Things Can Only Get Better is the personal account of a Labour supporter who survived eighteen miserable years of Conservative government. It is the heartbreaking and hilarious confessions of someone who has been actively involved in helping the Labour party lose elections at every level: school candidate: door-to-door canvasser: working for a Labour MP in the House of Commons; standing as a council candidate; and eventually writing jokes for a shadow cabinet minister.
Along the way he slowly came to realise that Michael Foot would never be Prime Minister, that vegetable quiche was not as tasty as chicken tikki masala and that the nuclear arms race was never going to be stopped by face painting alone.
Do you remember the evening of May 1st, 1997? Do you remember the morning and day that was May 2nd, 1997? Do you remember that things can only get better? That was the first day in my life that I lived under a Labour government. It’s my second political memory. It’s a memory full of joy, and awe, and amazement, and surprise. For John O’Farrell, it was the culmination of nearly two decades of hard work as a Labour activist; and so, over the course of the six months following victory, he wrote his political memoirs of Labour’s time in the wilderness: the result is, of course, Things Can Only Get Better.
This isn’t a standard memoir; really, it’s a series of snapshots in the life of a Labour supporter, taking in each election in which O’Farrell took any active part from the General Election of 1979 that brought Margaret Thatcher to power to that of 1997, which finally removed the Conservative government from office. Things Can Only Get Better is therefore a little parochial at times: Scotland, for instance, which underwent a political earthquake in 1997 unparalleled until 2015, gets only a brief mention, and England outside London barely more than that. When talking about the political mood, it’s notable how often O’Farrell means the political mood in London specifically, or even just in Battersea.
However, that limitation aside, Things Can Only Get Better is actually rather fascinating in one particular way that is often overlooked: the hard work of actually running an election campaign on the local level. O’Farrell worked as ward secretary, campaign agent, and campaign organiser in various elections of various scales over the course of the Tory dominion, and he talks about the processes involved in running a campaign operation. The complete lack of glamour and lack of general recognition volunteers get is something he drives home to the reader with a real sense of the importance of the work.
O’Farrell’s history of the Labour Party’s 1980s wilderness years seems to presage a lot of their new wilderness years in the 21st century; the infighting and desperation, and the arguments over the soul of the party. Things Can Only Get Better sides solidly with the Blairites, because they brought Labour to power, even while acknowledging that Blair was pawning the soul of the party for victory. Obviously, written in 1997 and published in 1998, the decade that followed was something that O’Farrell couldn’t predict, from the Iraq War and erosion of public ownership of public services (such as health and education) to the huge expansion of gay rights and the strengthening of our relationship with Europe.
The biggest theme of O’Farrell’s book, though, is also the reason I’m posting this review out of sequence, the day before election day; as Things Can Only Get Better hammers home time again, it is vital to take part in democracy. It is vital to vote. Polls, time and again, are proved wrong in the book, because people don’t turn out, or because they lied to pollsters; a counsel of despair is a false counsel, because you, the voter, can take part, and O’Farrell has some very choice words for those who claim that both sides are the same:
Other people told me they were not voting because ‘they’re all the same’. As if the party of Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit and Nicholas Ridley was the same as the party of Neil Kinnock, John Prescott and Dennis Skinner. The idea that there’s no point in voting because ‘they’re all the same’ is just intellectually lazy. You don’t have to wholly endorse everything one particular candidate stands for, you just have to consider one person as preferable to the other. If all of them are completely unacceptable, then stand for election yourself. Nothing gets my hackles up more than people who should know better copping out of the political system because they think they are above it. (p215)
That quote also illustrates one of the great strengths of Things Can Only Get Better; O’Farrell, a writer for Have I Got News For You and Spitting Image, and occasional joke-polisher for then-Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, is funny. He’s angry, he’s passionate, he’s political, and all of that is interspersed with brilliant bon mots, and moments that undercut his moral severity; O’Farrell isn’t above poking fun at himself or at the foibles of the Labour Party, any more than he’s above making cracks at the expense of the Tories. Some of the things O’Farrell goes after are the easy, obvious targets, but he’s also willing to do the harder political lifting too.
In the end, Things Can Only Get Better is a paean to the importance of getting stuck in and persisting to create change; I look forward to O’Farrell’s sequel, Things Can Only Get Worse, to be released in September, bringing the story up to the current election. Now, go out and vote on Thursday, write O’Farrell’s last chapter for him… and let’s make it a hopeful, progressive one!