We don't visit the West End much, being adopted East Enders; but, just like characters in the Walford soap opera, we do make occasional forays Up West. Get yourself a treat, love, Keith says, tossing me a tenner. Get a cab 'ome. (OK I made that up). On Saturday I began to wonder what curse we were born under, because both occasions on which we've ventured into a W postcode recently have coincided with the descent into central London of several thousand violent hooligans. To make matters worse, other than in prompting me to write this piece, we appear to be cast as icons of the Tory middle-class, either (the first time) picking our way past chanting 'students' in order to buy a new table-lamp from John Lewis, or (Saturday) trying to take a cab to St Martin's Lane for the theatre (Ghost Stories, since you ask, and yes, it's very good). We had to walk from Holborn, thanks to the protestors. And this made me think.
Because, of course, whatever else Keith & I are, we're neither properly middle-class, nor characters of Austen-esque gentility. Neither am I by instinct anti-protest. In the 80s, I went on a spectacularly unsuccessful 'kiss-in' to protest the iniquity of Section 28 (no-one wanted to kiss me, predictably enough, which left the 'demo' somewhat lame). We both turned out to shout our disgust at Gordon Brown's fawning over the Chinese Olympic torch, as it made its shameful procession through our streets. My feelings towards climate-change camp border too strongly towards fondness for most readers of this website, I'd bet. And I have written, here, about my concerns over the leadership of the Metropolitan police. Watching the riots on Saturday, however, as we prepared to make our way into town, my over-riding feeling was gloominess. And something else it took a while to put my finger on.
You see, I read about the Miliband family's property empire, and reflect that our own household is never more than a handful of salary payments from homelessness. I listen to trades union leaders' hysterical speeches about very mild changes to public sector pension schemes, and am reminded that our guaranteed income in old age, other than what the state will give us, is (despite saving more than a quarter of our salaries every month into 'defined contribution' schemes): nothing. I watch BBC journalists breathlessly mouth their horror at the prospect of a small reduction in public sector staffing levels, and remember the thousands of colleagues I've lost to redundancy in the last few years. I wade my way through Polly Toynbee's sanctimonious and hypocritical rages about Tory tax-avoiders, and remember that I'm in that lucky band of people who are taxed at a rate you wouldn't believe (trust me: there is a bigger problem in our tax banding than the 50% rate), and that thanks to the Lib Dems, I can't look forward to this ever being reduced.
And then I saw Ed Miliband's boyish little face on the screen, mouthing platitudes to the crowd, at the same time as real violence started to happen. (Is this is one of life's rules? I wondered: Labour lose an election, so a cohort of the Left starts to vandalise central London, repeatedly?). And I thought about Keith, not just for the obvious reasons (we were going to the theatre to celebrate his birthday, and I could already feel I was going to write this piece, and he hates it when I mention him), but because he's my living, solid link to what Labour in government did to working-class men and women.
Every housing benefit payment that's higher than the mortgage of the people who fund it: the working-class pays for them. Every skilled job whose wage is suppressed by the immigration deliberately engineered by Labour: the working-class pays for them. Every school with more first languages than you can shake a stick at: the working-class pays for them. Every fat-cat council chief executive, every knighthood for services to banking awarded to any spiv who caught Mandelson's eye, every penny on every trillion of the debt interest: the working-class pays for them. Most of Blair's wars too: the working-class certainly pays for them.
And I thought, watching the blaze take hold at Oxford Circus: this is no more real than the play we're going to St Martin's Lane to see this evening. You don't get angry enough to throw a brick at the Ritz because of small reductions in the future growth of public sector spending. You can see it in Miliband's face: he's excited, yes, like any actor receiving the adulation of a multitude, but he's not enraged. He must have to practice really hard to simulate the emotion of anger.
I don't. Not any more, not after Saturday. Ed Miliband, until your party faces up to the squalid way it has treated the working-class; to admit that it has become a cypher for trades union bosses, student activists and various Hampstead millionaires; to wonder just what happened to your historic mission to empower the working man; until you've apologised for all this, then you can burn as many stupid paper horses, you can glue yourself to as many Top Shop windows, you can rant about Eton as much as you like. For nothing. We don't mind paying to watch a horror story in a West End theatre. But we'll never vote to put one into power at Westminster.