John McTernan: The true heroes of politics

A Labour candidate campaigns door to door ' the kind of pavement politics that swims against a tide of cynicism and isolating technology. Picture: Getty
A Labour candidate campaigns door to door ' the kind of pavement politics that swims against a tide of cynicism and isolating technology. Picture: Getty
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Tirelessly knocking on doors, pushing leaflets through letterboxes and contesting unwinnable seats, an army of party activists keeps the faith, writes John McTernan

‘You’re Veronica McTernan’s son, aren’t you?” boomed a Scottish voice across the bar filled with conference delegates in the Grand Hotel in Brighton. That took me right back to my teenage years in Edinburgh, when I was defined within the Labour Party not in my own right but as an appendage of my parents. I’m a grown-up I thought, I’ve worked for three prime ministers, and I’ve got my own enemies on Twitter and everything.

The delegate went on: “Your mum, she makes the best cakes.” Agreeing, and asking how he knew, I realised that this was one of my mother’s most diligent campaign supporters. She is standing in a council by-election in the Borders today – one that she will only win if there is a miracle, or as she’d say, “a red revolution”. But that’s the point. She’s flying the flag just like she always has done. Indeed, she’s been standing in unwinnable seats for the past forty years – she’d probably have a heart attack if she won.

Once, in Morningside, someone insultingly, but rather brilliantly, wrote against her name: “Not under any circumstance.” A memorable way to spoil your ballot. But it didn’t matter – her aim was not to win, it was to give people a Labour candidate. And the seeds she sowed paid off – Edinburgh South and eventually Edinburgh Pentlands ended up with Labour MPs. The toil was rewarded. But flying the flag was an end in itself. She and hosts of people like her in every single party in the country are the true, if unsung, heroines (and heroes) of British politics.

There’s a lot said nowadays about the lack of respect for professional politicians. Almost all of it is true. When you are less respected than estate agents and loan-sharks you either need to find a different profession or a different country – or maybe both. But anyone who works in or around politics knows that despite the frailty of individual politicians there is a nobility inherent in the enterprise.

It’s not the vaulting ambition of the key players. Why on earth do MPs say they came into politics to change the world? The honest answer is that they came into it because they like to tell other people what to do. What else, in the end, is legislation or taxation but enforced conduct or confiscate earnings? And it’s not their crisp, clear and honest analysis of the world. Listen to a government minister of any party. Don’t you wish that you could believe in anything as much as they seem to believe in everything, at least everything that they are doing at any given time.

The true nobility lies with the true believers, the ones who pound the pavement week after week. The people who never seek high office or even a paid staff job. For them, politics is something between a vocation and a civic duty. They leaflet a neighbourhood, they canvass for support for their party, they raise money – without them there would be no political parties. And let’s imagine a world without political parties. I know, I know. Doesn’t seem so bad, in a way, does it? But forget the politicians, just for the moment. In the end, politics is a way we pool our differences – I trade my views about defence of the realm against yours about privatisation and someone else’s on freedom and liberty. We settle for one tribe or another and find a party that broadly represents what we want. The miracle is that it works.

Labour, Lib Dem, Tory or SNP. Members of political parties find enough of a family resemblance between their beliefs and those of their fellow believers to know that they can march under a common banner for change – or, as with Ukip, march boldly into the past. We are blessed to live in a democracy – despite all its flaws – because our political parties allow a mass of individuals to transmit their values and preferences upwards. The alternative is the downward transmission of a monolithic ideology. And as the radicals said in the Sixties – democracy is in the streets.

It starts with my mum and her activists (and her opponents and their supporters) knocking on your door. We take for granted the fact that a total stranger can knock on your door and ask who you are going to vote for – and that we are happy to tell them. We let canvassers write it down, store the information on a computer and then use it to pester us on polling day until they know we have voted.

Think of what that says about how deep our trust in each other is. In some countries it can still be life-threatening – or at least limb-threatening – to let neighbours, let alone strangers, know how you will vote. If there is a greatness still about Britain it is surely here, where we weave and re-weave the delicate bonds of our communities at every election. For there are European countries with long traditions of democracy where door-to-door canvassing is looked at as a massive invasion of privacy. Not us.

But it’s more even than that. It’s an antidote to modern life. What is it that characterises how we live today? Speed – of life, of transport, of trends, of change. And cocooning by technology as well. Talking or texting on our phones as we walk down a street – and, sometimes fatally, as we drive. Doing the same on public transport, or reading our Kindle or our tablet. Listening to an iPod. Shutting ourselves off from each other in every way possible. Just as there is a fashion nowadays for slow food, we need slow communities too. And pavement politics is the basic building block of that. Walking from house to house, flat to flat. Delivering leaflets. Knocking on doors. Talking to people. Seeing the broken paving stones. Hearing about the street lights that don’t work. Promising to get something done about it – and delivering. Renewing the physical capital of an area, but refreshing its social capital too.

Cynicism about politics is summed up in the phrases – “they’re all the same” and “if voting changed anything they’d abolish it”. Not true. The party people you see on your doorstep – during elections, and between them – modestly and unassumingly refute those statements. They make the difference because they are the difference. Newton famously said his achievements in science were because he stood on the shoulders of giants. In politics the reverse is true, the big things are achieved because the leading politicians are supported by a host of little people – what Burke called the small battalions.

So, when my mum loses her by-election tomorrow (the count is on Friday) I will raise a glass to her and the political culture she creates. And I’ll raise a glass to the members and activists of every other party too – without them our system would not work.

• John McTernan is a former communications director to former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and was political secretary to prime minister Tony Blair

The Scotsman Conferences is hosting a series of events capturing the many facets of the Scottish independence debate. 3 December sees a formidable line up of expert speakers tackle “The Independence White Paper: A Business Plan for Scotland?” For more details on this and other great events please visit www.scotsmanconferences.com