Short Story: ‘Decisions’
The race is on for the Labour nomination at Northloft, a safe seat where the present MP, Fred Parcel, stands down at the next election. Northloft lies athwart a main line railway which in the nineteenth century changed it into a blackened industrial suburb. Some famous Victorian capitalists set down factories there, with terraced streets with workers’ homes in red brick and grey slate. Between the wars council estates were laid out and then came wedges of speculatively-built, cherry-blossomed semis whence clerks set out each day to ride on the railway to the office.
Another effect of the railway was to bring a continuous stream of immigrants — the Welsh and Irish before the war, the Asians and West Indians afterwards. Always they went through the same ritual, living at first in the terraces and then, as they became more established, moving out to the semis, provoking panic about “falling property values” among the “owner-occupiers”. The constituency joined the Labour landslide of 1945. then the Tories won it back again until 1964 when Fred Parcel, feverish with Wilson’s campaign about the white-hot technological revolution, was elected. Fred was always sure that this result came about through his own brilliance.
But brilliant is by no means the first adjective to spring to the lips when describing Fred. A child when his father was out during the General Strike, his political notions were thenceforth based on his comprehensive Theory of the Betrayal of the True Soul of the Labour Movement. Just before the war, this theory led him to join the Communist Party, under the impression that the secret police, labour camps and political massacres of Stalinist Russia offered democracy’s doughtiest defenders against Nazism. Agilely, he followed the party line over the war, the Russo-German Pact and all other inconvenient issues.
Naively, he looked forward to a great Communist triumph in the 1945 election. The arithmetic of the actual result filled Fred with panic; he joined the Labour Party and eventually, through union sponsorship (he was a shunter on the railway) and a local councillorship, he got into parliament as the Honourable Member for Northloft.
His original policy was to transform the House with his brilliance into a humming workshop of revolution. What actually happened was that he found he enjoyed an MP’s life — the congratulatory back-slaps from Tories after a speech, the saluting policeman, the photographs on the Terrace with Miss World contestants, entertaining (his word for what was really a painfully boring experience for them) constituents to tea in the Members’ Common Room.
He became, in a word, doddery and more recently he has been plagued with the guilt-protective hallucinations of senility. He was a sitting target for the reselection zealots and when they became active Fred quickly and meekly surrendered. After months of lobbying, intriguing and personality assassination which have enlivened Northloft’s ward meetings to an unprecedented degree, the short list has shaken down to just four hopefuls:
Roosevelt Bustamente Alexander calls himself the Token Black, which is intended to shame people into supporting him; “positive discrimination” is a phrase never far from his lips. If that fails he will probably rely on packing the membership and for some time his supporters have been energetically recruiting blacks into the party regardless of their political ideas, on the offer of a cut-price subscription. Roosevelt’s tactics have won him support among the more confused lefties, who refuse to recognise a black racist when they see one; in the rest of the party he is called a black bastard. He refers to socialism as “black and white living in harmony together”, which may some day force him to ask himself why he is a member of the Labour Party.
Julian Chatwynd-Speke is a barrister, the effectiveness of whose advocacy may be measured by his numerous clients who. to the surprise of the police, have spent much time behind bars. On the proceeds of his family’s interests in the East Anglian retail trade Julian went to public school and then to Oxford. After a brief undergraduate dalliance with the Liberals, when “community politics” seemed to be the way to power, he chose the Labour Party. While industriously taking himself around many constituency selection meetings he was liable to make speeches in which he slowly enunciated the sacred names of dead Labour heroes — Cripps, Bevan, Gaitskell — but this won him neither the hoped-for rapturous applause nor the candidature. He lives in an expensively refurbished Regency house in Islington, where the word socialism is occasionally mentioned over the sherry glass.
Les Horn, because he is the trade union man, considers himself the favourite for the nomination. Les prides himself on his humble origins and the self-education which taught him negotiating phrases like “let us draw back from the edge of the precipice and see whether there is light at the end of the tunnel” (trade union code for “I am about to sell the workers down the river”) but which did not prevent him becoming the crudest kind of racist. His great hero is Ernie Bevin, in whose memory he pedantically drops his aitches. Les toadies endlessly to anyone he considers his betters (mostly outside the Labour Party) and has been rewarded by appointment as a local magistrate, with a reputation as the harshest sentencer on the bench. His dearest, secret ambition is to become Earl Horn of Northloft; meanwhile his version of socialism is a sort of national factory where the state takes care of you (which, in Les’ mouth, has more than one meaning) whether you like it or not.
Fiona Strang represents what she calls the Wimmin’s Voice of Northloft. After two marriages and divorces, four children and countless affairs she is now a committed, castrating female. No protest, no demonstration, is safe from her presence; creches, nurseries, abortion clinics, are fertilised by the energy in which she seeks to hide her shameful (to her) past as a Roedean schoolgirl. She surges around Northloft s bewildered streets dressed in enormous tents of expensively tatty clothes and her poor children are kept deliberately scruffy and sticky-faced. Her socialism, whenever she has time to think about it, she describes as chipping away at capitalism when in fact she is only the smoother type of sandpaper to the system. Fred Parcel is openly terrified of her and so, when she verbally bludgeons them on their doorsteps, are the defenceless voters of Northloft.
The choice between these candidates will involve the output of much physical and mental energy, which will be gladly given by their supporters in the conviction that the end result is vital. Constituency activists would, however, do well to consider one curious fact. During the 1979 election a team of earnest sociology students descended on Northloft, as a typical English constituency, to assess the voters’ attitudes. They asked questions about strikes, nationalisation, immigration and the like and concluded that, on the basis of their replies, Labour supporters should more logically have voted Tory and vice versa. Northloft. in other words, should have sent a Conservative, and not Fred Parcel, to Westminster. The students were puzzled by their findings and even now, after many learned papers and lengthy seminars back at the university, they have not been able to explain it all.
But they know only the half of it. After all, they are mere commentators on the great, deceiving game of politics; theirs is not to reason why nor to ask who really wins and who, most importantly, always loses.