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7 December 2023

A bluffer’s guide to rural politics

Initially a reluctant candidate for a Herefordshire Council seat, I discovered the camaraderie, conflict and thrill of local elections.

By Matthew Engel

One day in late July, when I was having a carefree day watching cricket, I got an email from my friend and neighbour Toby Murcott. He asked if I remembered urging him to stand for our local council a few years back. I did.

Then he announced that he had been chosen to stand in our ward at the forthcoming by-election. He was turning 60, the perfect age for a councillor: old enough to weather the crap salary, young enough to be energetic. He had the perfect temperament, too. I was delighted and pledged allegiance.

Toby had been chosen by the Independents for Herefordshire (I4H), a loose and pragmatic group with progressive instincts, which until the May elections had led an anti-Tory coalition with the Greens and ran the unitary Herefordshire Council. The by-election came about because our previous I4H councillor, Peter Jinman, had died of cancer shortly after being elected for a third term.

[See also: Where have all the rebel councils gone?]

The ward was Golden Valley South in the south-west corner of Herefordshire, nuzzling Wales, bordered and dominated by the 16-mile long eastern ridge of the Black Mountains. An area of outstanding natural beauty but not, absurdly, an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (now renamed “National Landscapes”). Four shops, eight pubs, 16 parishes, 1,600 homes, 2,700 voters in an area twice the size of Leeds. It has been my home for 32 years.

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Peter had been an ideal councillor. With his mutton-chop whiskers, he was the most recognisable person in the valley. He also knew the area better than anyone else, having been the local vet for 30 years. He had held high office in the halls of veterinary politics and knew Westminster as well as the intimate parts of sheep – the traditional mainstay of the area.

Toby had made his name as a campaigner to improve the area’s primeval broadband. He had a PhD in biochemistry and became an expert on the mysteries of fibre to help us escape a system that seemed to rely on string and jam jars.

Halfway through the by-election campaign, in mid-August, Toby vanished from view. He was in hospital with an illness that remained mysterious. But he texted me and said: “Seem to be on the mend.” As a supporter, I was mainly worried for his campaign. The vote was three weeks away, and his rivals were still beavering. In particular, there was Dave Greenow, a Conservative farmer and ex-councillor who had family connections with the Golden Valley but lived 20 minutes’ drive from his nearest ward voter. The other three – Labour, Lib Dem and another Independent – were also carpetbaggers and clearly no-hopers. But Toby’s local-boy advantage was being negated.

He missed the Longtown Show, the biggest event of the Golden Valley summer, a perfect meet-and-greet opportunity. With nine days to go until polling, another neighbour rang. I sensed a bad-news call but this was not one I had remotely imagined. “Toby’s died,” she said.

Toby was, above all, a family man, and his wife and teenage daughter, Sian and Dilys, were devastated. In deference to their grief, the council delayed the announcement for a week. Then every house in the ward received a letter saying the election had been postponed – the rarely needed but long-established protocol in this situation – to allow a replacement to enter the race.

I was heading off on a long-arranged trip to the US, having already voted by post. I delivered a note to Sian, which I had rewritten six times, and went away, still somewhat shocked myself, hoping at least I would not miss the funeral.

When I returned, I wondered what was happening politically, and rang John Harrington, a contact in the I4H camp. It was just a journalist’s nosiness, that was all. I was told the election had been reset for 26 October: they had a fortnight to find a candidate and they were struggling. A non-local would have had little chance against Greenow, but no one eligible wanted to know. Did they think the job was jinxed? I said I knew a possible, someone who had shown a flicker of interest. I listed this paragon’s qualifications and virtues; John asked me to take soundings. The target considered it, then declined.

There were now ten days left until the deadline. Then came a text. “Quick question,” said John. “Why wouldn’t you give it a go?” My well-meaning intervention had become a self-built heffalump trap.

Why wouldn’t I? Because. Because I had a book contract and other projects. Because I still want to travel. Because I want to be my own master. Because I loathed the idea of being publicly judged and had won hardly anything since the under-nines relay. And, though I have always loved elections, and have reported on them since shortly after Eatanswill, I wanted to remain a bystander. Also because the choices facing local government are ever more constrained, by Whitehall bullying and starvation of funds. Because the choices are nowadays mostly about what to cut next – and anyway, my party was in opposition.

But the Golden Valley is a special place. Without Peter, the voters had not had a direct voice in Hereford for months, and that had had consequences. Officials have to answer to county councillors; parish councillors, not so much. We had become used to having accessible representatives (regardless of party) who listened to our moans; I found no one who recalled having one from “off” – ie not part of the community. Greenow was already using the phrase “our ward” in his leaflets. Who said it was his ward? I began to waver.

Next day I rang an old friend and ex-councillor, Anthony Powers. He advised that if I tended to my flock, did not get sucked in to multiple committees and stayed a backbencher, I could still have a life. I started to eye the white flag of surrender.

Herefordshire local politics is little noticed by the county’s own population, never mind anyone else. In keeping with the British norm, the council is regarded with generic contempt; it is horrendously skint but not bankrupt like some. Against the national trend, the Tories gained seats in May but no majority, and took power backed by the Liberal Democrats (I wonder how that tends to go: must ask Cleggy). Both supported a Hereford bypass, which does not exist despite 60 years of discussion. It is the local equivalent of the Schleswig-Holstein question, with a strong whiff of HS2. Meanwhile, Labour has a single seat on the council, out of 53, and no chance in the countryside.

I4H had lost out badly, perhaps due to a perceived excess of greenery, and 18 councillors went down to six, five after Peter died. But I had no qualms about joining them. I liked the people I already knew, I was in rough accord with their policies and outlook; there was a promise of no whipping and, quite clearly, it was the only route to save the seat.

Anyway, there was no time to ruminate. In a Hereford teashop I met Liz Harvey, the group leader – an imposing woman appointed as my agent, who for the next week would impose herself upon me. The first thing was to fill in the long and repetitive nomination papers. We took them to be ratified with only 24 hours to spare. The final formality was to say verbally that I was willing to stand. At this point Liz turned her face away, as though worried I would, even now, run into the street screaming. I did pause and consider, like a half-hearted bride. Then I said yes.

Illustration by Mona Eing & Michael Meissner

The next task was to deal with the postal votes, which play an increasing role. More than 400 voters had applied and their ballots were due out a week later. The theory was that many send off their envelopes straight away, so I had to write to these voters very fast indeed. That meant working out what I actually wanted to say. And a team of helpers was required to do the envelopes. Unfortunately, that team was usually a team of one. My wife has a cider-making business and October is her frantic month. My daughter had her own preoccupations. Liz lived an hour away and had much else to do.

But she is a doer all right, and we established a good rapport. I respected her political nous; she left my words alone. And the leaflet that followed came out well. With the help of pictures rapidly taken by a neighbour, it looked pretty good (even if the star turn was past his best) and had some meat in it. I added ten bullet points with my aims. Unable to think of the last I made it: “10. To stay awake in committee meetings.” At least five people promised me their votes on that alone. This is how Boris Johnson built a career, pretending to act normal.

However, my four rivals had been knocking on doors, minus a pause out of respect for Toby, since early August, when there was daylight until almost 9pm. By the time I had finished the paperwork, I had just three weeks to try to knock on 1,600 doors, and it was dark by 6.30pm – in a place with hardly any street lamps. And since only a minority were in before three on weekdays, quality canvassing time was in short supply. Even weekends posed problems: England and Wales were playing their Rugby World Cup quarter-finals at 4pm on the first Saturday and Sunday, and door-knocking after that would have been disastrous.

Few of the 16 parishes are traditional villages; most are scattered settlements. Neighbours can be a mile away. After a sloppy start, I acquired a platoon of leafleteers whose job was simply to get the message through the letter box – not easy now that most have draught excluders to negotiate, and round here the boxes are often elusive or non-existent. Then I would come by another day, more selectively, choosing homes based on voting records (one could tell who had voted in May, though not how), scraps of intelligence and intuition. I also headed for people I knew in the hope of a smile, a chat and a yes. Sometimes I had companions, sometimes not.

I left home each day reluctantly, but out there I put on my game face and was in the zone. It was an education in the geography of a territory I thought I knew. I found lanes, farms and houses I never knew existed and thrilled to the varying moods of the mountain and the surrounding hills. Whatever my reservations, I was now in it to win it. Dogs never daunted me, though I sometimes baulked at long, rutted farm tracks with no destination in sight.

The leaves began to turn. The shirt-sleeved days of Indian summer turned to a traditional wet October and, inexorably, it got dark almost two minutes earlier every day. My late tomatoes went untended. The Rugby World Cup passed me by. And the cricket. Global wars had to wait till the News at Ten. Even what winning might mean was banished from my mind. That was for another day, if it happened.

[See also: How Deep England fell out of love with Boris Johnson]

On the doorsteps I presented my leaflet in case they had not seen it – picture to the fore, indicating that I was the real candidate not a surrogate – and began the spiel, explaining the sad circumstances, which they nearly always knew. This was often indicated by a hint of dark humour. “You’re brave,” they would say, or, “Be careful going down those steps.” Once I hit my head on a hanging basket, but no worse fate befell me. I also reeled out my mantra: that I lived here, that my opponents lived somewhere over there; if they lost, they would never be seen again and probably not seen much even if they won. I was intending to stay right here, win or lose.

When we first moved to the Golden Valley, the farm vote held sway. Now farmers were a minority. Many children had opted out and their parents had sold up. The families still in the game consolidated their holdings because small sheep farms are not viable. Into the redundant farmhouses came new faces.

In a place with a very low crime rate (theft of agricultural machinery excepted) many of the newcomers still locked their doors when in and left their radios on when out – city-dwellers’ habits. Some had erected electronic gates, as if in Surrey, or had new-fangled doorbells that all but spat in your eye. But the recent arrivals were impressed by my 32 years here, and some saw me, not as a newbie like them, but as a gnarled old yokel who knew what the changing skies portended.

I dared to think I was winning. The bypass, about which I was tepid, was hardly being mentioned. But there was much enthusiasm for a new railway station serving the valley itself – this had been Peter Jinman’s pet project – which I supported and the Tories were believed to be tepid about. And I was having fun, especially going to the pub after dark and solemnly telling my companions that, under election law, I was not allowed to buy them a drink.

After the final weekend, I wrote on Facebook that no one at all had been rude to me. That was negated the next morning when a woman screamed at me for interrupting a phone call. Then came a man who told me the Tories were far too left-wing for him, and a midday visit to a home with the door open and dogs roaming but no human visible. Then I heard low voices and moans. I tiptoed away, coitus interruptus being a surefire vote-loser.

Oddly, only one person ever told me directly that they would be voting Conservative. But I knew the signs all right – if I pressed for a commitment and coyness set in. And I began to sense something of what Barbara Castle wrote in her diary before Labour were unexpectedly overturned in the 1970 election: “I have a haunting feeling that there is a silent majority sitting behind its lace curtains, waiting to come out and vote Tory.”

Now, day by day, the foreboding grew stronger and stronger. The day before polling I met my nemesis in the middle of the largest village, Ewyas Harold. Dave Greenow couldn’t quite remember my name in the moment, nor I his, so I addressed him as Moriarty, my private nickname for him, and he looked blank. We had an amiable chat. But in my mind one of us had to crash into the Reichenbach Falls, and increasingly I sensed it was me. By now the Tories were showering paper all over the ward, including a pre-poll mailing to every house. These do not come free in local elections, and must have cost around £1,200. We couldn’t compete with that.

On the day itself, the four smaller polling stations were reporting a low turnout. But in crucial Ewyas Harold, it was much higher, both in numbers and percentage. As dusk fell, smiling Tory workers stood cheerfully outside, welcoming smartly dressed elderly couples whom I did not recognise, fresh from behind their lace curtains. I reckoned our leaflets had reached 90 per cent of homes, but it was not enough. Why didn’t I do more in Ewyas Harold, where the voters were? Why was our Facebook offering so thin? (Because I hate Facebook, that’s why.) But dammit. I had let down the legacy of Peter and Toby. I had failed.

Just before the polls closed at 10pm, my daughter drove me into town for the late-night count. We ate in an Indian restaurant, not much else being open. Service was a little slow and the first boxes beat us to the count in the town hall. I checked my phone and there was already a stream of messages from Liz, based on seeing the ballots being emptied.

“We reckon you’ve got 60 per cent of postals.”
“You’ve taken Abbey Dore.”
“You’ve also got Vowchurch.”
“… and Michaelchurch.”

I hurled the waiter a couple of notes for dinner and rushed to the hall. A handful of tellers were expertly fingering the papers like croupiers shuffling the cards. A slightly larger number of party representatives leaned over them. Yes, I had indeed won the smaller villages. But the Ewyas Harold box was due any minute and I waited for the swing. The last ballot papers were poured on to the table. As they were unfolded, my eyes latched on to the Greenow votes and I held my breath.

Then I watched in disbelief. For me, piles had nearly always meant haemorrhoids. But now the piles on the table told a story I had not remotely contemplated. By midnight it was official and the returning officer intoned the numbers in time-honoured alphabetical order: 548 for me, 249 for Greenow. The other candidates had less than 100 between them. Yet the turnout was 33 per cent, above average for a council by-election and only just short of the 36 per cent at the more publicised Tamworth parliamentary by-election a week earlier. There was polite applause and handshakes, including from Moriarty. On the pavement outside, a pleasant Tory lady congratulated me. “I never expected anything like this,” I said. “Neither did we,” she replied.

On the way home I felt a surge of euphoria – a rare experience at my age – not because I was now a councillor but because I now had a sense of acceptance in the place I called home. My ingrained paranoia, instilled at boarding school and sharpened by freelancing, vanished. I suddenly had at least 548 friends, all of them close to hand. Of course, there might be payback when they (and 2,000-odd others) wanted my help, and I had no idea yet how to give it.

I forgot the fear that Barbara Castle had sensed. Instead I remembered Robert Redford’s line after he was elected to the Senate in The Candidate: “What do we do now?”

[See also: Council bankruptcy tracker: authorities under increasing financial strain]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special