Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell

The sequel to 1998’s bestselling Things Can Only Get Better takes us through a crazy twenty years with the decline of New Labour through to Corbyn, Brexit and Trump.

When Things Can Only Get Better was released in 1998, it propelled its author John O’Farrell into the world of minor political celebrity. In 2010, The Economist revealed it to be the best-selling book by a British political figure since the turn of the millennium. Only his US contemporaries Barack Obama and Bill Clinton sold more books in the U.K.

2010 list

A coming of age memoir, it was to politicos what Fever Pitch was to football fans. Whereas Nick Hornby reassured a generation of football fans that it was fine to measure your life in seasons rather than years, O’Farrell measured his in election cycles. And we loved him for it.

Things Can Only Get Better, had focused on the often dreary nature of doorstep activism in Battersea, during the Labour wilderness years of the 1980’s. Yet, when he scored his unlikely hit, this style of politics seemed like a relic from a bygone era. Political parties were in the midst of a huge decline in membership and party conferences had become as stagnant as the seaside towns they were held in. The dominant media narrative was that all politicians were the same, managerialism had replaced ideology and that voting couldn’t actually change anything. In 2005 The BBC investigated whether Big Brother really is more popular than election?

Now, all of a sudden, everything has changed. The next general election will be won by the side who can best bolster their election campaign on the ground. Being a left-wing political activist is cool again. So it is timely that Labour’s celebrity door knocker is back, with a second memoir, to chart the highs, the lows, the regrets and compromises of being a Labour activist while the party was in power.

Things Can Only Get Worse? begins in May 1997 as O’Farrell is swept along to the Royal Festival Hall, where he shakes hands with the first Labour prime minister of his adult life. “We’ve waited so long! We’ve waited so long!!’ he shouts, as it appears the Tories will never govern again. Yet there are doubts beneath the triumph and celebration. After 18 years, he admits to being “hard-wired for opposition” and longing for “the easy certainties” of protest. It’s an issue that Labour activists have battled with ever since – the virtue of opposition vs compromise of governing.

In the early 00s, New Labour and O’Farrell are no longer the underdogs, as we chart his journey from humble political activist to establishment insider – dining with Tony Blair, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Jimmy Saville at Chequers. For most activists, being so close to the inner circle of power would be a dream come true. But there are still doubts, as he observes that “all of us are pretending we are something we are not.”

tony_blair

Nevertheless, O’Farrell and New Labour seemed like the perfect fit. He’d left his friends at the CND rallies for the cosy world of TV sofas and Have I Got News for You. He became the safe bet for Labour politicians, and was asked to conduct the first ever online interview with a serving prime minister.

With his new-found responsibility, he decided to stand for election in 2001, against Theresa May, in his hometown of Maidenhead. Yet for all his progress, he remained an outsider there – New Labour might have swooned ‘Mondeo Man’ and ‘Worchester Woman’ over to their cause but Maidenhead remained stoically blue. Safe in the certainties of another Labour landslide, O’Farrell could enjoy the campaign, as May defeated him – only to become “just another powerless Tory MP resigned to another term in opposition.” No one is as surprised as him at the dramatic turn in events since, admitting that she “never, ever struck me as someone so brilliant or inspiring that she would surely end up running the country” He experienced in 2001 what the nation did in 2017, when they looked closely at her and thought she was distinctly average.

It was during the 2001 election, that William Hague talked of “the liberal elite” creating a “foreign land”. Hague seemed as out as touch with the New Britain as Michael Foot had in the early 1980s. Fast forward to 2013 and Labour are fighting for political survival. Ed Miliband turns to O’Farrell to add some glamour to the Eastleigh by-election, which has been dubbed ‘the most important this century’. O’Farrell has a novel idea. He uses his twitter platform to canvass for the nomination and build up a support base. He starts off well and sees his odds tumble from 100/1 to 8/1.

Eastleigh by-election

But the very book that had brought him closer to the centre of politics, would now bring his political aspirations to a shuddering halt; The Daily Mail rake over Things Can Only Get Better and find a controversial comment he made about Thatcher over the Falklands war. He quickly became an ‘enemy of the people’ before it was even popular, and was shocked to find himself subject to “the two minutes of hate”. Besides, O’Farrell would have been wasted in Westminster. As for the idea that minor celebrities can cause controversy on twitter in an attempt to launch a political career? That will never catch on…

It was his candid honesty and self-awareness that made Things Can Only Get Better such a massive hit and O’Farrell has not lost any of his authenticity along the way. Things Can Only Get Worse? tells the story of a political obsessive who finally gets to meet his heroes, only to find out they are just the same as the rest of us and have no idea what’s going on either. Old worries are replaced by new ones, as he is forced to defend the indefensible (PFI and The Dome) as well as maturing to take on greater responsibility, by campaigning and managing to set up a new school in Lambeth.

There is self-doubt and anxiety that he has made the wrong choices along the way; admitting “I voted for Ed Miliband and then wondered why I felt nervous that he’d won.” There is also reconciliation, as he admits that he became too focused on compromise to gain power and was blindsided but impressed by Corbyn’s general election turnaround.

In an age where politics has become much more tribal and vitriolic, O’Farrell is now the voice of rationality, teaching us that is okay to doubt our own beliefs at times. In an age of ‘silver bullet’ politics, where twitter activists pledge undying ‘cult’ like loyalty to Blair/Corbyn/Brexit/Trump, his ability to question the absurdity of it all shines through. Modesty, self-doubt and an ironic sense of humour are not qualities that are associated with our politicians. Unfortunately for O’Farrell’s political career, he has these qualities in spades, and his sequel will be another welcome addition to every politico’s bookshelf.

John O’Farrell is the bestselling author of four novels, including The Man Who Forgot His Wife. He has also written comic non-fiction such as An Utterly Impartial History of Britain and the political memoir, Things Can Only Get Better. 

Things Can Only Get Worse? is out now and is published by Penguin. You can purchase it here Hive

 

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