal triumph. O’Farrell is quick to be graceful and classy and give Corbyn the credit. My own view is that Corbyn’s campaign was highly effective but that the real picture is more nuanced. The warring wings of the party put aside their differences to work together, as much out of self-preservation as anything else. The manifesto was full of popular policies, contrasting sharply with the Conservatives’ mess. And Labour was for many voters the place to help limit Theresa May’s majority without necessarily risking the election of a progressive government, if you don’t like that sort of thing. In 2019, Corbyn’s coalition of leavers and remainers is fracturing. None of this is to be critical of O’Farrell’s book, but the contemporary reader cannot help but fast forward to the present day.

I come away from this book unsure what is going to happen to party loyalties in the immediate future. (I don’t mean O’Farrell’s loyalty to Labour which is enduring.) But at a time when day-to-day coverage of parties is largely negative and divisive, it’s a real pleasure to read such an enthusiastic homage to the unfashionable notion of the political party as a positive movement. When people come together to campaign for change, things can only get better.

You can get Things can only get worse? here (affiliate link)

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