Something stirring

30 April 2001

I said a few columns ago that something was stirring out there: I’d just met a traditional Labour voter who felt let down by the government and who thought it was time my lot had a go.

Since then, to my pleasure and surprise, I’ve met quite a few more. I’m beginning to wonder whether something big might be going on.

A note of caution is necessary here. An occupational hazard of standing for election is what’s termed ‘candidatitis’. This can be loosely defined as what happens when a candidate whose chances are at best slim suddenly starts believing they can sweep the world before them.

There are several classic symptoms. These include viewing vaguely encouraging canvass returns through rose-coloured spectacles, a desire to spend far more money on leaflets than can possibly be justified, and the encouragement of unrealistic hopes in the hearts of new recruits. This last symptom is particularly unforgivable, as when crushing reality returns during the counting of the votes, their disappointment drives them away forever.

And yet:

My seat includes a large concentration of the sort of council estate and ex-council estate voters who are exactly Labour’s traditional core constituency. They ought to be wedded to the People’s Party for life, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

In the 1980s folks like them embraced Maggie Thatcher’s style of Conservatism, and Feltham and Heston twice fell to the Tories. There’s no danger of that happening again. There are no Conservative councillors anywhere in the constituency. You should hear some of the names they call William Hague. You’d blush.

When Tony Blair promised that things could only get better, it was exactly what they – and the rest of the country – wanted to hear. In 1997 my prospective Labour opponent was rewarded with 60% of the vote.

That year Blair did something that very few politicians are ever privileged to do: he gave the country hope. Even people like me, philosophically opposed to New Labour on every level and appalled by its control-freak tendencies, believed there would be a noticeable change for the better.

And we’ve all been disappointed. What’s changed? Precious little. Despite his commanding House of Commons majority, Tony Blair has redefined the word ‘timid’.

Personally, I’m only a little bit surprised. Obviously, if I’d thought Labour had the answers I wouldn’t be in the Liberal Democrats. But to the great mass of the population, who in 1997 dared for a brief moment to abandon their cynicism and let hope creep in, it has been a cruelly disillusioning experience.

I’m seeing the evidence of this in the increasing numbers of people who have given up on both Labour and the Conservatives and are willing to have a look at the Lib Dems. I have no idea whether or not that will translate into real votes. I hope it will.

But one thing is clear: if Tony Blair is given the second term he so desperately seeks it will be a victory born not out of hope, but of apathy.