Carpetbagging in Bermondsey
A little over four years ago I joined the Labour Party. I was recruited on my doorstep by a member of the local branch, a quick, wiry, energetic man in his fifties who appeared just at the right moment. After a nomadic wandering across London from bedsit to bedsit, flatshare to flatshare, my cardboard boxes and suitcases eventually necessitating some form of transportation larger than a taxi, my wife and I had finally come to rest next door to a pub in North Southwark.
Catapulted into local politics at a critical time for the Labour Party both locally and nationally, I was to learn a great deal in a very short time about politics in general and the Labour Party in particular, about the relation of the strange theatre of local party politics to the larger world and community outside it, and about the fascinating dynamics of the political meeting. Not really knowing what to expect, and with Auden’s line about the ‘flat, ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting’ hovering disturbingly at the back of my mind, I was gradually drawn into the strenuous world of local activism. After that initial coyness – which is not unusual and which the recruiting sergeants of all parties rarely make allowance for – I moved steadily from a dedicated armchair socialism to a deep involvement in practical politics. Very nearly abandoning a part-time postgraduate thesis on a minor Late Victorian novelist, I found myself in what seemed like a matter of months branch secretary of my local ward and assistant secretary of my constituency party in a period of exceptional turbulence. It was a rapid and brusque introduction to some of the realities of modern British party politics, a crash course I have not regretted in spite of the frustrations – even the sheer exhaustion – it has entailed.
The party I joined was in Bermondsey, a traditional working-class Labour stronghold – one of the safest seats in the country – represented in Parliament by Bob Mellish, whose blunt and bombastic populism was exactly what that sort of seat, that sort of politics, had always considered it needed. But things were changing. The docks which had given employment to the Bermondsey people had gone into an accelerated decline. Mellish’s Canute-like declaration that the docks would be closed ‘over my dead body’ had gone to that special repository where the categorical assertions of politicians are decently laid to rest and forgotten. The visible signs of decay and decline were everywhere apparent and the economic paralysis was paralleled by the ossification of the local political culture. The heroic tale of the old Red Bermondsey has been told in Fenner Brockway’s worthy hagiography of the constituency’s first MP, Alfred Salter. Bermondsey Story is a remarkable account of early municipal socialism, of the high idealism and dedication of the pioneers of Labourism which brought so much tangible benefit to the grimly disadvantaged people of this Thameside backwater at once so near and so far from the prosperous centre of pre-war English society.