The Tuscan sun is hot in the square. The afternoon has dragged on since we watched the pageantry on the steps to the church, all checked blurring colour and flying flags against the fourteenth century stone and neon bar signs. The locals of Castel del Piano, perched atop a hill, shaped from rock and memory, have all disappeared for an extended lunch. Our place is further out of town so we linger with ice-cream and books, following the shade as it ticks around, moving from tree to house to fountain, the soft catch of water on the backs of our necks. We wait, the whole town holds it breath it seems, for the race.
Several hours later, later than planned if only because it is Italy, the procession restarts. The drummers and the crossbowmen, the lancers and the ladies, the clergy with their books and banners, all perform their way steadily around the square and finally, eventually, the horses follow them in. Only three, one less than expected. One family unable to take part it appears, at least that explains the desolate face on some of the teenager taking part. Disqualified, or an injury, maybe? The horses are bareback, wild, rearing to their riders, sleek coats and white spittled teeth. The tension mounts.
We weave our way to the front, near the start line. The man in shades and dark suit on the raised platform talks through the PA system, a mix of excitable cheers and calm white knuckles reply. And they’re off. The crowd roars. A pistol is fired. The crowd groans. The riders rear their mounts. A false start.
Back to the line. More chatter. The small blonde girl next to me wails in the fading sun as dusk encroaches. Tired and bored, restless and irritable, we’re all a little emotional.
Again, a surge, a bang, another false start. And again. And again.
The crowd is starting to get restless. The paramedics race over to the other side of the track. A man has collapsed. Perhaps just for something to do. My wife and I have run out of water. The tension growls, the people furrow their brows, the horses shake their manes, the riders jostle each other, the man in the shades and the dark suit chats to two young women, his smile just the right side of lechery.
Success this time. The horses shoot forwards, around the first corner and up the hill. They come round for the second lap, the leader staring to open a gap, but the second horse is still tight on his tail. They go so fast that even on sports setting my camera captures but a blur, the end of a tail disappearing from the frame. The crowd roar as the wind whips past them. Entering the third lap, down the slopes, careering round the corner, the gap being closed between leader and also ran and then it happens. Unclear at the pace, but a slip of some sort, the second jockey is flung from his horse in a kuffle of dust and a crunching thud into the hoardings. The horse continues, riderless, panicked by the noise, propelled by the motion, the agony of its sickeningly bent foot driving it mad. Someone vaults onto the track to bring it to heel.
The race finishes. A triumph for one house, anguish for the other three, one in particular. Family members surge through the masses and crowd round the house, its foot sticking upwards in the air, walking on its calf. A woman turns away, her hands over her mouth. A plastic tarpaulin is pulled over its head, I lead my wife away; we don’t need to see its end.
Later, my wife says she feels bad, that she feels complicit. As if by not watching the palio, it might not have taken place. I tell her no, that none of it is our fault, but quietly I agree with her.
Much later still, as the darkness shrouds the farmhouse where we’re staying, just black outside amongst the vines, some bleak analogies occur to me. That the race was like the May General Election, the fallen horse the Liberal Democrat party, the tossed jockey Nick Clegg. It’s not funny, but I chuckle with bitterness anyway.
In May it felt like the end of Liberalism’s long slow death in the UK. The Liberal Democrat MPs back down to the numbers of the sixties and seventies, their ideals put out of their misery. The Conservative majority, a triumph of individualism and selfishness. The challenge now is to ensure that Labour doesn’t go the same way, consigned to the insignificance of small number political parties, lost amongst their principles.
I find myself greeting the news of Jeremy Corbyn’s ascension to leader of opposition with hesitation. I am unsure how to feel. On one hand, Corbyn believes in many of the things I believe in. A fairer society based on equality, social security and state ownership of essential infrastructure. He supports nuclear disarmament and environmental initiatives that take the long-term safety of the planet over short-term capital gains. Other areas are concerning. He is ambivalent about the EU, which is a major worry. He appears to be suggesting that promoting a return to industry will build us out of economic mire rather than trying to cut our austere way of it which, while admirable, seems slightly naive to me. We’re too far from pits and factories and docks to voluntarily go back. He has an alarming tendency to associate with less than savoury characters on the international scene and I don’t believe apologising for the invasion of Iraq (no matter how misguided or downright wrong that action was) should be high up the priority list. His only prior experience of leadership is as head of Haringey Council, but that’s more than Tony Blair had when he succeeded John Smith.
But the big question is, can he win the 2020 election? Is he electable? Much of the right-wing bias press and Blairite factions of Labour say not, and suggest that Labour only wins elections when it lurches towards the centre ground, as with Blair. This feels intrinsically wrong, too simple. Milliband, although left of the centre, was hardly the Marxist painted by section of the press and he lost. I was not filled with confidence by Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper – despite admiring them both on an individual level. Burnham was an excellent health secretary. To say nothing of Liz Kendall who seems to have accidentally been elected to represent the wrong party. It also ignores the elections won by Clement Atlee which gave Labour the opportunity to implement the original nationalisation programme in the late forties. Harold Wilson may have been in the centre of the Party’s ideological spectrum but his social reforms remain at the cornerstone of today’s easier society.
To say that a left-winger is fundamentally unelectable is too simplistic. Clearly Corbyn has galvanised a significant proportion of the Labour party and, in particular, a youth vote typically disinterested in politics. Whether it will still be flocking to his banner in five years times is another question altogether. Five years is a long time when you’re young.
No-one can be unelectable unless they are not standing for election. Everyone has the possibility for their beliefs and policies to chime with the electorate and therefore be return to office.
Corbyn’s heart on sleeve, emotional rather than strategic focus group tested politics feels refreshing, as though we’ve all seen too much shiny suited, fine-tuned sound-bites to actually believe what we’re being told. Corbyn’s calling it a new form of politics, but really it’s a return to old school politics where our leaders were able to say and be judged on what they thought rather than spout some bland humdrum that had been vetoed, checked and tested to death until it was safe enough to be meaningless.
While fixed term parliaments do mean we’re stuck with the current crop of bastards until 2020, it also means the opposition have five years to prepare. They know when the deadline for making a difference will be approaching. If Corbyn does turn out to be like Iain Duncan-Smith – voted to Tory Leadership in 2001, against expectation, by grassroot support but ultimately useless – then Labour knows it has time to, for once, commit regicide, but I genuinely hope it won’t come to that. If he continues to talk the right talk and backs it up by walking some of the harder walks you don’t have to do when you have a rock safe seat like Islington North; if the unexpected growth of people feeling that Labour now offers something to believe in, to vote for, something compassionate and fair rather than just a different shade of Toryism, then he’ll have my vote, back from over a decade coloured Green.
The early signs aren’t good. A flock of talented ministers refusing to serve, seemingly washing their hands of the whole display, as though that’ll somehow give them credit in the future they imagine. A shambolically assembled shadow cabinet based on favours for mates: a shadow chancellor who doesn’t believe in consensus politics and only Burnham and Hilary Benn still standing from the heavyweights. No matter how much I like Heidi Alexander and some of the others it feels inexperienced and like it or not they’re going to have to engage with the media in a sensible, though out way, at some point. Unfortunately, an idealistic youth vote (which may or may not flutter with the wind), die hard Labourites and hard-line lefties tempted back from the SNPs and the Greens are not going to win a general election alone. At least a few of the middle aged, Citron Picasso driving, mortgage paying, Tesco shopping, Friends reruns watching, Coldplay listening, Pinot Grigio drinking, two children raising, suburban dwelling people will need to vote for you too.
Jeremy, you’ve got the best part of five years to show that you have not only the ideas (like Ed did, if you ignore that stupid headstone), the passion (like Kinnock, but without coming across a windbag), the hope (like Obama, although please remember that every aspiration should have a caveat around how hard it’ll be else you’ll look like another failed messiah) and the persuasion (like Blair had, once, before the blood and everyone recognising the scripted tics).
And don’t screw up because if you’re another Michael Foot and Labour lose even more seats next time round, we’ll be stuck with Tories ruling the roost until at least 2030. That’ll be a solid twenty years of social division, privatisation, the promotion of greed and the erosion of what makes society, rather than the wealth individual or the corporation, function and I’m not sure we could come back from that. Whether we realise it or not, we’re all depending on you to give us something better.