The Personal Column: On not partying

IssueAugust 2015 - September 2015
Comment by Jeff Cloves

It will be hard for young readers of PN to comprehend what living under the threat of aptly-named MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – was like, but believe me when I write that I didn’t expect to live to see my 21st birthday.

In 1961 (I think that was the year), the Labour Party conference voted in favour of CND’s policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and on the strength of this commitment alone, I joined the Co-op Party which was affiliated – and still is as far as I know – to the Labour Party. This was the first and only time in my life I joined a political party and I didn’t survive long.

The leadership of the Labour Party ignored this conference decision and continued its commitment to nuclear weapons – as it does to this day.

When my local constituency Labour Party set about selecting its candidate for the next general election, the only one among the applicants who was not in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament – a rather posh lawyer as I recall – was selected.

In dismay, the local CND group put up its own candidate and I wrote a letter in support of him to the local paper. I was promptly expelled from the Labour and Co-operative Party after only a matter of months. Never again. In the event the Labour candidate was routinely defeated by the sitting Tory MP – a Tory cabinet minister – and CND’s candidate was routed.

Now this story comes to mind because to my surprise – and maybe to other readers’ surprise – the June–July edition of PN devoted two precious pages to an article headlined ‘Why “why Labour lost” matters to anarchists, anti-cuts activists and climate campaigners’.

As those three categories apply to me, I’d like to state here and now that ‘why Labour lost’ is a matter of indifference to me. I regard the Labour Party as a monumental irrelevance. Why should I wring my hands over a party committed to capitalism, the free market, and armed-might? To this I could add lip-service to the royal family, the Church of England, the house of lords and public schools.

As soon as I became involved in CND, I felt better about myself and the world. I met people who became my friends for life – I bought my first copy of PN on the Aldermaston March – and I found strength in numbers.

Above all, I learned how to set about trying to initiate change without recourse to the dead hand of parliament. Did we change – have we changed anything? It’s impossible to know and impossible to measure but, unknowingly, I was introduced to Walt Whitman’s stirring commandment from his collection of poems Leaves of Grass (1900):

To The States, or any one of
them, or any city of The States,
Resist much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience,
once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation,
state, city, of this earth, ever
afterward resumes its liberty.

I am fired by this sentiment and find it analagous to the 1960s’ promotion of ‘The Invisible Insurrection Of A Million Minds’ – a principle I’ve referred to many times. And of course there are Shelley’s famous lines from the ‘Masque of Anarchy’:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few.

None of the above – in fact or by implication – place reliance on political parties or even refer to them. At one time, PN’s masthead always proclaimed itself ‘For nonviolent revolution’ [it’s still there! – ed]. No party-political reference there nor should there be.

I have always been a non-party political writer and believe the only valid opposition to unquestioning obedience is extra-parliamentary action. ‘Why Labour lost’ is an unnecessary distraction. Party loyalty is an anathema to me.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if it was decreed that for a year (say) every vote in parliament was a free vote and the whips were banished to Hades. Might MPs – even Labour MPs – recover their conscience and independence? I doubt.

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