What have I got myself into? What am I going to say? What if they shout at me? What is Labour’s policy on that?
All of these thoughts and went through my head as I walked into town to canvas for the Labour Party for the first time. Little did I know that I was about to spend one of the happiest and most joyful afternoons of my life!
My childhood was happy enough, spent growing up in Portsmouth, on the south coast. I did well at school and enjoyed learning, I am old enough to have been fortunate to have been given a grant to do my university degree. I decided to become a teacher, a decision that would lead me back to my home town to work. I was assigned to a Primary school on a large council estate and quickly saw a different side to my home town. Fun fact, Portsmouth is the only city in the United Kingdom with a population density that exceeds that of London! Portsmouth as a result has a lot of poverty and deprivation. My teaching evolved to include a large amount of social work. Like my colleagues I began collecting children’s coats from jumble sales, etc. We all had a collection to lend out to our class so the children had a coat to go outside in. These had to be carefully handed in after playtime as any that went home would disappear and be sold. I also became a master at including food in as many lessons as possible, any excuse to get food into the children without parent being offended that you were feeding their children. It was a challenging environment but I would spend twenty-five years of my life in the same place and only left to move to another town when I married my husband.
My experiences in education galvanised my politics. I will always vote Labour because I remember those children and the poverty, they experienced every day. I believe firmly that every government should be judged on how it treats those who can’t fight for themselves. Similarly, I can never forgive the Liberal Democrats for the part they played in implementing austerity bringing misery to millions. Those policies were created to hurt the most vulnerably sections of our society, and the Government must be held to account for that.
I had been a labour party member for a few years, I drifted away during the Blair years and found it hard to see my beliefs represented by New Labour, but I had felt able to rejoin the party after Jeremy’s election, as his policies and speeches reinvigorated a sense of belief in being able to make a difference. However, although I was happy to pay my subscription, read the emails and follow the news, I was yet to actually take the plunge and put my head above the battlements and commit myself publicly to backing the party. I don’t know why really. Something held me back. Perhaps an insecurity in myself or perhaps the belief that I didn’t know enough to be very useful. But somewhere deep inside was a feeling that I had to do something. That the Conservative government were taking the country down a dark path that I didn’t recognise as the country I wanted to belong to. Anyway, one day an email came into my inbox, just a little message to all members, “we’re doing a stall in Berkhamsted on Saturday and we’d love to see you there.” Before I knew what, I’d done I’d said yes and committed myself. I’d had a very friendly email back reassuring me that it would be fine, no it didn’t matter that I hadn’t done it before and that there would be plenty of people to support me through the day.
There I was, walking into town, past the shops and stalls, up to the very end of the market, opposite the Oxfam shop. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Mark. I emailed about helping.” I was greeted warmly and introduced to the other helpers and really made to feel like part of a team. I began to warm to the task at hand.
The next three hours were gone in a flash. Standing there in front of the stall proudly displaying the Labour Party name and logo it was like a weight had been lifted. All the tension drained away, little by little, leaflet by leaflet, I realised that this would be the start of many days canvassing and leafleting. As people past I’d offer a leaflet, many were accepted, some were declined with a polite, “No thank you.” Some people would stop and chat, some had specific questions, most I found much to my surprise I could answer! But sometimes my comrades stepped in and helped or expounded on what I’d said. Most people, broadly speaking accept or even welcome you being there, and those who don’t tend to avoid you anyway. I decided I quickly learned that a smile and a have a good day goes a long way for everyone whether they take a leaflet or not. Imagine it really frustrates the Tories to see a happy stand of Labour volunteers having a great time and obviously enjoying themselves!
Now, as someone who has always been obviously gay, I never had to come out to anyone. People always knew and that was fine with me. But although my politics were well known to my closet friends and I was happy enough to argue about inequality and social injustice at any time, I never really stated where I stood politically but, being on that stall, on that day, I saw many people who knew me or recognised me. Everyone of them came up and took a leaflet and said “Hello,” and I realised suddenly that this was it! My coming out moment! The day I publicly announced I’m a proud Labour voter and campaigner!