The Bedford to Brighton line is dotted with marginal seats. I went to listen to the votersby Sam Knight / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
It is 8.30am in Bedford. Patrick Hall, the town’s Labour MP, is talking to half a dozen parents outside a nursery. Everyone is shifting on their feet because of the cold. Above their heads sag the black lines of electricity pylons against the grey sky. Up there birds hop too, feeling for a warmer wire, while below children go on their way buttoned up against the cold. “I make no promises,” Hall is saying to the parents, who nod. “Other than that I will do my best.”
Then Hall, a slender 58 year old with a Blairish tuft of brown hair, goes and sits in his car. He has a few minutes before his next appointment, a tour of the school, begins. Hall was Bedford’s town centre manager before he was elected MP in 1997. In an unbroken line of parliamentary representatives stretching back more than 700 years, he is the town’s third Labour MP. This might go some way to explaining why, when he talks about the upcoming election, Hall does not sound confident about defending his majority of 3,383. “Mr Patrick is a very nice man,” my taxi driver told me on the way from the station. “But this year he has no chance.”
Hall is more optimistic, talking up the role of Liberal Democrat voters, who have held together Bedford’s anti-Tory majority for three elections. He also perceives a lack of excitement about David Cameron, whose face peers down from billboards around the town. “People are fed up,” says Hall, before moving his shoulders up and down, doing an impression of a complaining voter. “But there is also a feeling that they don’t trust smoothy boy Cameron: that it’s a bit thin, the substance doesn’t seem to be there.” Then he peters out; it is time for him to begin his tour. The pavement is empty now. “It’s very difficult,” he admits. “I’m not denying the polls.”
This May, it will be 13 years since Labour candidates such as Hall won power in Tory seats up and down the country. Three elections and two wars may have thinned the ranks of the 180 men and women who became Labour MPs that night, but plenty remain, and they go into this year’s election as underdogs in seats they have held for more than a decade. Has middle England turned its back on them? One place, or set of places, that might hold the answer are the constituencies of the Thameslink, the railway line that arcs from Bedfordshire, down through London’s commuting hinterland, to the steep, sea-facing hills of Brighton. All along the line, in 1997, Labour won seats that had been Conservative for a generation (St Albans, Croydon, Crawley). Since then Tory fightbacks have returned a more mixed complexion to the route, making it a reflector of the nation’s preferences and doubts. I decided to ride the length of the line on a recent Friday to see what these “Thameslink voters” were thinking.
Before Hall goes, he says his and Labour’s hopes lie in people’s fear of austerity under the Conservatives, and the lack of a popular movement in their favour. And for a while, in Bedford town centre, he seems to be right. An old man, bright red in the cold, tells me he “used to vote Conservative, but they’re no good,” while a member of Bedford’s large Italian community (which came to make bricks 100 years ago) explains that, as a member of the working class, he can’t imagine voting Tory. On my way back to the station I meet a woman who came to Bedford to get married, and she can’t make up her mind. “Everyone has different views on what should be done, what rules there should be,” she says, shaking her head.
This sense of vacuum—of a Conservative onslaught not quite materialising—persists as far as Luton. There, on the top floor of Labour headquarters, in a room webbed with computer cables and lined with green plastic wallpaper, I meet Francis Steer, who works for Margaret Moran and Kelvin Hopkins, the town’s two Labour MPs, both of whom were elected in 1997. Despite headlines over discontent with local Muslim groups, a national furore over Moran’s expenses (she is standing down) and Esther Rantzen’s decision to run as an independent against her replacement, Steer argues that Luton is no longer a bellwether. Twelve years of Labour, he says, have “transformed the town,” putting it beyond the Conservatives, perhaps for good. “There are not enough Tories left for them to do it,” says Steer, “1997 shifted things so, so much. There was a quiet revolution that people almost didn’t notice,” he continues. “The old style Tory intolerance, and a lot of the things they stand for, have gone.”
I try Steer’s theory out on the first man I meet in “The Mall,” the town’s beige and pink shopping centre. David Brown is in a motorised wheelchair and wears a chain necklace. His wife, Karen, stands next to him. I ask if he plans to vote Conservative. “It’s got to be better than the Labour, isn’t it?” He says. “That’s just the way I see it. Maybe it isn’t…” He is suddenly filled with doubt, and turns to his wife. “Karen, if you was voting, who would you vote for? You think they’re probably all the same, don’t you?” Karen looks down the mall. It is full of families and pushchairs. She speaks quietly. “I’d give the other ones a bit of a chance,” she says.
South of Luton, the sun comes out and there are hillsides green and bright in the thaw. As we pull into the village of Harpenden (Conservative since 1950) there are glints of a grown-up prosperity. Saabs line the road. Glossy-lipped wives and men in duffel coats wait for the train. In the six minutes before we arrive in St Albans—another Tory seat—I listen to Bob Harris, who sports a closely groomed beard, a smart wintry get-up and a fluent take on the state we’re in. “We need to tackle the debt situation and the Conservatives seem to be harsher on that front,” he says. “But the real problem is the lack of confidence in all kinds of authority, in politicians, in judges and the judicial system, even the medical profession… There is just no ultimate authority that anyone believes in anymore.” In his childhood, Harris explains, at least everyone believed in God. “Now all that is gone.” St Albans materialises. “It’s not a positive outlook at the end of the day,” says Harris, as I get off, “but I’m perfectly happy.” He smiles, and waves goodbye.
Harris might have been an oddly buoyant figure but he has nothing on Sandy Walkington, the Liberal Democrat candidate in St Albans, who appears to be touching the ceiling of the station as I arrive. As well as being very tall indeed, Walkington, who wears glasses and delights in well-formed phrases, seems to float on the sheer pleasure of running for parliament. He first ran in St Albans in 1983—“as a stuttering, stammering youth”—before joining British Telecom, where he rose to become director of public affairs. He returned to politics to run the media arm of the Lib Dems during 2005’s general election. Now he is convinced he can take his home city back from Anne Main, a Tory caught up in the expenses scandal (she had a second home in St Albans, 26 miles from Westminster, and a first home in Beaconsfield, 31 miles from Westminster).
As we drive, Walkington points at potholes. “Do you see these roads?” He asks. “These roads are Conservative roads!” Arriving at his office—“welcome to the centre of western liberalism”—Walkington explains why the people of St Albans are ready to hand him the 6,000 votes he needs to overtake both Labour and the Tories. There is the district council, for a start, controlled by the Lib Dems, and under that, the city’s innate confidence. “St Albans is special and thinks it is special,” says Walkington, before listing the constituency’s distinguished sons. “You’ve got Alban,” he says, who should be patron saint of the British Isles. “The only English pope, Adrian IV, was born here. You’ve got Boudica. You’ve got the Magna Carta being drafted here. It was signed at Runnymede but the heavy lifting was done here. Some crucial wars of the roses…” Francis Bacon, Stephen Hawking. “People are not afraid to be different here,” says Walkington. Twelve of them have even joined his party since Christmas.
Whether Walkington’s enthusiasm can get him past Anne Main is another matter. I meet her back at the station. She thinks I have come to talk about the Thameslink itself, whose franchise, owned by First Capital Connect, is being scrutinised by ministers. But I’m not, so we go to a cafe. A former English teacher, Main was elected on a 6.6 per cent swing in 2005, and easily survived an expenses-related attempt by her local party to deselect her. She is blonde and flinty, and whenever I mention Walkington, her eyebrows shoot up. “People will have to pick their poison when it comes to MPs,” she says. “We’re all pretty horrid.” Main prefers to talk about her constituency work—her campaign against a local freight depot, Labour’s broken promise on a new hospital for the city, the need for formal curry cooking qualifications—and she has no truck with the idea she might have stood down over her expenses (£62,000 over three years for a flat allegedly used by her 24-year-old daughter). “The reality for St Albans residents, what matters to them—and my postbag says this all the time—is change of government; lack of school places; poor housing; can’t get to hospitals,” says Main. I ask her if she thinks it will be a clean campaign then. “Dirty as hell,” she replies.
Main described her constituents as having a “very high knowledge base” and when I get back on the train, so they do. Two Muslim women are sitting, beautifully still, near a man reading Fair Trade for All: Joseph Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton’s study of free trade and development. Opposite him, as if to rub it in, a passenger is leafing through the Skeptical Inquirer, an American magazine devoted to the proper explication of science. We roll fast past the mega-roofs of big box stores, flyovers, water division depots and sprays of silver trees. I would like to stop in Hendon (also Labour since 1997 and under threat from the Conservatives) and explore Farringdon, in Islington, the mossy well of Blairism itself, where Labour’s Emily Thornberry is expected to lose to the Lib Dems. But there isn’t time. I am meeting Laura Moffatt, MP for Crawley, on the 15.12 from London Bridge. At City Thameslink the power switches from overhead cables to the third rail, and the train climbs slowly across the Thames, creaking around the rooftops. From the train I can see toasters in people’s kitchens.
I miss Moffatt in the station, and find her on the train, wearing a bright red coat, and talking to a constituent. She calls him darling and dear and he chuckles appreciatively. A former nurse, Moffatt increased Labour’s share of the vote in Crawley by 15 per cent in 1997, winning a majority of almost 12,000. But her grip loosened over the years, and in 2005 it took five recounts to give her a majority of 37, the smallest in the House of Commons. Moffatt had the number tattooed on her foot. “I still meet people in the shops who say I was one of the 37,” she says. “So there are about 1,500 of them now.”
Moffatt breaks off to wave goodbye to her constituent—“Bye bye, darling!”—and I ask her whether she thinks the Thameslink corridor is a good barometer of national opinion. “I don’t think people in these seats think about politics like that any more,” she replies. “I think they genuinely look at what is offered to them.” Soon the doors open at Gatwick, the jewel in her constituency—“Thirty thousand jobs,” she says, looking out—and before long we are getting off in Crawley, a new town built in the late 1940s. As we walk through the station I ask Moffatt if she has thought about what she will do if she loses. “Of course,” she says. “I’ll go back to work. I used to be a nurse so…” She pauses. “That’s the thing about me, I never thought I would be a career politician,” says Moffatt. “I was surprised to get in the first time.”
My taxi driver in Crawley is called Nav Saeed and he tells me he is thinking about leaving the country—too many taxes and not enough time. He drops me at the house of Henry Smith, the 40-year-old Conservative leader of West Sussex County Council who lost so narrowly to Moffatt in 2005 and hopes to finish her off this time. Smith is in his suit and socks, looking after his four-year-old son, Isaac, who clatters about on the floor as we talk. Smith won his council seat on 1st May 1997, beginning his political career the same day Tony Blair walked to Westminster. “It was pretty odd actually,” he says. Smith speaks with some detachment about the election, comparing it to 1979: “A government that appears discredited is stumbling from one crisis to another, but also with an opposition that quite clearly needs to state its case.” Before I leave I mention that he hasn’t said anything particularly rude about Labour, and Smith tells me quite calmly that in the poor parts of Crawley life expectancy is eight years shorter than in the rich. “Labour claim a moral high ground and yet they have failed in what they claim are their core principles,” he says. “I and many Crawley people, and Labour voters, are angry about that.”
The sun has set by the time I am back on the train. A slab of orange sky in the west is splotched with grey, moppy clouds. London feels distant now, and bosky valleys fall away. The moon is almost full. I arrive in Brighton to find Friday night underway. The station and the pubs are crowded. Brighton Pavilion elected its first Labour MP, David Lepper, in 1997. But he is standing down this year, making the seat, like many on the line, vulnerable. But Brighton might go Green, not blue. Caroline Lucas, the party’s leader (and one of two Green MEPs), is running and polls suggest she can win. This is the Green’s best-ever hope of representation in Westminster.
Lucas is in London so I meet Paul Steedman, who is helping run her campaign, and Eloise Munday, a spokeswoman for the party. We meet in a pub on a steeply sloping street and they tell me that the Greens are no longer what I think they are. “I want to challenge you a bit on the notion of the environmental thing,” says Steedman. He explains that the Greens are campaigning on the economic crisis and job creation. Munday, for her part, wants me to know that Green isn’t a protest vote any more, and they both insist that it isn’t just the vegans and the right-on Brighton believers who are supporting Lucas. The Greens already have 13 local councillors, Steedman being one of them. But it doesn’t really matter, because it’s getting late and Steedman and Munday, who are both young, are talking like there has never been an election before, not like this one. “Hope,” Steedman is saying. “The optimism thing.” He leans across the table. “I think we’re all cynical about politics. I am. But somehow we’ve got that magic around us at the moment. It’s great. The sense that Greens aren’t bastards. The Greens make a difference.” And then I have to go to catch my train.