Friday, 5 September 2008
A communist barbeque
The first vote I cast was for a communist. It was in the Greater London Council elections of 1973.
Back in those days, I had great hopes of elections. I attended the public meetings - there were several and they were packed. I interrogated canvassers about their beliefs. I met the candidates as they campaigned in shopping centres and asked my questions. In that first election, I didn't make up my mind till just before polling day. I never agonised so much about a vote till 1997, when an encounter with Tony Blair finally persuaded me that I couldn't vote New Labour.
Back in 1973, there were four candidates. I can't remember who the Tory was. Records name a Mrs Williams. The Labour candidate was Marie Jenkins, wife of the MP standing in what was then a safe Labour seat. I didn't consider voting Liberal as I'd never met the candidate, Walter Hain. (Later I came to know, like and respect him and his wife, especially for their opposition to apartheid which cost them so much.) The communist candidate was called Dave Welsh.
I must have wanted to vote Labour because I sought out Marie Jenkins and asked her about her policies. Perhaps she thought I was younger than I was or perhaps I took her manner the wrong way. I can't remember what she said but I burned with shame at what I read as her condescension. In my memory, which may be false, she is wearing a fur coat - not necessarily real fur - and was visiting the council estate in a large car. I am certain she didn't take my earnestness seriously. I was eighteen and very intense. And I'd come across several people who assumed council tenants were stupid and criminal. I saw no reason to vote for someone who saw me, on the evidence of my address, as an inferior.
Dave Welsh was different from the other candidates. He lived in a council flat and, like my dad, worked for London Transport. When he spoke, he spoke with knowledge and experience about council housing and public transport. He also spoke approvingly of the Soviet Union, suggesting things were much better there. I wasn't convinced about Russia - films of tanks on the streets of Prague in 1968 suggested a grey oppression far from the optimism of the Communist Manifesto. But the Greater London Council wasn't concerned with foreign policy. I cared about council housing and public transport. I wanted a councillor who would speak with knowledge on behalf of other working people. I voted for Dave Welsh and, for a few hours, hoped that enough other people would vote as I did. He didn't win.
Communist councillors and councils are pretty rare in Britain. It's different in France. My friends in France have communist councillors and, when I last visited, I saw their announcements of a forthcoming communist barbeque in the public square.
As a non-tenant and non-voter, I was a little hesitant about turning up. I also realised that, in France, there wouldn't be anything for me to eat. But I could at least see what a communist barbeque looked like.
I arrived too early, just as they were setting up, but the communists didn't look intimidating. They were busy cooking sausages and dispensing cans of drink. I'd hoped there would be a sale of badges or stickers so that I could find a gift for my son but there was nothing like that. Instead there were leaflets advertising the latest communist initiatives: sales of fruit and vegetables at fair prices.
The French communist party has formed an alliance with some French farmers who, like British farmers, complain that they are forced to sell their produce at low prices so that it can be sold on at a high price in the shops. Communist leaflets suggest that, as a result, fruit and vegetables are becoming a luxury. The Communist response was simple and practical: they were transporting 60 tonnes of fruit and vegetables from the countryside and selling them at 100 stalls in the Paris area. The aim was fairer pay for the farmers and cheaper produce for hard-up Parisiens. Apparently they do this regularly.
I was impressed. My local councillors may hold surgeries, but they don't hold public barbecues in the High Road. Instead of helping small farmers make a living, they agree planning permission for yet another large supermarket and tell their angry electors that it's all for their good.
My French still isn't great but I managed a conversation with some of the communists. Mostly we compared rising prices in France and Britain. I remember that I characterised New Labour as "Les Pseudo-Travaillistes", speaking of the government's current fondness for big business. A communist ventured the opinion that Sarkozy and Thatcher were the same. I think I can detect differences but I saw his point. Anyway, my French wasn't up to a more detailed discussion.
I looked at the prices on the list of fruit and vegetables for sale. They were definitely cheaper than the supermarket. And they seemed to have a lot of nectarines. I'm allergic to nectarines. In any case, the sales were meant for the local people and I was getting ready to go home.