After queuing outside the club for a few hours, our limbs start twitching with tiredness and amphetamines. Vinegar and aftershave waft in the air. We are waiting to get in, watching the twist of lights inside and listening to the thud and slide of distant music. Those in front shuffle forward in their vinyl clothing, gearing up for reckless recreation. Behind us the queue snakes further back; it’s long past midnight, but more people, looking glazed in the rain, keep coming round the corners, out of taxis and off night-buses. Unlikely, but now even this underbelly of society is becoming politicised.
Of the five thousand clubbers who go through these doors in a weekend, many may dimly remember that it was the owner of this club, James Palumbo, who gave a car, a Rover, to Peter Mandelson MP, to help the cause. It is here, at the suitably messianic Ministry of Sound, that the Use Your Vote campaign is organised. Much of the music inside will come from Creation Records, the label which launched Oasis, whose founder, Alan McGee, gave Blair a cool £10,000 to nurture Young Labour and pay for the Youth Rally in Blackpool; it was the same McGee who presented Blair with the band’s platinum disk, and gave the now legendary riposte to Virginia Bottomley when invited to a bash for executives of the music business: ‘I refuse to be used merely as photo fodder for the self-publicity of somebody whose party has no understanding of or compassion for the people of this country.’
In an election campaign timidly built on the values of Middle England and the Daily Mail, covert encouragement has been whispered to the cynical, alienated children of Thatcher; those born in the Seventies, who have only ever been aware of a Tory government, and who are about to vote for the first time; those disengaged from the world of party politics since 1989, when they fell off the electoral register rather than pay the cruel levy of the Poll Tax. That drug-taking, hedonistic, supposedly apathetic generation is being fiercely wooed by a new style of politicking.
New but familiar. Clinton pulled the same, wonderfully shrewd stunt in America: speak to the younger generation, play the sax, intimate you might even once have enjoyed a toke. Now Blair and supporters are apeing him exactly: the wannabe rock band, the pose astride a motorbike, the whole yoof thing. That, as Bill would say, is a ‘bridge’.
Inside, the club is warm with steam and smoke; and a lot of people, a lot of voters, arms aloft throughout the night – manic, toxic dancing. In one campaign last autumn, the Labour Party even sent Prospective Parliamentary Candidates into the strobes, to question, canvass and press the sweaty flesh. Simon Hughes of the Liberal Democrats, the local MP for Southwark and Bermondsey, regularly boasts of his clubbing credentials, gasping for credibility each time he does so. This combination of the carefree and the caring may not be Utopian, but it’s full of Blair’s millenarian ardour: Mark Rodol, managing director of the Ministry of Sound, calls the phenomenon ‘the biggest collaboration of young people since the Sixties’.
‘Tony Blair’s speech brought tears to my eyes,’ whimpered Noel Gallagher, from the rock-hard Oasis, after Blair’s Conference speech last year. Damon Albarn, moody art-house singer with rivals Blur, chips in: ‘I want Labour to get in. I’d like to think that Britain in the 21st century will care about better health care, and care about its education.’
A group of people near us at the bar, celebrating another Chelsea win, remember the late Matthew Harding, impresario at Stamford Bridge, whose timely £1 million for a ‘New Britain’ is helping the message get through. Blair has milked football for all its worth. He has head-tennised with Keegan, kept goal with Alex Ferguson (front page of the in-house magazine, New Labour, New Britain, beaming good intentions: ‘Come On You Reds’). He even has much of the Toon army as his electorate in Sedgefield, and tactfully offered condolences to fans on the day Keegan resigned.
The Mori poll of 6 September last year showed 52 per cent support for Labour among the 25-34 age-group; the 18-24 group showed 59 per cent. Young Labour, the jugend of under-28ers, now boasts some thirty thousand members; membership of the Party has doubled in the last two years.
Almost half a million young people have registered thanks to the Rock the Vote campaign (the rock’n’roll initiative to re-enfranchise youth), which means 400,000 more 18-to-25-year-olds voting this year than in 1992. An apolitical organisation, but helped along by the rocking Noel and Damon, who have, well, given the nod already, it’s no less partisan in practice than Billy Bragg’s Red Wedge. Rodol’s Use Your Vote campaign doesn’t feign impartiality. His postcards are distributed throughout the country’s pubs and clubs; they depict bigots (‘Thank God for Aids’), racists (‘Piss on Niggers’) and smug fox-hunters. The caption: ‘Use your vote. You know he’ll use his.’ Produced under his auspices, new commercials are coming to cinemas this month. Among them, the man in his allotment, explaining that you can’t repot a tropical plant on British soil: it’s like gays, it’s not natural ... ‘Use your vote. You know he’ll use his.’ Also coming to the big screen this month, backed by black-rights campaigners and Charter 88, Operation Black Vote: ‘Let them know you exist.’ These are not initiatives calculated to return a Tory majority.
‘Our generation is political, not party political,’ says Gareth Epps, sabbatical officer for the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students. ‘The pressure group angle is the result of 18 years of rule by one party.’ The policies being pressed for may lack the ideological oomph of Thatcherism, but they have cohered to articulate the simple concerns of voters under thirty. Epps’s proposal in Nottingham last spring to repeal sections of the Criminal Justice Act was subsequently endorsed by the Lib Dem leadership. Green issues, too, have galvanised opposition to the Tory Government, with the road-protester ‘Swampy’, suddenly an icon for all enemies of the motor-car.
At the 1994 Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton a motion was passed calling for a royal commission to look into the decriminalising of soft drugs. Rodol explains: ‘People over forty think Ecstasy one step away from heroin; people under thirty think it one remove from lager.’ Surprised by the support for legalising cannabis in her 1995 Barking Youth Survey, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge concluded: ‘this almost certainly represents a generation gap.’ The chasm between Conservative thought and public opinion is epitomised by Penny Mordant, in charge of the Young Conservative and Unionist Association. It’s difficult to imagine which students she mixed with at Reading: she believes the driving issue for students is the minimum wage. ‘Yes, students are firmly against it.’ But then the Young Conservative Conference was cancelled last year for lack of support.
Black Vote, Queer Vote: it’s all part of the project of bringing a society fractured into the reluctant, politically-agnostic or disinherited back within the orbit of national politics. ‘We need to organise events that are interesting and attractive for young people in Barking’ was one of the earnest conclusions of Margaret Hodge’s survey. BBCI’s Newsround, too, is in on the act: the bastion of innocent news (core age of viewers: eight to 12) is holding a mock-election this spring. Launched by Betty Boothroyd in association with the Hansard Society, the Newsround Election, six days before the real thing, promises that even more votes will be cast (many of the ballot papers being electronic and online) than the half a million last time round.
In another recent initiative, Labour has been keen to register all students to vote ... twice (‘a civil rights issue’, says Ruth Potter, the National Secretary for Labour Students). Portsmouth South has a (Tory) majority of only 242; Loughborough, Cambridge, Oxford West, Exeter and others will have close calls. Major called the last election on 9 April – as luck and calculation had it, a university vacation. ‘This time,’ Potter says, ‘there has been a post and proxy campaign.’ Students – typically the most mobile sector of the electorate – will not only vote, but do so tactically, either at home, or at the campus.
Educational and recreational centres always used to be political, from the working-men’s clubs to the phalanx of women in the Tory heartlands, cooking and knitting and fêting for funds. The arenas where New Labour is germinating are not based on poverty, but on excess wealth. Entrance to a good football stadium now costs at least £15; so, too, a ticket to the Ministry on a Saturday, and that’s before the ‘refreshments’. Labour’s Thousand Club is so called because that, in pounds, is what you pay to join. Young blood used to come up through the unions; now young, happily passive consumers are ushered in by as svelte political class.
In terms of careerism and social homogeneity, there’s an eerie comparison to be made with the Young Conservatives of the Seventies and Eighties, when pubescent Tory Boys like William Hague rose at Conference to mouth the Thatcher mantra. Now everyone has at least one ambitious friend who has gone into New Labour politics. Enormous numbers of twenty-somethings, well-educated and well-spoken, man the network of researchers, advisers, liaison officers, personal assistants and message-makers. The boom industry of the Nineties, PR, is packed with Labour supporters. Hobsbawm Macaulay, one of the slickest, organises the Party’s fund-raising and gala dinners. As for the hole in political lobbying left by the disgrace of Ian Greer Associates, that, too, is being filled from the ranks of Young Labour.
Progress, Labour’s policy-based quarterly, is the mouthpiece of Derek Draper, mover behind ‘Capital Labour’, adviser to Rory Bremner’s television shows, and formerly a researcher for Mandelson (the one with a new car). Kate Dixon, one of its editors, explains that it is ‘aimed at Labour Party activists to enable a smooth presentation of New Labour ideals’. Then there’s techno-canvassing. Free computer magazines have been sent to schools, while direct mailing offers the Party’s catchy CD-Roms – ‘New Labour, New Life’.
Advertising, too, has changed. The midnight walk towards the Ministry reveals a small, bleary gathering of fifty or sixty at Covent Garden. Transfixed, like the crowd that gathers for performance artists during the day, they are staring at the slogans beamed by amateur slides onto uneven walls. A camera crew capture the message ‘Tories Good On Tax? VAT On Fuel? Don’t Be Stupid!’ On the ad board at Piccadilly, New Labour rubbished the last Tory Budget in bright lights: ‘Tax 22 ... Enough is Enough ... Labour.’ The debate might be phatic, but there’s originality in the tactics.
The Tories have struggled to adapt. Bill-boards prescnta red tear, and rattle the tired ‘New Labour, New Danger’ slogan to the cars on the roundabout; the only Tory to bother with the fashion for football is David Mellor, listening to griping fans on Saturday nights. The poptart Spice Girls, sweet as they are, don’t sway many people outside the Newsround electorate when they proclaim Thatcher as the original Spice. And the Party’s big-name signing, who gave a Bentley for auction at their winter ball last month, is the voter-repelling Lloyd-Webber.
After six hours in the Ministry we emerge into the Sunday dawn with a stream of people, looking more tired now. The sun is up behind the buttresses of Southwark Cathedral. We buy a paper and wait for the Greenwich bus, reading about some Anglican bishop and Max Clifford and their new-found love for Labour.