I recently finished on the losing side in a General Election for the sixth time in my voting life and I’ve learned a big lesson.

I was 18 when ‘Sunny’ Jim Callaghan’s minority Labour government, doomed by the Winter of Discontent, staggered to its close. My first vote was in the General Election of May 3, 1979. The choice: Callaghan or a dose of Margaret Thatcher Mark I.

I’d avidly followed Harold Wilson’s two Labour election wins in 1974, done history at school, devoured Ken Loach and Tony Garnett’s political dramas, such as Days of Hope and The Price of Coal, on the BBC. We had just been rehoused by a Labour council (by way of a slum clearance programme) and had a garden, a bathroom and an inside toilet for the first time.

It was natural that I should vote Labour — but I didn’t. Instead, I decided that Labour took the North-East for granted. The South Shields MP for years had been a grey man named Arthur Blenkinsop. His replacement was an outsider who had lost a by-election elsewhere and was, to my mind, being dropped into a safe seat. So I didn’t vote Labour. I voted for Llew Monger, a Liberal.

My vote was of no consequence. Labour’s David Clark took South Shields, Llew Monger came a distant third and I, for the first time, finished on the losing side in a General Election as Thatcher won with a majority of 43 seats.

In the 80s I reinforced my views: went to May Day rallies, walked part of a leg of the People’s March for Jobs, joined the Labour Party, went to miners’ strike benefit gigs, marched for Coal Not Dole in London, and had my opinions confirmed by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff.

Little did I know then that my adult life, from 18 to 36, would be lived under Tory governments.

jobs_march_1983

The People’s March for Jobs passes The Citadel in Carlisle, 1983

In 1983 Labour, under Michael Foot, fought the election with a manifesto titled The Labour Way is the Better Way, better known as “the longest suicide note in history”. In Carlisle, where I now lived, the Labour MP was Ron Lewis, who was then 83 years old. His final campaign leaflet was written in my living room. Not only did it not mention anything that was in the manifesto, it barely mentioned the word Labour.

Ron got in by 71 votes, then the only MP with a majority smaller than his age. Margaret Thatcher’s Tories won a landslide, their majority was 144.

By June 1987 I was in Darlington. Michael Fallon was the sitting Tory MP but Labour, under Neil Kinnock, was moving back towards the political centre, or centre-left. It had dawned on much of the party that winning from the far left wasn’t going to happen. Ossie O’Brien, who had lost to Fallon in 1983, again failed to take the seat. Nationally, the Tory majority was 102.

Somewhere after Carlisle I’d let my party membership lapse. I renewed it and helped select a bright young fellow named Alan Milburn as candidate for 1992. Milburn took back Darlington, the Tories, under John Major, won a fourth national victory in a row. I was beginning to think losing was inevitable.

Then came New Labour. The Major government limped into 1997. Labour had got its act together under Tony Blair and on the glorious First of May, almost 18 years after my first vote, I finally got to be on the winning side. Alan Milburn retained Darlington – one of a barely believable 418 Labour MPs. Blair’s majority was 179.

On that night, sometime between producing The Northern Echo’s 4am edition and dawn coming up on the South Bank in London as it rocked to the sound of Things Can Only Get Better, I wept tears of relief and joy. Mainly, I wept for my then 17-month-old daughter and the knowledge that she wouldn’t grow up under the Tories.

Labour won from the centre and the work of renewing a decaying Britain could begin. A focus on “education, education, education”. Schools renewed, NHS hospitals renewed. The NHS itself given new life.

A quirk of the Blair years, I discovered recently, is that Labour delivered the Freedom of Information Act (the work of David Clark, the outsider from 1979), a ban on fox hunting, a national minimum wage, and equal rights for part-time workers. All of those had featured in 1983’s “longest suicide note in history”. Dreamt up by the left, delivered from the centre.

I was on the winning side again in 2001 (another landslide) and 2005. Labour was in office for 13 years, finally being booted out in 2010. And this year the party again failed to convince the country. So I’m 6-3 down.

And what I’ve learned is that you help no one by being out of power. And you can’t, apparently, win from the left. But if you can win from the centre you can do some of the more radical things you want to do.

So I am finally, after the marching and leafleting and agonising and suffering defeat and disappointment, convinced that the next Labour leader has to employ a bit of pragmatism and take the party back towards the centre if I’m ever to finish on the winning side again.

Because it’s only when you win that you can help people.

I’m rejoining so I can have my say.