Oh, I was irritating when I was 15.
On our way to school, my friends would stop at Ian’s Newsagents and scatter their pocket money on the counter to work out how many fizzy cola bottles and packets of Space Raiders they could get. I’d do the same, but mine would have a copy of The New Statesman thrown in too.
In my RE class, the children would write out one-line answers to the essay questions about abortion and terrorism and slavery, whereas I’d be bowed over the desk, nose to paper, furiously scribbling out pages and pages of precocious ramblings. The teacher would return my jotter, coated in red-inked comments, and I’d fire more back at him in my blunt pencil.
My proudest possession in those teenage years wasn’t an autographed pop star annual but my Labour Party membership card, and I’d spend evenings trudging round housing estates shoving leaflets through doors (I was too young to be allowed to canvass). I could be found on local gala days manning the Labour Party’s tombola stall, ankle-deep in the damp grass, shaking a bucket of tickets at passersby.
I’d go home and watch Newsnight whilst everyone else my age was watching Friends.
Campaigning is hard – especially when everyone thinks you’re an oddball. It requires time and energy. You also need a fair amount of courage to knock on doors when you’ve no idea who is going to swing it open and confront you. Your feet get wet and you miss your dinner and the bitchy girls in the back of the class say “How come you’re into all that politics? What’s up with you?”
I left the Labour Party in disgust when I was 18. New Labour’s snooty refusal to hold a conference in traditional, working-class Blackpool was the trigger for my resignation, though the rot had set in when Blair ditched Clause IV.
I was appalled at their cringing desire to be accepted by Middle England as they went flouncing off to posh Bournemouth and fancy Brighton, cutting Blackpool out of the loop for years. The snub to this fine old town, which symbolised their working-class credentials, was the final insult for me.
(I received a simpering letter from John Prescott’s office insisting that Tony Blair has ‘fond memories’ of Blackpool – I still have the letter – but the damage was done. The Labour Party were slick and soulless and unrecognisable and I was out of there.)
I’ve never re-joined a party but I still consider myself political. Recently I read Fast Food Nation and was spurred into a furious boycott of McDonalds. For weeks I was smug and proud of my willpower but then my boyfriend and I were on the motorway, travelling home from Angus, hungry, tired and tetchy. He spotted a McDonalds and suggested we stop. At the thought of their hot burgers gleaming fries and luscious ice cream I wilted. I gave in and – oh – how I gorged on the despicable food I’d sworn to boycott. But I was hungry, and I was weak and I’m only human, after all.
So yes: campaigning, boycotting, and being an activist is hard. You really do need some steel in you, and it’s easy to recoil from political activism when you read about people chained to trees or the awesome Greenham Common women. That kind of life just isn’t desirable – or even possible – for most people. From the safety of your sofa, you may flinch at footage of people being dragged off into police vans at Faslane and think “Don’t fancy that much”, and who could criticise you? I just had a Happy Meal, so there’s certainly no blame coming from me.
And when we read about Iain Duncan Smith and the latest abomination to emerge from Westminster it’s easy to feel we can’t do much, not when we’re up against the mass of voters who keep relentlessly returning these people to power. How simple it is to shrug and feel that your one small voice or your floppy batch of rain-spattered leaflets won’t make a difference.
So what can us weak or flawed or just plain knackered-from-work ordinary folk do? How can you be politically active if you don’t want to get your socks soaked or give up your precious Saturdays or land yourself in a brush with the law?
You could mark an X on the ballot paper on 18 September. It’ll take a few seconds. (Okay, factoring in the trip to the polling station, maybe 20 minutes.) You could help to bring about a huge change – bigger than anything any UK political party will ever be able to do in your lifetime – without having to sacrifice anything, or boycott anywhere, or get teargassed. You won’t have to buy a chain or a tent or thank God, any lentils.
How magnificent it is to realise that, if enough of us get off the sofa and make that strange mark on the ballot paper, we’ll have won a peaceful revolution so dramatic that people used to have to die in their thousands to achieve it (and still do, elsewhere in the world). By doing that one tiny thing, you’ll be more effective than all the hordes of campaigners. You’ll be doing more in one pencil-stroke than armies of them manage in a whole lifetime of leafleting and lecturing and doorbell-ringing.
I’m glad of political activists, of course, and they have my admiration and empathy, but the referendum wrests the power away from the vocal and the privileged and the sharp-suited and places it roughly in our own hands. All we need to do is make our mark.