A floating voter meets her destiny

Election 2001 - Jack Straw called off a walkabout, the Tories wouldn't talk, and the Social

You know how they always say - about Christmas, for example - that when you actually confront it, the reality turns out to be better than your worst fears? Well, as with many things they always say, they are wrong. Not just about Christmas - which is invariably as bad as my worst fears - but also, I can now tell you, about confronting the reality of politics. What I've discovered, having been roused to investigate the world beyond my sofa by my friend the Poet's pragmatic-apathetic, in-lieu-of-anything-better plans to vote Labour, is that things are uncannily as I had feared, and my options more dire than I had imagined. Still, I have made a bit of an effort - and that, as they used to say in the loony bin when examining the sorry basket thing I had made, is something at least.

I began with the party most likely to succeed, at which most of my anger is directed. The Labour candidate in Cambridge is Anne Campbell, a ladylike, smiling sort of person with a 1992 majority of a whisker, and a 1997 majority of more than 14,000. Lord Falconer of the Dome was at her adoption meeting to commend her to the faithful - and faithful was what the 40-odd people were who sat in the party headquarters trying not to notice that the roof was leaking and the rain was pouring into the buckets that had been intended for donations.

There were no dissenting voices, just cheers and foot-stamping affirmation. His Lordship warned against the cynicism of the voters (the word "apathy" has been banished), explaining that they couldn't expect to do as well in Cambridge as they had in 1997. The need to be pragmatic while in power had disappointed some people, he smiled knowingly at those who had kept the faith.

In her speech, Campbell declared herself humbled at being chosen yet again (as well she might, having pledged herself against student tuition fees and then voting in favour of them as an elected MP), and said she knew that some people were worried about changes that had occurred in the Labour Party. But society had changed and now there were many white-collar workers who had moved up from being blue-collar workers who must be retained for Labour. This was an interesting insight into how new Labour is abolishing class - everyone is a worker (vote Labour . . .), only the colours of the shirt collars change ( . . . even though you can now afford a washing machine). As ever, only the language alters, finessed into a New World euphemism.

I was invited to go walkabout with Jack Straw last week and then accompany Campbell next week on a visit to Oakington, our unfriendly local refugee detention centre. But the Straw visit was cancelled, I was told on the day it was meant to have happened, although the area press officer told me he had never been scheduled to visit Cambridge in the first place. The Oakington visit, I am informed, has now been put back until after the election.

I tried my best to link up with the Conservatives. I called their candidate, Graham Stuart, and he gave me a general rundown on the manifesto . . . but I haven't heard anything from him since.

So, in my search for dissenting voices, I had to go to the Socialist Alliance meeting in a local internet cafe. Howard Senter is amiable and has a rare sense of humour for what I remember of 1970s International Socialists. The Poet was an International Socialist back then, until IS declared itself the Socialist Workers Party because they judged the time for world revolution had come. The Poet begged to differ and was promptly expelled.

There were 12 people, including myself, at the Socialist Alliance meeting. Old habits die hard, and when I explained that I was from the press, the chairperson booed and the secretary, a member of Militant, thought I should be excluded from the meeting because he couldn't talk freely. He was reminded by Senter that this was a public meeting and they were seeking election, not - at the moment - fomenting revolution. I was allowed to stay, and plunged back 30 years to my teaching days in Hackney and the meetings, the endless meetings, where Any Other Business twinkled in the far distance while we squabbled over matters of doctrine and points of order and amendments to motions about motions and failed to get to the substance.

Ah, youth, I thought nostalgically - but no, here it still was, the old 'uns and the young firebrands together, still not managing to agree on what kind of demonstration exactly (legal or illegal) was required at the local detention camp for asylum-seekers, let alone on which day it should be held.

But never mind the inefficiency and the nit-picking, look at the policies: renationalising the railways; taxing the rich; defending asylum-seekers; raising pensions; an end to homelessness; raising the minimum wage to £7.40 an hour; scrapping student tuition fees; cancelling third world debt; and last, but not one of my absolute favourites on account of the scope it allows for an overweening sense of superiority, saving the planet. Yes, yes, yes. And if they don't explain how all this could be achieved, at least they are saying what I want someone to be saying.

Some days later, at the press launch of their manifesto, I was the only member of the press. I tried very hard to look like a crowd as Senter and the other officials behind a table delivered their prepared speeches directly to me. Then it was off to the Market Square for a "stunt". What kind of stunt, I asked, as we walked to the square. Senter didn't know. No one had told him. Did anyone know? He didn't know who knew, but he hoped someone would tell him once we got there.

But once we had got there, it seemed everyone had assumed that someone else was dealing with the detail. After a bit of foot-shuffling, they put up a few posters on a market stall and stood around looking like interested bystanders while Senter gave an off-the-cuff speech about cheap principles up for sale.

A couple of Americans stopped for a second to photograph this example of British democracy in action. A group of kids hanging out on the corner cheered or jeered (it was hard to tell) before wandering off to find a more exciting way of bunking off school. Here, at least, there was a photographer from the local free paper, so I felt a little less lonely. None the less, on behalf of the fourth estate, I received their message and pass it on to you; and on behalf of disappointed socialists everywhere, I wished them the best of luck. They were the only option short of flatly refusing to be fooled by the whole idiotic charade of western democracy and not voting at all.

Apart from voting for the Liberal Democrats - don't make me laugh - where else can I put a cross that tells Labour exactly what I think of it?

Still, I went, grumpy and embarrassed, to the Lib Dem meeting on the insistence of the Poet. As it turned out, this really was a meeting, not a rally of the faithful. After a speech or two, there were questions. Quite searching questions. People who had voted Labour all their lives, new and old Liberal Democrats, students and public service workers demanded to know of David Howarth what his policies were on America's missile defence system, refugees, GM experimentation, mental illness, patenting DNA, the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, affordable housing, class sizes, funding the National Health Service, an ethical foreign policy and the financing of care of the elderly. And Howarth's intelligent, humane and left-leaning response to these questions was, I was astonished to discover, not a million miles from just what I wanted to hear.

"Will you fight to dismantle the World Trade Organisation?" asked a fervent woman in natural fibres.

But he wasn't against the WTO as such, only the way it operated. The Green policy of abolishing international trade in favour of regional self-sufficiency was clearly nonsense. This time the word reform made some sense.

"And will you," demanded one elderly lady who had earlier been telling her friend how many pro-lifer candidates each party had, "will you be promoting marriage through the tax system and in schools?"

"No," said Howarth. "I don't think I will." My hero.

Reader, beware. Take me as an example of what can happen when, against your better judgement, you go out. You discover, to your horror, that you are a Liberal Democrat. Don't tell me being a Lib Dem is better than my darkest fears in the lonely watches of the night: Lib-Dem'ness was the darkest fear even my darkest fear couldn't confront.

This article appears in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures