A change of scenery

7 June 2001

And so to Twickenham – my next-door neighbour, the nearest key marginal, the seat where most of my local party colleagues have spent most of the election and the seat where, if the commentators are to be believed, rival packs of activists roam in search of innocent floating voters.

It’s not actually like that at all.

I was in Christchurch in 1993 when Diana Maddock stole the Tories’ seventh-safest seat in a by-election. I spent the final week there and it was a fairground-ride of adrenaline that gathered pace until polling day, when every street was crawling with hyperactive characters with clipboards and gold rosettes. Every window, it seemed, had an orange Lib Dem diamond in it, every field had dozens of blue Tory rectangles (who cares – grass can’t vote) and every market place had Screaming Lord Sutch with his megaphone.

Times have changed. The Tories took back Christchurch in 1997. David Sutch is gone for good. Diana Maddock is now a baroness and will soon wed Alan Beith. Voters across the country refuse to put posters up. Twickenham in 2001 is not like Christchurch was in 1993. Twickenham is a band of desperately tired but utterly committed volunteers who believe they are winning but can’t wait for it all to be finally over. In Christchurch the campaign was enthusiastic, boisterous, a little ragged around the edges. In Twickenham it’s quietly professional – and it’s getting the job done.

A good measure of activists’ effectiveness, if not of who’s actually winning the election, is to count the window posters and garden stakeboards. The best organised party gets most up and it can be a real boost to morale to see them – as well as showing voters you’re a contender. If you drive through Twickenham on a main road you’d think it was neck-and-neck. There aren’t many – the estate agents’ boards far outnumber all the parties’ combined – but every so often you see a cluster, with Tories and Lib Dems mixed in neighbouring houses in roughly equal numbers. It’s as if once the parties spot one board they descend on the neighbours in a tussle for local supremacy. When you go into the back streets, however, it’s a different story. There is barely a Tory poster to be seen, but many for the Lib Dems. While I was there yesterday I saw almost as many for the Green Party as for the Conservatives. Clearly, the Tories have tried the old trick of plastering the main roads, to appear stronger than they are.

I spent the latter part of yesterday delivering letters and leaflets to a mix of homes ranging from detached near-mansions to what passes in leafy Richmond-Upon-Thames for run-down blocks of flats. I put about 500 bits of paper though doors in five hours, which makes me – in target seat terms – a lightweight.

For one glorious period I was in the same road as two Labour activists. We were each delivering ‘eve of poll’ leaflets – last minute reminders with key messages. The Labour ones implored ‘Every Labour vote counts’ and were a naked appeal against tactical voting. A few minutes later I was along with ours, which stressed how poorly Labour had performed in 1997 and quoted Ken Livingstone in The Independent saying how Labour supporters should vote Lib Dem. (Meanwhile, through the front room windows, David Beckham was scoring a glorious goal.) Never, ever, believe anyone who says Labour is giving the Lib Dems an easy ride in seats like Twickenham. The People’s Party has as much chance of winning in Twickenham as I have in Feltham and Heston but that didn’t stop the evil looks from its representatives, or the eve of poll leaflets – which are what you deliver when you’re trying to win.

I’ll be back on duty at 6am today doing more delivery, then will spend most of the morning on a polling station collecting numbers. All afternoon and evening I’ll be ‘knocking up’ – reminding our supporters to go out to vote. It’s amazing how many people forget, and a good knock-up can make the difference between winning and losing.

At some point I’ll nip home to vote for myself. It will be deathly quiet – there will be no campaign in my seat to usher last minute waverers into the Lib Dem camp. But then, I’m not going to win. And Vince Cable is – with a little help from the bloke next door and his friends.