1945 - A Midland election
Coventry East is a pretty average Midland constituency. At one end it includes the Cathedral, the ruined apse exquisitely beautiful against the afterglow of the sunset as we drive back to our hotel each night at 11.30pm. Thence it runs out through clustered motor, machine-tool and chemical factories; a sprawling belt of neat garden-villas; two or three pleasant country villages slowly merging into suburbia; to end dramatically and symbolically in the towering slag heap of a coal mine.
Under normal circumstances this should be a fairly safe Labour seat, but today there are four candidates - Conservative, Labour, Liberal and Communist - and it is possible that the Tory may squeeze in on a split Progressive vote. The Communists have been very active here during the war and are keen to test their strength - in the name of working-class unity, of course - against the Labour Party. The result may be a surprise to both.
A candidate, of course, is in the worst possible position to get an objective picture of the mood of the electors. He lives in an atmosphere of almost overpowering hospitality and goodwill. He speaks to meetings of the converted and, even at the street corner and on the doorstep, it is largely his own supporters whom he sees. I can only hope therefore to record what it feels like to be a Labour candidate in the General Election of 1945.
My first impression - after nearly two years overseas - is of the thoughtfulness and seriousness of the electorate. We are in difficulties here because, in our print order from Transport House, we absurdly underestimated the reading capacity of the electorate. Every 2d or 3d pamphlet on sale at meetings is immediately snapped up. Let Us Face the Future is easily the most popular; followed by the pamphlet on New Zealand which reminds people what ten years of Socialist government can do. If we had had in stock 40,000 Penguins, we could have sold them easily. What we do sell is taken home and thrown back at us at the next open-air meeting, always in the form of precise and thoughtful questions on what we shall do when we get power.
The key issue is, of course, unemployment - or, to give it its modern name, redundancy. In almost every factory it is becoming the topic of conversation. As each war job is finished or nearing completion, men and women are informed, if they are lucky, that they can have another job, but at old peacetime rates. If they won't accept this - and it often means a fantastic drop in earnings - they are told that they will be declared redundant.
Here one sees in its most exaggerated form the inhumanity of the Tory way of life. No one has tried to explain the plan under which the switch-over will take place. No one has said: "This is how we won the war and, now, this is how we are going to win the peace." No, the war is over and without a word of explanation the worker is told that he must go back to normal conditions of insecurity.
I have not met any interest here in the remoter issues which fill so much space in the national dailies and in broadcast speeches. Abstract questions such as controls versus freedom and complicated stories like the Attlee-Laski incident seem terribly far away. Whereas Lord Beaverbrook and Mr Churchill are trying to revive the old-fashioned spirit of the hustings, down here people want to discuss bread-and-butter politics.
That is why one's chief job is not addressing meeting in halls but getting out into the streets. Outside the factory gate at the lunch-hour, men and women lie at ease on the grass bank and the meeting soon turns into a discussion. And in the late evening, when the pubs shut, a large crowd collects and, often with a good deal of hilarity, goes on to 11.30pm.
I have the feeling that the whole apparatus of electioneering - canvass card, polling card, election address - has extraordinarily little influence. This election will be decided by talk in the home, after listening to the election broadcasts and to arguments in factories, working men's clubs and queues. The old-fashioned indoor meeting seems strangely out of date when one can hear all the prominent national leaders comfortably at home or read them next day in the morning paper.
As for the candidate, his job is a very limited one. He has to appeal to the very small number of voters who have not made up their minds and can therefore be swayed by the appeal of personality. But to achieve this he must get inside the home, the trade union branch and the club or come to close quarters with his microphone in the streets.
What of the Tories? Their organisation is in sad disarray. Like the Labour Party, they have suffered the full consequences of four years of political truce, with the result that the Communist Party is the only fully organised party. Consequently they have to rely almost exclusively on the mass appeal of the Prime Minister's personality. Before the election started, that appeal was immensely powerful. But each successive broadcast by Mr Churchill and each new extravagance of the Daily Express has reduced the majesty of the national figurehead and brought it down to the level of a party and even a class figurehead. The election here is a contest for the leadership of the working class, and the basic issue has become: do you want an employer to represent you or someone who will fight for your interest?
Thirty thousand Coventry workers will be disenfranchised because the election falls in their holiday week. Add to these the thousands who will discover on polling day that their names are not on this lamentable election register and the endless confusion about proxy voting for the servicemen overseas. The Tory refusal to postpone the election till October when the holidays are over and the register could have been brought up to date may very seriously affect the results.
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