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Fifty years on the campaign trail

What I’ve learned from five decades of reporting on British elections.

By Matthew Engel

As soon as the general election of October 1974 was announced, a trainee journalist on a local evening paper wrote a high-flown intro to a front-page story proclaiming that the eyes of the nation were turning to Northampton. The speculation was that the main party leaders, Harold Wilson, reinstalled as prime minister, and the deposed Ted Heath would both pay visits to the town before polling day to try to conquer two marginals: Northampton North and South.

They did arrive – on successive nights – on which the novice interviewed Heath and shook hands with Wilson. Nonetheless, that overblown sentence did cause a certain amount of ribbing from my colleagues in our favourite bar, Shipmans.

But, aged 22, I had already been allowed to cover the less-than-decisive election eight months earlier, so must have performed well enough to be allowed another crack – even though there were complaints from a Labour candidate, a Liberal and two Tories, all of whom thought my copy was a bit too cheeky for the Northampton Chronicle & Echo. But I got away with it. And it started a lifelong journalistic love affair.

Though I have covered hundreds of actual sporting events, I have always regarded elections as the most exhilarating sport of all. Not for me the world-weary sigh of Brenda from Bristol, told by the BBC that Theresa May had just called the snap poll of 2017: “You’re joking! Not another one!” Fifty years on, I’m still infatuated. And I have been privileged to play some sort of journalistic role in almost every election since that first.

Elections in the latter part of the last century were not wholly different to those of today. Except among us weirdos, disdain for the whole business was endemic. This was especially true during the four successive elections with Wilson and Heath as the main protagonists. (Oddly, there have been no repeat match-ups in the half-century since.)

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In some ways, politicians were treated more deferentially. The Beatles’ refrain “Taxman Mr Wilson, Taxman Mr Heath” was not just used for scansion; MPs were generally mistered. On the other hand, they were less coddled, less protected. The clusterf**ks of leaders, media and public reached their peak in John Major’s soapbox win in 1992.

But in the 1970s major figures customarily raced round to give packed speeches in the halls of big cities and marginals. (In the Fifties the leading attractions and venues were listed in the posher papers as if they were football fixtures.) Rural MPs still made it their business to speak at all their village halls. And the fine art of heckling was not rewarded with ejection. In 1964 the normally nimble Wilson suffered a magnificent put-down in the then great dockyard port of Chatham. “And why do I emphasise the navy so much?” he asked. Voice from the hall: “Because you’re in Chatham, you bloody fool.”

Many places had their own traditions. Northampton had an election eve rally in the Market Square. Just about every lamp post in Birmingham was festooned with placards for the candidates. There were many more window stickers in towns and placards (99 per cent Tory) in the hedgerows. Very misleading they all could be. In 1987 I was suckered by energy and posters into believing the Liberals would knock the Conservatives out of Southend West, then the hereditary fiefdom of the Channon family. Not even close. That was Thatcher’s last hurrah and possibly the year when Tories stopped identifying themselves too readily.

No one needed ID to vote, of course; indeed, until the 1980s these initials were only heard in American films. People voted more dutifully, even though postal voting was very restricted: from 1923 to 1997 turnout never dropped below 71 per cent; since then it has never been that high. And fewer needed convincing: most voted the way they always did, usually the way their parents did.

People now are prone to skitter around, often making up their mind only when they reach the polling booth. And a Big Brother-type of frivolity has taken over the voting. In the Johnsonian seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in 2019 I asked a middle-aged passer-by who he was voting for. “Oh Boris – he’s an idiot, but he makes me laugh.” Try to imagine that sentence substituting the names Winston or Clem.

Matthew Engel photographed by Fabio De Paola for The New Statesman

Asking the public oneself can be very informative, as long as one avoids the TV ploy of getting an individual from each side and then going home. On the last Monday of the 1992 election, when Neil Kinnock was thought to be four days from Downing Street, I stood in the middle of Chapel-en-le-Frith in the Derbyshire peaks and asked 25 people what they thought. There was an astonishing amount of shifting, switching and swithering in all kinds of strange directions. It was my first inkling that something was up. I am convinced that Kinnock lost not because of the hubristic Sheffield rally but because of last-minute doubts about his suitability, fuelled by Rupert Murdoch’s then mighty Sun.

Years later, on a sunlit afternoon just before the 2010 election, I watched Nick Clegg being cheered to the rafters in Oxford Brookes University for his promise to abolish tuition fees. Five hundred packed the hall with many more shut outside. “Omigod!” one girl trilled. “Nick Clegg spoke to me!”

Fast forward to 2015: five years of coalition later, complete with perhaps British politics’ most infamous broken promise, I was in Cambridge and wanted to test the notion that Cleggmania had turned to Cleggphobia. It surely couldn’t be that bad, I reasoned. Students have short memories; some of this lot were only 13 in his heroic year. I asked a dozen students outside King’s College what they thought of him. “Dirty, slimy, sleazy, scheming, filthy, rotten, creepy,” was an early response. The most supportive answer was: “I don’t know anything about politics, I do maths.” Final Score: anti, nine; don’t know, three; pro, zero. QED. Who needs YouGov?

At the end of that campaign Clegg’s gimmick was to take a two-day bus trip from Land’s End to John o’Groats. As he stood at the edge of the cliff before the start, the assembled press waited for him to jump. But before we left Cornwall, he was handing out sticks of rock. And all the way north he retained his charm and outward serenity. It was the party that fell off the cliff: 57 seats became eight.

But the gallows humour of Clegg’s bus, and his accessibility, was a rarity. Many journalists were assigned to the leaders’ buses for the duration of hostilities, and often treated about as well as the average hostage.

So I charted my own course, heading off to view the most interesting politicians on the rungs below the top, working their own patch. Mostly, they enjoyed having visitors in their temporary – or if the voters decreed – permanent exile from Westminster. And I became a connoisseur of political style in a way impossible to see from the Westminster gallery.

Vince Cable approached front doors like a respectful undertaker come to discuss the funeral details; Ann Widdecombe shyly bobbed her head to the householder as if greeting her sovereign, and came to life only when she climbed onto her truck and belted out a comic routine like a fairground barker. Michael Howard was disarmingly pleasant but slyly edged his foot into voters’ doors when they opened to avoid the possibility of it being slammed; Michael Portillo was plain rude to anyone who turned out not to be on the register. I found George Galloway’s honeyed voice the most beautiful in politics; shame about the aftertaste of humbug.

In 1997, Donald Dewar, with a then impregnable majority in Glasgow, disdained door-knocking completely – “You don’t make much impact” – and indeed spent the day giving me a tour of Glaswegian architecture before agreeing to a walk in the park, greeting passers-by with a simple “Aye, aye” and then heading to a bowls club where we were greeted warmly and given tea. When we were done, he took our cups into the kitchen and rinsed them. No fuss; no one but me saw him do it.

My favourite day of all was a Saturday morning in Cowdenbeath at the 2001 election when the second most important politician in the country was making a visit to his fiefdom in Fife. For several hours four of us walked the streets: Gordon Brown, his agent, me and a photographer. I saw a man never glimpsed on TV. It was possible to admire his skill – his greeting to voters was “Good to see you? How are you getting on?” (Note the use of “see” not “meet”, guarding against the possibility that he knew them well but had forgotten.) And his way of closing a conversation with a voter: rocking back to emit a full-throated laugh, thus ending the eye contact. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! HAA!

It was also possible to note his unworldliness. He was bamboozled by the weather. “It’s a nice day,” he told the first woman he saw. “A bit cold,” she replied. Next encounter, he said, “Bit cold.” “Not bad,” said this one, indignantly defending Cowdenbeath’s climate. “No, no,” he said hurriedly. “Not bad.” The weather is usually a good opening line, but not if you are someone too engrossed in higher things to notice it.

And then there was Norman Lamont, Brown’s predecessor-but-one as chancellor, who was forced out of Surrey in 1997 by boundary changes and parachuted in to hold long-Tory Harrogate. It was not going well. I was not welcome. Lamont’s staff declined to reveal his whereabouts. I sat in my car, despairingly, wondering how mileage to Harrogate would go down in my office without a story. Then suddenly there was a noise: Lamont’s loudspeaker van went straight past me.

There followed a car chase of a kind more suited to film stuntmen, which ended when the van entered a suburban cul-de-sac and I had him cornered. I stalked him as he passed a man mowing the lawn of a house bearing a Lib Dem poster. “What did he say to you?” I asked the mower man. “Nothing. He just scowled. But it’s not my poster, not my house. I’m just mowing.”

The candidate gave me a chilly welcome, too. But a rapprochement was reached. I would watch for a while, then shove off and we would talk over dinner, which was a long one. We parted as friends, but Lamont will not remember Harrogate kindly; he was suffocated under the piles of tactical Lib Dem votes – with or without the snubbed gardener’s help – and retired, hurt, to the Lords. I still have a soft spot for him.

That was one of those rare occasions where you could sense a forthcoming sensation in the air. It happened in Bath, when Chris Patten was the one big casualty of Major’s big night. In 1999 Wayne David, later a long-serving MP, was felled in the Rhondda in the first Welsh Assembly election because Tony Blair, who was pro-devolution if he got his own way, had put the dull Alun Michael in charge rather than the charismatic Rhodri Morgan. Rhondda rebelled, refused to look David in the eye and voted Plaid.

 In 2005 the Labour hierarchy managed to lose Blaenau Gwent, Bevan and Foot’s fortress, by insisting on a London stooge from an all-woman shortlist and cutting out the local heir apparent. He stood as an independent and saw her off. That time the posters did tell the story. Psephologists usually miss these local earthquakes; you have to be there.

And sometimes one could be enchanted by the small realities of politics. On a summer evening in 1987 I followed the very Brummie Tory Anthony Beaumont-Dark round some of the more agreeable homes of Birmingham Selly Oak. It was a summer’s evening. He was a cheery, pipe-smoking fellow whose doorstep patter focused on the home-owners’ dogs and clematis. He made light work of half a mile’s worth of semis and then we went to the pub…

… where in walked Denis Howell, football referee and Labour MP for Small Heath next door, and his crew. The two men greeted each other like long-lost buddies and sat down to compare notes. Now they really did talk politics, mainly about the one subject that unites the two main parties at any election: what bastards the Liberals are.

The most depressing day of my election-watching life was the day before the 2015 poll. The highlight of David Cameron’s programme for the day was a visit to Chester Zoo. He was on the brink of turning the Con-Lib coalition into a Conservative government.

He saw no animals, nor any member of the public. The zoo was building an extension. Cameron was in his election rig of hard hat and hi-vis. He met only officials and workers. He made no speech; almost no humans in Chester knew he was there. In the previous 24 hours he had visited an all-night supermarket in Bristol, where he met no shoppers; a remote farmhouse in Wales; and his umpteenth kindergarten. Voters? Why talk to them?

Less than two years later, with Cameron exiled to his shepherd’s hut, there was a tight by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central. The Labour candidate was one Gareth Snell. I was informed by a Labour press officer that I could not speak to Snell, nor to his canvassers, nor to any other member of the Labour Party. He hinted that all Stoke was off-limits. I got what I needed without the minder and gave him a vengeful name-check in print. He complained.

Months after that, Theresa May called her election and sort-of won by saying almost nothing, but almost lost to Jeremy Corbyn, who would not shut up. In 2019, that dreadful, mendacious and freezing cold election, canvassers in Britain’s increasingly dimly lit streets needed torches to see house numbers from around teatime. Enough, I said. I’m done with all this.

But now, 50 years on, the call of another Northampton election was just too loud. The old hometown did not look the same as I stepped down from the train. But I had been back often enough to know that. Few of the changes have been for the better. The town is now 250,000, but the growth was centred on distant estates with tenuous connections to the locality. It can no longer support a Marks & Spencer. The nightlife is rough. More have packed into the other towns and Northamptonshire’s diminishing countryside. In the process of this Essexification, it has become more Conservative. Until February, when Peter Bone was defenestrated in Wellingborough, the Tories held all seven seats.

Yet, perversely, in an increasingly inchoate county, the failings of local government may be feeding into national politics instead of the other way round. This was the county that blazed the trail of now-fashionable council bankruptcy. And the rejigged system with two different unitary authorities appears to be working no better. Blame government? Or the Tory councils? Either way Labour has an alibi. “People have been fed up a long time because round here nothing gets done,” said Matthew Evans, head of politics at Northampton School for Boys, pointing at a litter-strewn street. “They want change.” Last month Northamptonshire voted for a Labour police commissioner for the first time.

Immediately, as Sunak blew the election whistle, three of the six remaining Tories – ex-ministers all – rushed for the exit: Michael Ellis, Andrea Leadsom and Chris Heaton-Harris. The last two were notionally safe in their seats, Ellis not.

The Northampton North seat has swum with the tide since it was created in 1974, and the boundary changes have been kind to the Labour candidate Lucy Rigby, a bright and personable former Islington councillor with vague Northampton connections. She got a warm reception from what I saw; apart from the obvious, she says that NHS dentistry has been a major issue on the doorstep.

But I fancied going back to the old journalistic staple of vox pops in the place where I first plucked up the courage to approach a stranger to ask for their thoughts. It was Wednesday, the traditional big day on the 900-year-old Market Square – n0where better to catch a mood than amid the easy banter of an ancient market, I reckoned.

It was sealed off, being renovated under a levelling-up scheme. But even the good news was bad: the work involved shifting the stalls for well over a year to an obscure car park that no one could find, and the end is still not in sight. Many traders have just given up and are not expected back.

I stumbled on the car park by chance. Les Brannan, on the watches and keys stall, was packing up at 3pm, the last man in sight. “I’ve always voted Conservative,” he said, “but…” He was not yet sure what the “but” meant exactly, but it was a very solid one. If the Tories have lost the market traders, the staunchest capitalists of all, they really are screwed. Maybe the nation should turn its eyes to Northampton again.

[See also: The Labour Party has a Gen Z problem]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation