Geoff Norcott reveals why he turned his back on Labour

Geoff Norcott reveals why he turned his back on Labour

May 1, 2021

Heard the one about the working-class stand-up comic proud to be a… Brexit-voting Tory! Geoff Norcott reveals how witnessing the harm caused to his own family by the benefits culture saw him turn his back on Labour

  • Comedian Geoff Norcott speaks about why he turned his back on Labour
  • He writes he believes his beliefs come from his father’s lavish union weekends
  • He said his dad had been ‘bombed’ out of a position he had worked hard to get
  • Having voted Leave in Brexit referendum, Norcott found himself often heckled 

It is December 12, 2019, and I’m at Riverside TV studios in London, waiting to take part in Channel 4’s Alternative Election Night broadcast. It feels like a gathering point for the so-called ‘metropolitan elite’. If Remainer Central were a stop on the District Line, everyone would get off here. As a working-class Conservative, I once again find myself in the wrong ‘neighbourhood’.

Boris and the Conservatives have won – and in style. There has been a huge swing to the Right from working-class voters, especially in the North. Many of us have been predicting this for a while, but not even I expected such a seismic lurch.

I should be elated but somehow I’m not. The night has been yet another experience of feeling politically isolated. Given my background and a job in the performing arts, it’s obvious to everyone I meet that I should be Labour through and through. I’m a comedian who grew up on a council estate with two disabled parents. My dad was a big trades union man.

Yet now I vote Tory. And here I am at the beating heart of Labour luvviedom, having got into bed with the so-called enemy. How did it get to this – for Labour and for me?

In truth, I should probably have been a Conservative all along. I still have a picture of me playing football in the street aged 11 or 12. It’s important, not just because I’m attached to the past but because this was the photo that made me realise what I really looked like to the world. Shabby clothes. Cheap, badly fitting trousers. Humiliating knock-off jacket. Scruffy football. I wanted better.

Yet now I vote Tory. And here I am at the beating heart of Labour luvviedom, having got into bed with the so-called enemy. How did it get to this – for Labour and for me?

Born in 1976, I’d grown up on rough estates in South-West London. I remember a childhood engulfed in cigarette smoke. At family meals, a ‘fag break’ would be called between every course. Once we’d paid for fags and booze, there wasn’t much left for luxuries.

MY parents had been unfortunate in life – Dad had lost an arm in a motorcycle accident and Mum had never quite recovered from being brought up in council care.

They weren’t without aspiration, although real progress seemed for ever out of reach.

Dad was a skilled draughtsman for BT and a proud union official. He had the South London Del Boy spirit of the time but instead of selling moody stereos, Dad saw the greasy pole to union top brass as his way out. He didn’t just like the power and the money that came with the union – he was attracted to the lifestyle. Unions looked after their own, and Dad enjoyed being at fancy hotels for meetings and conferences.

I wonder if part of my outlook comes from those early experiences of lavish union weekends. Even aged eight, it struck me that the hotel they’d put us in was exceptionally fancy. I was sure we could do it without four-poster beds and bar tab.

The day they ‘bombed’ Dad from the position he’d worked so hard to achieve is burned into my memory. What happened in detail, I still don’t know. But I do know that Dad felt he had been betrayed and cheated out of the job that really mattered to him. He’d once sang ‘You don’t get me, I’m part of the union’, but in the end it was the union who ‘got’ him.

In truth, I should probably have been a Conservative all along. I still have a picture of me playing football in the street aged 11 or 12. It’s important, not just because I’m attached to the past but because this was the photo that made me realise what I really looked like to the world

However else you might describe us, we weren’t Conservative. When Margaret Thatcher came on the telly, Mum would use the kind of swear words usually deployed when you stand on a piece of Lego. But Dad’s treatment by the union was a straw in the wind. And looking back, there were others. When you work out your place on the political dial, you can reflect on your early life and see it was there all along.

Take the trendy teaching at my first secondary school, Southfields. We did two hours of ‘world studies’ one day, where a couple of the teachers got together and let the kids ‘go where their instincts took them’. The instinct of most of kids was to stab each other with a compass.

One year, we didn’t do any of the national sports: football, cricket, rugby. We did, though, do an indoor sport called ‘unihoc’ which I’ve never heard of since.

Later, thanks to Mum, I got a place at Rutlish School in Merton, which still had echoes of its grammar school past, including a speech day – to which, one year, its most famous old boy was invited. It’s fair to say that John Major surprised all of the teachers by charming their Leftie pants right off them. He surprised me, too. Most people thought the Tories ‘don’t give a toss about normal people’. So it was a thrill for the Prime Minister to be a working-class guy from my actual school.

Another factor that changed my outlook was the benefits system – and its abuse. It still resonates with me today. Anyone who has lived on a council estate gives a wry smile when the liberal classes try to claim that benefit fraud is no big deal.

I knew how the system could be worked, because we’d done it.

And when the Tories made an issue of households where no one had worked for generations, it struck another chord. I was still at school when, with my older sister, I started to worry that Mum was gravitating towards the non-working end of council-estate life.

She’d previously done administrative work for a removals firm. But that job had ended and now Mum started wearing her dressing gown later and later. We’d also noticed her vocabulary changing too. She said ‘fags’ instead of ‘cigarettes’ and her moratorium on swearing had slipped.

One summery morning, I left for school and Mum and her mates were sitting on the stairs by our door, smoking and gas-bagging. When I got back at 3.30pm she was still there, still in her dressing gown. I was livid. I know I’ve always been judgmental and this may be my first memory of ‘small c’ conservatism. I was only 14, but I felt strongly that she should have been showered and dressed by 9am. You shouldn’t be in a dressing gown after 9am unless you’re ill or Hugh Hefner.

A few years later, Mum found herself confined to a wheelchair, although the cause of her paralysis was never established.

She was a resourceful woman who’d kept us together when my father lost his BT job, and again when his drinking helped drive the marriage past breaking point. But there was no sense that the state had any meaningful wish to get her into work. The money she got through the Disability Living Allowance and other benefits meant she’d have been a fool to even consider it.

Letting talents like hers go to waste didn’t seem caring – it seemed like hush money.

I started teacher training in 2002 – and it’s still not that long since I was an English teacher in rural Bedfordshire, staring out of the window and thinking there must be more to life than the semi-colon.

It was around the same time that I’d started doing stand-up comedy.

I wonder if part of my outlook comes from those early experiences of lavish union weekends. Even aged eight, it struck me that the hotel they’d put us in was exceptionally fancy. I was sure we could do it without four-poster beds and bar tab

For most comics, the first couple of years is a cross between hobby and obsession. For me, it was a financial necessity. I was working and so was my wife, yet under Labour our bills seemed to be going up each month. People like us were playing a constant game of catch-up.

The people around me who did have a good lifestyle seemed to be underwritten by cheap credit, which I didn’t want.

The comedy was a necessity to avoid borrowing against the house.

My view of Labour was hardening. Then came the notorious encounter between Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy in Rochdale during the 2010 Election campaign. It had a big effect on me. Calling a woman he’d never met before ‘bigoted’ for asking a reasonable question about immigration was a big mistake and made it seem Brown wasn’t too keen on the public.

For years now, the Labour Party has been steadily losing touch with the working classes, which seems quite an oversight – like Wetherspoons neglecting older men who like drinking one pint while taking seven hours to read a paper.

Instead, Labour gave safe Northern seats to London intellectuals such as the Miliband brothers – the kind of people who would normally only spend any time in Doncaster if their train to the Edinburgh Festival was delayed.

All of this led me to vote Conservative for the first time in 2010. And once I’d made the move, there was no going back. There are those who say I’m some kind of ‘class traitor’, as though your politics were determined by how many Pot Noodles you’d eaten as a child or whether your main family tradition was doing Oops Upside Your Head at weddings.

But I take a different view.

I’ve had plenty of discussions with punters in the so-called ‘Labour heartlands’. I did a stand-up tour during the 2019 Election campaign and got a sense of just how remote the modern party seemed – like a middle-class pressure group, as one woman from Stockton put it.

These people didn’t like the ‘victim obsession’ of the party in its current guise. They didn’t think they needed saving.

Today, millions of working-class Labour voters have found themselves in the same trenches as the aggressive young revolutionaries we increasingly see on news discussion shows. And they don’t like it.

It’s a convenient idea to think that you can reshape Britain on social media – as many Labour agitators seem to believe. But if elections were decided by likes and retweets, Russell Brand would’ve been Prime Minister since 2015. ‘Twitter is not Britain,’ as David Cameron put it – the most prescient thing he ever said.

My Conservatism is pretty fixed now, driven by a belief in personal responsibility, a small state, a lean benefits system and low taxes where possible. Not all of my political comedy is an attack on the Left. Part of it is speaking up for the kind of Labour Party my dad was once proud to be part of.

One of the consequences of the Brexit vote has been to vanquish the old binary lines of Left and Right. Labour Leavers found themselves being called ‘racist’ by metropolitan pinkoes. Tory Brexiteers were called ‘traitors’ by the kind of Cameroonians who’d just hired a gay au pair and liked to talk about it.

Two months after the Brexit referendum, I did a show called Conservative at the Edinburgh Festival. The atmosphere was pretty tense most nights, so I saved up the reveal of my Leave vote until the end. It was always a difficult moment. In truth, I didn’t have many good jokes on the subject. I was frequently heckled.

There I was, a person who’d voted in line with most of the country, standing on stage each night being regarded like some sort of exotic and dangerous bird.

‘Come see the lesser-spotted Brexity working-class Tory. Marvel as he shares his niche ideas also held by 52 per cent of Britain.’

My dad came to Edinburgh.

‘Good show, son,’ he said. ‘That Tory thing is a good angle.’

‘It’s not an angle, Dad. I voted for them.’ I replied. ‘If there was an election tomorrow, I’d do it again.’

The surprise is it took me so long.

© Geoff Norcott, 2021

Where Did I Go Right?, by Geoff Norcott, is published by Monoray on May 13, priced £14.99. To pre-order a copy for £13.19, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before May 14. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

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