Furthering the Bemolution in a portakabin, with raffle-breaks
When The Bemolution is back in the West Country, we’re involved in a local campaign group. It originally came together in late 2009 – council proposals to shut and demolish a popular town-centre swimming pool rallied a wide array of fitness fanatics, disabled swimmers, political activists, trade unionists, and previously apolitical concerned citizens, all angry at the nonchalance with which our elected officials were willing to close a much-loved, much-used public amenity.
Out of this angry mulch, something more permanent coalesced. The result was a multi-purpose campaigning pressure group that convenes fortnightly in a glorified portakabin in the train station car park, holding meetings that are a bizarre fusion of feisty politics and village-fete gentility, kind of like a Socialist Workers branch meeting attended by the cast of Last Of The Summer Wine.
Scorching denunciations of corporate unaccountability are shortly followed by discussions of what kind of cakes should be brought to the fundraising picnic. Strange things happen frequently. A gentleman inexplicably known as Harry Hand-Signals once came in with a chunk of the town bridge. It passed without comment. A genuinely lovely Marx-bearded gentleman who sits quietly at the side of the room, occasionally interjecting to make comments in the most polite, self-effacing manner imaginable, suddenly stood up at the end of the last meeting and spoke for half an hour about how the council’s lack of public consultation suggested that we’d soon be living under a fascist regime in which disabled people would be exterminated.
Usually, five minutes before the end, someone we’ve never seen before who’s sat at the back and said nothing for the preceding two hours and fifty-five, will suddenly start talking loudly about their credit card bills or ‘all the mess those foreign ones leave outside their takeaway shops’, and a combination of English politeness and the rules of the organisation mean we’re all impelled to patiently listen.
At half-time, everything stops for a raffle. We’ve never seen a Trotskyist postman look happier than when he’s fishing raffle tickets out of a bowl.
The swimming pool situation ended messily:
The council claimed the pool cost too much to maintain as it was, let alone to refurbish in line with modern health and safety requirements. Independent surveys cast considerable doubt on the council’s figures. When it became common knowledge that Tescos were interested in acquiring the land the pool stood on, suddenly people realised why the council might seem so keen to get rid of it.
In a last-gasp piece of subversion that shocked nearly everyone, especially the council, about 30 members of the then-nameless group occupied the pool building (meanwhile, we were heroically furthering the Bemolution in a bed-sit above a chip shop, watching Countdown and occasionally having press-releases dictated to us down the phone to email out to various media outlets). Eventually, the council obtained a legal injunction forcing the protestors to leave – they did, the pool was shut, stripped of anything valuable, and quickly demolished.
By this stage, though, the issue had become about far more than a swimming pool. A whole new section of the townsfolk had become aware of what grizzled left-wingers well used to the Custer’s Last Stand-school of doomed gesture politics had been moaning about for years – that whatever they did, the people of the town had absolutely no control over the supposedly democratic body that made decisions ‘for’ them.
The town is a rusting post-industrial berg with wincingly high levels of child poverty and general deprivation, its already-dismal economic situation exacerbated by recession. In the centre, the few independent businesses left are slowly dying off, taking the last vestiges of the town’s individuality to the grave with them. What’s left is becoming just another strategic objective in the ponderous chain-store chess game carving up the rest of the country.
The town was made a borough by King John in 1200, and remained so until the 1970s when Edward Heath’s local government reforms submerged it in a much larger Non-Metropolitan District. Unsurprisingly, given its social make-up and its industrial heritage, the town has been consistently Labour for decades. Before it was abolished, the self-determining ‘Red Borough’ cleared slums, built council houses and had one of the best social service records in the country.
But with the unwelcome arrival of the District Council, servicing a swathe of rural villages as well as the town, this all stopped. Somerset being Somerset, the new council was solidly, unshakably Tory, and has remained so ever since.
Effectively, it has an in-built Conservative majority. The wealthy conservative-minded residents of said rural villages unsurprisingly elect wealthy conservative-minded Conservative councillors. The result is that the town that provides the council with a big slice of its tax revenue, acts as its administrative HQ, and accounts for a sizeable proportion of the district’s population is treated with unveiled disdain by the people that run it.
The town continues to return left-leaning councillors, predominantly Labour, occasionally Liberal. But even in the staggeringly unlikely event that every townsperson eligible could be convinced to vote Labour, it still wouldn’t be nearly enough to stem the blue tide that rolls in from quaint hill-top villages every four years. Somerset County Council flits between the Liberals and the Tories, our Tory MP usually wins with a 10,000-vote majority. The town’s problems never get seriously addressed.
And thus, an eccentric mix of seasoned politicos and rank amateurs meet every two weeks in a box in a car park to talk about how to stand up for the interests of the townspeople against fairly overwhelming odds.
The group’s name is the town’s name, followed by ‘Forward!’, strident exclamation mark and all. We weren’t there when they chose it. In our head, though, it’s filed under ‘Forehead!’, as a toddler might shout if shown a picture of Pete Townsend. It’s what a Bennite Labour councillor friend of ours calls it when it annoys him. He dutifully attends every meeting, but gets frustrated with the sluggish pace of debate and the awkwardness of some of the personalities involved. When the love-child of Captain Birdseye and David Icke monologues about creeping totalitarianism for 30 minutes when you’ve already been in a meeting for three hours, this reaction is understandable.
Regardless, it’s the kind of politics we like being involved in. Non-party, necessarily pragmatic, and involving all sorts of people, not just robots who want to talk about Marx’s Labour Theory Of Value. The chances of anything approaching success are tiny, of course, but that’s not the point.