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Pity Poor Labour. They will win.

by Richard Pooley

 

 Knocking on doors in hail and freezing wind



The blood was all over the back of my left hand. I was in the middle of delivering leaflets on behalf of the Liberal Democrats’ parliamentary candidate in the newly-formed constituency of Frome and East Somerset in south-west England. Pushing bits of paper through the slits in British front doors, misnamed ‘letterboxes’, is the occupational hazard of British postal workers. And of politicians and their helpers at election time. Why have a slot in your front door for your post to be delivered and then block it with thick brushes and a metal flap on a spring to stop the wind... and, er, the post, getting through? The Economist magazine spent the first paragraph of an article last month, entitled “Why on earth would anyone become a British MP?”,  on letterboxes: “few topics arouse stronger passions.” In my case I soaked up the blood with tissues and folded up each leaflet enough times for it to become a hard enough wad to break through the toughest of defences. Later, fellow activists gave me sympathy and advice aplenty in our WhatsApp group: “Use a spatula or wooden spoon”, “I always roll mine up”. Our kind constituency chairman ordered a hideously-coloured, plastic “Postie Mate” (see below) for each of us. I’ve yet to use mine. I continue with the thick wad method.


 

Two weeks later, while I was canvassing in a village close to Bath, someone posted the story of a Green Party candidate in Bristol who had just had a fingertip bitten off by a dog while pushing a leaflet through the slot. She had staunched the flow of blood with her remaining leaflets and headed for the nearest hospital. On returning home the dog-owner found a blood-spattered leaflet, bearing a photo of the candidate, and a human finger tip (and a guilty-looking canine?), and rushed to the same hospital with both. Surgeons were unable to sew the tip back on but, apparently, the dog-owner promised the shortened-finger-owner his vote.

 

I told both stories over dinner with friends shortly after arriving in our French village this month. Besides wondering what the hell I was doing knocking on strangers’ doors months before an election is likely to happen, there was incomprehension about British letterboxes. The French really do have boxes – metal ones fixed to an outside wall or on the road side of a front gate. In the whole village of 1300 souls, I have only seen one slot in a front door. I checked: no brushes, no spring-flap, no dog.


I should break off here to explain to non-Brits (and maybe Brits too) what ‘LiberaI Democrat’ means in the UK. I would much prefer us to stick to our old name – Liberal. But since this label is capable of such wide interpretation (equating to ‘socialist’ in the USA and ‘unregulated capitalist’ in France), I have to accept the downbeat moniker Lib Dem. Most British commentators regard us as left-of-centre opportunists who will say whatever will win us votes. Or as one person, a Green Party voter, I canvassed in last year’s local election snorted: “You are irrelevant” (We went on to win nearly every seat on the local council).

 

So, why have I been knocking on British doors since the start of February and what have I learned from those strangers I have met? Will Labour win the election? Might they regret doing so?

 

Yes, to the last two questions. First though, where have I been knocking? Frome and East Somerset conjures up in British friends’ minds an image of a small market town surrounded by cattle-dotted farmlands, apple orchards and ye-olde villages. The perfect place, surely, for a Conservative Party MP to have and to hold for an assured, long-term political career. Except that the current MP for one half of the new constituency, the Frome bit, is a Liberal Democrat, and the other half, whilst currently in the constituency of the right-wing Tory and avid Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is full of people who are traditional Labour supporters. This latter part, encompassing small towns and villages such as Midsomer Norton, Radstock and Peasedown, was the old Somerset Coalfield. At its peak in 1901 there were 79 collieries producing over one million tons of coal a year. The last pit, near where my children went to primary school,  closed in 1973*. My house in Bath, by the Kennet and Avon Canal, was built in 1815 by a coal merchant next to the wharf he had already built to take the coal transported along the new Somerset Coal Canal.

 

You might think that a way of life which finally disappeared over 50 years ago and had been in sharp decline for decades before would have no bearing on today’s politics. You would be wrong. These old colliery towns and villages are little different from the better known ones in south Wales and northern England, from which many of the mineworkers in Somerset migrated in the late 19th century. The people I have met there are often living from hand to mouth – unemployed, working in badly-paid jobs, or retired and eking out the basic State Pension (£8814 a year) by doing some informal, cash-in-hand child care.

 

One woman I met complained about the cuts in bus routes (a very common complaint in rural England). What had once taken 45 minutes by one bus to get to her job in Bristol now took two hours and three buses at twice the cost. “Four hours travel for five hours work.  What can you or anybody else do about it?” I was able to give her some hope that her old bus route would be restored. One of the local Liberal Democrat councillors has been campaigning, with some success, to get the bus companies to reinstate routes.

 

So, why canvass? Because we need to know who will vote for us, who definitely won’t, and most importantly, who might be persuaded to do so. The first will get reminders before and on election day to actually get out and vote; the second will not hear from us again; and the third will get targeted mail along the lines of “If you vote Green, you will split the progressive vote and let the Tories back in.” Our target is to listen to at least a thousand voters a month before the general election campaign starts in earnest. Please note: "listen."

 

This time we are also educating voters: “Are you aware that your constituency boundary has changed?” Most have not known and are grateful to be told. This approach gives me the opportunity to avoid the crass “Can I ask how you usually vote?”  In that part of the constituency which currently has Jacob Rees-Mogg as their MP, I say: “This means that you can no longer vote for Rees-Mogg” and await their reaction. Within seconds I know which party they are not going to vote for. Further silence on my part will usually reveal who they are likely to support. Rees-Mogg is Marmite**. Quite a few, including many traditional Labour voters, like him because of his support for Brexit. Many more are delighted to be rid of him.

 

I reckon I have had meaningful conversations on the doorstep with over a hundred people over the last two months. Most have been depressing. Voters are not just fed up with politicians and their perceived antics and failures. There is little overt anger or rudeness; few slammed doors or “Don’t waste your breath.” Instead there is resignation, shrugged shoulders, and “What’s the point? Whoever gets in can’t do anything.” One man, grinning broadly, said “Good on you mate for trying. But let’s face it, we’re all fucked.”

 

Most people I have met have given up hope that any government can get us out of the economic and social mess we are in. Never before have I had so few people quiz me about my party’s or indeed any party’s policies. The party tribalism that was so evident only a decade or so ago is nothing like as strong now. People who have voted all their lives for the Conservatives are sick of the amorality and incompetence of their party’s recent and current leaders. In Somerset they could vote Lib Dem (never Labour) but are just as likely either not to vote or, if convinced by the media they usually absorb (The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, GB News), plump for the populist, Brexit, anti-immigration Reform Party. Life-long Labour supporters don’t see much policy difference between the two main parties and are only certain to vote Labour if they are persuaded that this will get the Tories out of power. “Anybody but the Tories” is the phrase I hear most of all, even beating the calumny: “You’re all the same.”

 

Frome and East Somerset is now a marginal between us, the Tories and Labour. Three different, seat-by-seat national opinion polls have each predicted a different winner. Only the Liberal Democrats have made it a target seat. I think we’ll win it but only if we pour the resources – people and money - into it that we usually do at by-elections. Which is why I’m not only canvassing but fund-raising too.

 

Nationally, every poll has predicted for months that Labour will win by a landslide, perhaps greater than the one achieved by Tony Blair’s “New” Labour Party in 1997. A lot depends how well the Reform Party do in splitting the right-wing vote. Also, on how big the turnout is (I forecast the lowest in decades), how badly the Scottish National Party perform (very badly), and how well we Liberal Democrats do in persuading Labour and Green supporters that we are the only party who will defeat the Tories in many southern constituencies (I'm not optimistic).

 

But what will Labour inherit from the current Tory government? A stagnant economy, barely-functioning public services, and a sullen, despairing electorate who have no faith that any of the politicians they elect will lead them out of the mire. I see no evidence that any party has the answers to our deep-seated problems. No party is prepared to admit that the only policies that can solve them require radical reform to the structure of just about every institution in the country, most notably the civil service, and central and local government.  We have to abandon such shibboleths as a “world-beating” national health service “free at the point of delivery”. We should scrap a planning regime that regards ‘The Green Belt’ as untouchable and the views of NIMBies as undeniable. We should reject an education and adult training system which so completely fails to give people the skills and knowledge required to get well-paid jobs that we have to import hundreds of thousands of people from abroad to do them. All of this will be painful and costly. Who would vote for more pain and higher costs?


I don’t envy Sir Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting et al their new jobs. I wish them well, even if, as a Lib Dem, I will be expected to snipe at them from the safety of “irrelevant” opposition.

                                                                                                   

 

 

*The village, Kilmersdon, claims to be the origin of the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme. The school is at the top of a hill, next to a well.

**A by-product of the brewing industry, spread thinly on toast, which Brits either love or hate. I’m a fan. So are my children. Even better, so are my grandsons, much to the disgust of my French son-in-law.

 

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