The Journal of Lynton Charles, Fiduciary Secretary to the Treasury

Thursday Thirty posters in the whole bloody constituency: 15 of mine, ten Lib Dems, three Tories (all in fields) and two UKIP. But Cheryl's mob have been out tying things to lamp-posts and have managed more along High Street than the rest of us put together.

That's what you can do when you have activists. They may be barmy, and may want to spend half their lives raising points of order, compositing and debating whether or not Trotsky was a Menshevik, but they're bloody handy when it comes to fly-posting or handing out stickers.

The trouble is that you can't win elections if you let them run the party, but it's hard to canvass properly without them. So you either let them win (the Hague strategy), maintain a pretence that it is just possible that one day they might be able to control things (that is, we're going back to good old 1981), or you just learn to do without them. Right now, we're doing the latter.

I take a break from blasting shoppers with the loud hailer, selective leafleting and baby-rocking, and - leaving Harriet and a few volunteers working the streets - take refuge in the hospital health club swimming pool. On the way in, I notice that there is a big "Vote Charles" poster on the union notice-board. But it's accompanied by a red flag - and the Charles is Cheryl, not me. I momentarily consider reporting this breach of protocol to the hospital management. But who can be bothered?

I am the only swimmer in the pool. And, after a few minutes, I drift off into a strange daydream, surrounded by blue water and illuminated by shafts of daylight coming in through the window. And it is as though I were swimming between two banks, populated by the spectres of the past four years.

On one side is everything we have failed at, or done wrong, or messed up. Slippery is there, holding a placard saying: "Vote-fixers!" Dobbo is next to him, tears in his beard. There's the sound of the Witchfinder General and mad Widdecombe in a radio studio, arguing about who let in the most asylum-seekers.

An old lady on an NHS trolley trails her foot in the water and looks at me reproachfully. "Not so simple, was it?" she mouths. Sitting on poolside recliners, a cigar-smoking Bernie Ecclestone is having tea with the Hindujas, and they are wearing "Vote Labour" stickers.

A columnist from the Guardian points at me. "We're disappointed in you!" he shouts.

"You're disappointed in me?" I yell back, silently. "You're disappointed in me? What about me? Have you any idea how disappointed I am in me? I thought we'd change the world in four years and now I know it'll take half a lifetime. And I'll tell you something else, I still did my best. We all did."

I end the length, and now I'm looking at the other side. A Kosovar Albanian in a brown jacket waves at me. Some small kids are sitting around a nursery nurse. I can half hear Clare Short saying something about third world debt. There is a red cloak trimmed with ermine floating on the water where a duke has drowned. Gerry Adams and David Trimble shake hands as The Master looks on. There's a poster showing two men in a line and the slogan "Labour bloody well IS working".

And here I am, swimming up the middle; my half-hour is up and a couple of swimmers have joined me in the water and, for one terrible moment, I think that I'm completely naked and have to reach down to reassure myself before getting out.

I stand in the shower, stripped of all artifice. Then I dry myself, and awkwardly - as ever - negotiate my socks. Time to face the world. Time to face the electors. Time to face the future. Time to serve my country.

Time (I am now fully dressed) for Lynton Charles.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, There are years of fun to come