A campaign of gritted teeth

Election views - Leeds

''They disturbed me while I was watching Home and Away," says a mildly outraged Alexandra Price, 22. Home and Away refers to an Australian television soap opera. "They" refers to Leeds North-West local Labour Party telephone canvassers. "And they called me Alexandra and not Miss Price."

Pestering people while they watch their favourite TV programme is never a good way to fish for a vote. But disturbing people from their regular routine every once in a while is a necessary part of the democratic process, or so the argument goes.

What is more telling is the second complaint from the young Miss Price, because although not that many people watch Home and Away - it is rubbish - a lot more seem to be annoyed at being addressed so informally. For example, the first thing Peter Newlands, 20, tells me is that he is more than miffed after the local Liberal Democrat candidate addressed election bumf to him using the abbreviated version of his first name - Pete. "I mean, I'd never met the guy." Coming over too familiarly just doesn't seem to go down well, even with under-25s.

Interestingly enough, such a buddy-buddy approach is right at the heart of the Conservatives' "dog whistle" billboard campaign. The posters adorned with feminine handwriting and the "we" used in their slogan "Are you thinking what we're thinking" are obvious attempts masonically to give a handshake to their electorate without actually having actually to shake any hands. The problem is, you need to have built up a lot of legitimacy to carry off a slogan like that, otherwise the kids in Woodhouse - a run-down area of the constituency ten minutes from Headingley cricket ground - will, as the street vernacular goes, "dis" you. A wall facing one of the Tory posters on Woodhouse street has on it, scrawled in chalk, the words: "The conservatives are shit."

Underneath that: "Are you thinking what we're thinking?"

Despite what the graffiti implies, this is no Labour heartland. From 1950 - when the constituency was created - until 1997, this was a Tory seat. That year, Harold Best was elected with a majority of 3,844. He turned out to be a Labour rebel, and four years ago he was duly re-elected with an even larger majority of 5,236.

By retiring this year, he is leaving the seat up for grabs, but it would appear that the Tories don't feel they can snatch the seat back. They have this as target seat number 100. The Lib Dems however have it as target seat 38, and it could go their way. In the local elections, they came out with three times as many council seats from the four wards that make up the core of the constituency than any other party. Leeds North West also has the largest student population of any constituency in the country - some 27.2 per cent of residents. And it has a growing Muslim population - the Grand Mosque is situated at the southern tip of the constituency. These are all factors that should work in favour of the Lib Dems, or at least make it an exciting race. But will it be?

Linda (yes, just Linda: she doesn't want to be named and shamed) is one of the first to have a campaign sign plunged into the lawn of her front garden (Lib Dem: the Labour and Tory local posters had not yet been delivered at the time of writing). She says she used to be traditionally Labour and very politically active, but now she is "depressingly bored". Politics is just no longer engaging, and the sign belongs to her husband, a teacher. It is a sentiment spread far around these parts.

And what of those who still count themselves as being politically active? A senior Labour Party member from a nearby constituency told me that the Iraq war had stretched loyalties to the limit, and that canvassers were campaigning through "gritted teeth".

That should get the voters enthused.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Faith invaders