While campaigning for the Socialist Alliance, I recall a conversation I had, during last year's London Assembly election, with two students outside Croydon College. One took our leaflet, and in a black, south London teenage accent said: "This is safe, man, keeping it real, for the people, I'll vote for you." Then his mate said: "But you're 17, you can't vote." So he replied: "I can get round that. I've got connections, man." Now, I wish I'd taken his address. We've got a lot to learn about this electioneering game. On Thursday, I spoke in Hornsey, where the lawyer Louise Christian is standing against the Home Office minister Barbara Roche. More than 70 people were in the audience, of whom around half were either in, or had just left, the Labour Party.
One man, who had begun the election campaign as a Labour canvasser, told me: "I was asked to justify tuition fees, the Asylum Bill and further privatisation. I stood silently thinking how to answer, until they said,'You're not very good at this, are you?' That night, I decided to campaign for Louise Christian instead."
There's something soothing about leafleting rows of streets: maybe it's because you feel you're achieving something without having to think. Until you come across one of those letter-boxes with a spring-back mechanism that requires one hand to hold it open while the other gently eases the leaflet in, as if you're giving medicine to a crocodile. This is how those people who deactivate unexploded bombs must feel. You find yourself collapsing breathlessly as the leaflet makes it through.
Then there are the ones that have a sort of bristle-brush thing, penetrable only by screwing the leaflet into a crumpled ball and poking it through. What is the purpose of a brush in a letter-box? Are these people hygiene fanatics - like Howard Hughes - who daren't pick up their mail unless it's been dusted as it's delivered? And who are these bastards with gates that only open after 45 minutes of jiggling and then jolt sidewards and slice off your knuckle? If the East Germans had put one of these things on the border instead of a wall, they'd have made it through 40 years without a single escape. After one severe clipping, I didn't realise my finger was bleeding until I'd done another street, so 30 houses in Bensham Manor ward received a leaflet with drops of blood all over it, and must assume that the Socialist Alliance is a front for a satanic cult.
The stroll to the meeting in Leamington Spa took me past huge Georgian houses, antique shops, delicatessens, tennis courts and an immaculately kept cricket ground. If there is such a thing as Middle England, this is it. But 120 people crammed into the hall, where the candidate Claire Kime, along with the secretary of the pensioners' association and myself, was speaking. Dozens of people had questions - "What do you say to people who accuse you of helping the Tories get back in?"; "Why don't you make it a priority to support PR?" As the meeting ended, huddles of people in each corner dished out leaflets, window posters and placards. Is there a single meeting of the Labour Party anywhere in Britain, during this election, that has shown such enthusiasm and passion as was evident that night in Leamington? Labour tries to pretend that there is some popular support - and stage-manages for the television cameras those groups waving placards behind ministers - but who's fooled by that? As if anyone in this world has ever genuinely said the sentence: "Oh brilliant, here's Alistair Darling."
After Leamington came St Helens. I don't want to stereotype St Helens, I honestly don't. But on arrival, I wandered across to The Lamb, and was standing at the bar when the barmaid said: "Ee, we do a lovely pint of mild, love, only £1.42." Later, in the toilet, someone stood at the next bowl and said to me: "Turned out nice again - as George Formby used to say." In a place where people quote George Formby in the karzy, what perfect sense to parachute in as your candidate a millionaire who was a Tory MP during the pit closures and who has a butler!
Shaun Woodward, new Labour's despised candidate, is being challenged by Neil Thompson, a local official of the Fire Brigades Union. Along with several others, including his election agent, Helen Shaw, Neil resigned from Labour following the imposition of Woodward. Within three weeks, he has attracted hundreds, maybe thousands of supporters. As we gave out leaflets in the shopping centre, we were approached by a security guard. He said: "I've been told to tell you to clear off. But if you move back six inches, I can say I've done my job - as long as you promise to stop that Tory boy."
At a public meeting in the town square, a woman took the megaphone who had clearly not done this before. So, instead of pithy soundbites, the square was filled with: "I mean, have you been to the hospital lately, it's a disgrace, my sister went down last month and had to wait four hours in A&E, and even then she was told to come back later when they weren't so busy . . . " I was scared she'd go on: "She's had this problem with her ears, you see, they thought it was something to do with her wisdom teeth but now they're not so sure, mind you, these new painkillers she's on are marvellous."
I hope Neil wins, because then Shaun Woodward will be knocking on his door and saying: "I'd like to join your lot now. After all, I pay my butler the minimum wage."