What does the Royal Navy mean to me? Microwave chips and turkey dinosaurs. That is what my six year old brother and I lived on for a lot of the nine months my Dad spent in the south Atlantic while my mum was heavily pregnant with my youngest brother.
It means other things too. Birthday parties on board, stickers with ships crests that I would collect and use to decorate the side of my bed. My first ever can of Coke from the ship’s mess, and Navy Days when the whole extended family would come to town.
My experiences are hardly unusual. They are shared by millions of us with parents missing, families apart, and by those with caring responsibilities. But I mention them to explain how the armed forces are part of who I am and how I see the world, and what they mean for tens of thousands of families and communities across the country.
And I write this because until Labour takes the time to speak to those communities and to understand them, they nor the rest of the country will ever trust us with the most important responsibility of all – keeping us safe.
Like many of us in the Labour party, my feelings towards the armed forces are complex. Growing up, I was a member of the Scouts. Twice a year, we would iron our uniforms and march through town for Remembrance Day and St George’s Day. By the time I was 15, through a combination of Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Green Day’s American Idiot, I had discovered my socialism, and one year I decided I’d had enough.
Our glorious dead? There was nothing glorious about being gunned down in mud and barbed wire, I told my dad. Ironed shirts, in my teenage mind, were symbols of the kind of conformity that sends people their deaths. I had read Wilfred Owen, and hated what I saw as the hypocrisy of symbols of pomp and militarism turned out to commemorate the same people whose deaths they were responsible for.
We had a row that day. One that culminated in my dad picking me up from the side of the motorway late at night in the rain after I had decided to walk home rather than swallowing my pride and asking for a lift. But I could see how much I had hurt. As much of a know-it-all as I was, I did not yet know how to square what I thought, with what deep down, I knew and felt.
How to square what I thought about war, peace, violence and the military-industrial complex, with the loyalty, fierce pride, love and dedication that armed forces families and communities feel towards one another, and which I experienced growing up. That was the task I faced then, and the task which Labour faces today.
We eventually ended up living in a place called Gosport, just across the harbour from Portsmouth. Gosport, like its neighbour, is a naval town. Whether serving in the armed forces directly or increasingly in one of the defence, aerospace and marine technology firms that support it, this is a town where there are few families without links to the armed forces, and where one of the highlights of the year is the HMS Sultan Summer show.
It is a place with the kind of community spirit that people say is dead. Where the local newspaper is full of stories of locals stepping in to help clean up a street, or solve a crime, or fundraise for the local school.
Despite what you might think about true blue Hampshire, it is pretty ordinary. Rates of child poverty are just above the local average, and average incomes just below it. Until they were demolished fairly recently, two of its estates were notorious as being among the most deprived in the country. The Sun and the Daily Mail are the two most-read papers. It is the largest town in Britain without a railway station.
And since the beginning of time, Gosport has elected a Tory member of parliament. Until recently, it was Sir Peter Viggers – the MP caught claiming for a floating duck house on parliamentary expenses. The closest Labour have ever come was 2,600 votes in 2001. As of last Thursday, the Tories have 20 seats on Gosport borough council, to Labour’s four.
Whether in Gosport, nearby Portsmouth or indeed Plymouth, where I was born, the story is similar: Labour fighting uphill battles in working class areas with close links to the armed forces.
So what is the problem? Too many people in Gosport and Portsmouth need a Labour government and Labour MPs. And while lively internal debates on issues like Trident may not always be universally welcomed there, we should also avoid the simplism that says that protecting jobs and boosting defence spending alone will be enough to win places like Gosport over.
Because for my dad, and now, I know, for me, the armed forces are not about dinner party debates, the technical specifications of a submarine or how at ease we feel ironing our shirts or singing the national anthem.
It is the sense of shared purpose that, while perhaps most visible in armed forces communities, is recognisable all across the country. The trust we place in each other to look after and protect one another – unconditionally – irrespective of the rights and wrongs of a particular case.
Ultimately, it is the promise that goes unsaid, but which underlies that greatest of ‘imagined communities’, the nation-state: that even though I do not know you and we may never meet, we have enough in common that we will look out for one another, come what may. That is why we iron our shirts, why fight to defend one another, and why we have an armed forces and a National Health Service.
Call it Blue Labour, call it one nation, call it what you want. But until we show that the armed forces are as much a part of who we are as the NHS or the BBC, and that it is the same bonds of solidarity and reciprocity which keep all three going, Labour will struggle to win in Gosport.
Ben West is secretary of the Young Fabians. He tweets @benjeewest
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