Magazine article The Spectator

I Joined the Barmy Army

Magazine article The Spectator

I Joined the Barmy Army

Article excerpt

CALL me a fool but I like to take New Labour at its word. When I heard that `opportunity for all' is now official party policy, I decided to seize the chance with both hands. Having got the nod from this magazine's editor I infiltrated the Tottenham by-election team in order to earn a few bob reporting from Labour's inner-city heartlands. There we are. I've come clean right at the start. I hope no one at Labour headquarters raises any objections. On the other hand, I almost hope they do. It'd be fun to see them complaining about someone masquerading as a socialist in order to advance his own agenda.

The by-election was called after the death of Bernie Grant, the radical left-wing MP known as `Barmy Bernie' to the tabloids. When I arrived at the campaign nerve-centre in Tottenham I found the Barmy Army busy blowing up balloons. They'd formed a production line. One activist distributed balloons from a box, another inflated them from a helium cylinder, another handed out bits of string, and so on. I had ari inkling something symbolic was taking place: a chain-gang of party workers inflating plastic bubbles bearing an empty slogan (Vote Labour) from a tank full of non-flammable, lighter-than-air gas provided by Millbank. Was this new Labour encapsulated or was I just being cynical?

I soon found myself in charge of knotting the balloons. I was amazed that a nonmember could rise so swiftly through the Labour hierarchy - but, in the party of opportunity, talent talks.

We set up a pavement stall on Tottenham High Road, a cramped, gusty causeway bobbing with litter and snorting with buses. It can't be long before the council restyles this street in honour of its deceased MP. The only question is, how? Grant Grove, perhaps. Bernie Broadway. Or maybe just Barmy Boulevard.

We found ourselves in competition with a Marxist splinter-group who had got up early and colonised the best campaigning turf. This is where the Conservatives differ from Labour. Disgruntled Tories tend to hijack the party from within, while Labour's revolting fringes prefer to quit altogether and form doomed little coteries-in-exile. Just three months old, the latest band of sputters is called the London Socialist Alliance (LSA), a name chosen from the Directory of Forgettable Acronyms (DFA), which Millbank makes freely available to all Labour members who are about to disaffiliate. We eyed each other suspiciously.

I skimmed through our campaign leaflet and found the usual basketful of platitudes. Boosting jobs, cutting crime, doubling this, halving that. Our candidate, David Lammy, beamed from behind a pair of steel-framed spectacles, an earnest young lawyer with a bland, handsome face, a no-nonsense chin and a row of immaculate teeth that came billowing off the page like a line of freshly laundered shirts.

His CV is astonishing. A thimbleful of luck and a sackful of talent. He was born and raised in Tottenham, and his agile intellect somehow convinced his teachers that they were not competent to educate him. He had the good fortune to sing well and he was packed off to a choir school in Peterborough. From there he went to London University and then to Harvard Law School. Aged 21 he qualified for the English Bar. At 27 he is already a member of the Greater London Assembly, and there seems no limit to how high he could rise. His career would make a marvellous advertisement for `equal opportunity' under Labour. There's just one teensy snag. His full-time education fell within the span of the Tory administration.

He knew Mr Grant personally and we were advised to tell voters that `David Lammy will carry on where Bernie Grant left ofP. And Mr Grant's death has revived the memory of another cordial friendship as well. The campaign leaflet carried a personal eulogy entitled `Bernie Grant Remembered. By the Labour Prime Minister.' As I read this dignified and heartfelt message I got a powerful sense of Mr Blair's raw anguish, of his profound, inconsolable pain. …

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