The Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley. Photo courtesy of Basil Jradeh.
Like Ed Miliband, I suppose I'm a bit of a North London geek™. I'm in my early 40s, work in digital media, live in leafy Muswell Hill (still renting of course), read The Guardian, cycle to work on my Pashley and had 'loony leftie' intellectual parents growing up. Importantly, I'm old enough to remember the divisive politics of the 1980s; the Miner's Strike, Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, the Poll Tax Riots and all the vociferous ranting at the TV that my mother did anytime 'The Iron Lady' appeared on screen.
Yes I was politicised from an early age, but like most of my peer group and the rest of Gen X, any interest I had in politics has largely evaporated over the last few years; shamefully I didn't even bother voting in 2010. Asking around, it's generally agreed that nobody likes Cameron, but then very few people envisage Ed Miliband as PM, and as for the Lib Dems, their part in the coalition has effectively left them a toxic party; no longer a viable option even for a protest vote. And as for the Greens, you might well give them the nod in a local or MEP election but that's about it. Politically, it feels like we've been left in a bit of a vacuum.
However, living in a smug, middle class enclave like Muswell Hill does have certain advantages. The walk home from East Finchley tube means I have to pass by my local independent cinema, The Phoenix. Built in 1910, this gorgeous picture house with its Art Deco interior is the second oldest continuously running cinema in the UK and shows some great films; mainly art house and world cinema. Walking home a few weeks ago, I saw a poster for a screening of the Skip Kite documentary, 'Tony Benn: Will and Testament'. This is a filmic obituary of this much-respected titan of the Left, with interviews and footage spanning his 50-odd years in parliament.
Intriguingly, the screening was to be followed by a Q&A panel featuring ex-Mayor of London Ken Livingston, General Secretary of CND Kate Hudson and Lindsey German from Stop the War Coalition. Wow - I distinctly remember that no two politicians were held in greater esteem in our household than the GLC's 'Red' Ken and Tony 'I renounced a peerage because I'm a politician with integrity' Benn. If this event didn't get my political juices flowing then I might as well admit defeat once and for all and sign up for a ride on Russell Brand's antipathy bandwagon.
There were no real surprises once I got to the cinema; it was pretty much wall-to-wall white, middle class, middle-aged intelligentsia, and it suddenly dawned on me that I was one of them. As we were seated, the spokesperson for the cinema, (which is actually a charitable trust and coincidently was once saved from demolition by a grant from the GLC in the 80s) gave a quick speech about all the events they had coming up over Easter, many of which were free; like the upcoming talk on the history of film posters, or the kid's sleuthing event that they're running to coincide with their Sherlock Homes season. Hold on, this has the whiff of community about it - did I suddenly feel part of something? Anyway, the lights dimmed and we were treated to a very touching (and never cloying) filmic tribute to one of the most steadfast and enduring politicians this country has ever known.
When the lights came up, the slightly contradictory sight of people clapping heartily whilst in tears struck me hard - politics can have an effect. Benn was someone whose politics was largely a matter of morals and that's probably why he connected with so many people, and was reviled by so many others whose political decisions were driven by less than altruistic motives.
During a lively and passionate Q&A session, Ken Livingstone spoke of how much he and Benn both bemoaned the rise of New Labour, blaming so much of the current political malaise on Neil Kinnock's (and subsequently Tony Blair's) willingness to drag the party to the middle ground, thus diluting the socialist doctrine that the party had evolved from. Ken also teased the audience with the utopian notion of Benn as (a) Labour leader and (b) Prime Minister, which according to him was a distinct possibility in the early 1980s if it weren't for Labour radically reforming its leadership election system.
The panel: Ken Livingston, Lindsey German and Kate Hudson
So many hands were raised during the Q&A section that many questions remained unasked. However, several people stood up and spoke animatedly, some started their own conversations with one another, someone from Venezuela even wanted guidance for the future of socialism her country; all in all, this was passionate political debate - in a cinema!
The last question of the day was about apathy and the fact that there are no characters like Tony Benn left in government that get people fired up. If all the parties and the leaders are the same, asked the younger audience member, who in the hell should we vote for? Ken's response was quick; if the Tories get in again, he said, this won't be a country worth living in. Ed is a socialist; he won the leadership election because he rejected Blair's move to the right. But one party leader alone can't accomplish everything, so you need to start from the grassroots, get involved in your local community and try to make things better.
I'm definitely signing up for that 'history of film posters' lecture. Oh, and I'm also registering to vote this time. In the words of the great man himself, "I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world....because if you have power you use it to meet the needs of you and your community."