Things Can Only Get Better charts the 19 torrid years in which the Tories ravaged Britain and Labour had no hope in hell of being elected. Trotting through this quagmire of moral decrepitude and economic self-interest is John O’Farrell, archetypal leftie, fanatical Labour activist and later super-funny satirist. One would presume such a book to be immensely depressing, and to be fair, it has many low moments. The loss of the 1992 election; annecdotes about Thatcher’s treatment of the miners, could all compete for the top spot. Actually, though, most of the years Thatcher was in office seem like one big knawing hangover. Without the humour Things Can only Get Better –particularly the bits dominated by Thatcher- would probably knock L’Etranger out of the top spot on my ‘most depressing book of all time list.’
Happily, though, O’Farrel’s caustic and often self-deprecting wit resounds throughout. Somehow it softens the blow of his 7 years in office to know that John Major ‘would have been over-promoted had he been the manager of a motorway service-station.’ Similarly, too hear O’Farrell’s fantasies of a beaten Thatcher crying at her loss is a nice piece of Schadenfreude that most of us could empathise with, and it almost makes up for the fact that it took so long in coming.
It is these depressing moments, clothed in the artifice of humour, which transmit the book’s most forceful implicit argument: that New Labour has, and must have, a mandate for its policies. As O’Farrell astutely notes: ‘the battle between socialist purity and electoral expediency is constantly being fought in the soul of every Labour supporter.’ And this runs throughout the book; O’Farrrell experiences dilema after dilema whilst the party’s history seems to roll by in the background.
The most impressive thing about the book, though, is O’Farrell’s weaving of political history and autobiography. Massive events and changes such as the election of Neil Kinnock or the 1987 mingle with O’Farrell’s own problems, allowing us to see him as an individual. His amusing inebriation slots nicely alongside the landslide victory in 1997, whilst More than that, it shows us that, however turbulent our own lives may be, we can always have a positive impact on politics.
Much has happened since Things Can Only Get Better, much of it good. It’s a sad reality that Labour, in order to stay elected must eschew some of the things which in a utopian state we would almost certainly introduce. But looking back I expect even an –at heart- purist like O’Farrell would be proud of our achievements. What I’d like to know is- when will O’Farrell be publishing the sequel: Things Have Got Better: Nine felicitious Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter. I’m waiting.