The joys of Reedley Road in Westbury-on-Trym are worthy to be hymned by John Betjeman: sun, pink blossom, suburban houses with doors of oak, far away a church spire and near at hand, learner drivers stopping and starting in the empty road. On Tuesday morning, three volunteers were expecting to be joined by our columnist Charlotte Leslie, who in 2010 won Bristol North West, which includes Westbury-on-Trym, for the Conservatives.
For nine general elections in a row, all the way back to October 1974, this seat has returned an MP from the party which went on to form the government. In 2010, Leslie won by 3,274 votes, thanks in part to a strong performance by the Liberal Democrats, who came third with 13,059 votes. As recently as 2005, Labour held Bristol North West (albeit under different boundaries) by 8,962 votes. If most of the Lib Dem support returns to Labour in a week’s time, Leslie will be out.
But she has worked remarkably hard since 2010 to consolidate her hold on the seat, and has been fighting a very energetic election campaign. Ruth Davis, a young member of her team, said: “People have been almost over-literatured here. We’ve got a really good delivery network.” The thought crossed my mind that the entire nation may have been over-literatured, not least by journalists working with the same manic dedication as the candidates.
A learner driver backed round a corner. On the car were written the words: “Let’s Pass with Dave’s Motoring School.” But in Bristol North West the national campaign run by David Cameron feels remote, and one of Leslie’s leaflets says:
“Local people are backing our Charlotte. Charlotte Leslie has changed the way we think about politics. We’re sick of old-style politicians. We want Charlotte as our MP.”
The leaflet includes an endorsement from “a life-long socialist” who declares:
“I never thought I’d vote Tory but I’m supporting Charlotte. She’s not like other politicians, she really does care. She’s been a gem supporting the Southmead Project which works with victims and survivors of abuse.”
Word came that Leslie was on her way, but had been held up by “a chatty constituent”. The team had already started to canvass Reedley Road, Davis telling them what allegiance to expect at each house, based on previous canvass returns. The aim now, she said, is “to engage with wavering voters”, and find out what issues matter to them most. They very often say schools and the NHS, on which Leslie has a good record: she was in at the origins in 2009 of the Bristol Free School, and her father is a surgeon in a local hospital.
But Davis recently canvassed one constituent who made a request with which it was not easy to agree: “Well I’d really like to see her working to get the Tories out of power.”
Leslie arrived in her small campaign car, driven by herself, and a torrent of words burst from her: “I’ve got my emergency swimming things” – at the age of 14 or 15 she was seventh fastest in the country at the 200 metres backstroke. From this experience of competitive sport she learned that you must “focus on what you can do” and make sure you “swim your own race”. And she pointed out that whatever the stresses of politics may be, “it’s not going to make you wish you were dead because it hurts so much”.
She also likes running, and recently “got a bit carried away”, ran too much and aggravated “an old knee injury”: which means she now has to have the discipline not to go running.
A car came slowly down the road and stopped by Leslie. The driver, who was black, put down his window and said in a cheery tone: “I hope you do well next week!”
I and Mats Larsson, London correspondent of Expressen, one of Sweden’s main newspapers, congratulated Leslie on arranging for this man to come past at exactly the moment we were talking to her. But it was still quite impressive.
Some voters certainly have a very high opinion of Leslie. Many others were out: a serious drawback to canvassing during the working day. For each of these absentees she wrote a few words in her own hand on one of her leaflets.
In between knocking on doors, Leslie offered glimpses of her own outlook. Humanity, she believes, is divided “between those who live in the world as it is, and those who live in the world as they’d like it to be.” She believes that just as we block unwelcome material on electronic devices, so some of us try to block unwelcome facts, and become unable to distinguish between “a fact you don’t like and a fact that isn’t true”.
Her slogan is “Getting Stuff Done”: a severely pragmatic approach: “for my own sanity and self-esteem, I like to carry on doing things”. So even as she campaigns, she also participates in good works in the community.
Seldom have I felt more keenly my own unfitness for political life than when talking to Leslie. Where does this energy, this desire to be engaged, come from? She has been knocking on doors in Bristol North West ever since being adopted as candidate there in 2006: thousands and thousands of doors. It was her local seat, the first for which she applied, and she got it. Much of what she does succeeds because it is unpolitical. As she goes door to door, she does not wear a rosette. She read classics at Balliol College, Oxford, where her heroes were her teachers, Jasper Griffin and Oliver Lyne. But as a politician, she makes a conscious effort to talk to voters in the same way as she would talk to someone in the pub.
This means she finds the national political debate pretty much intolerable. She says it sounds like one of those automated customer train announcements, in which an apology is made for the late running of the service. Her reaction to such an announcement is to think, “You’re not sorry, you’re a machine!”
She fears we are suffering “Zimbabwean levels of word inflation”, with the result that language becomes “stale” and “empty”, and no longer means anything. This would certainly help explain why, in this election, voters have generally refused to listen to the words of national politicians, which sound (though Leslie does not put it quite like this) pre-recorded, manipulative and entirely insincere.
Leslie goes to the opposite extreme. Her tone is painfully sincere. When my Scandinavian colleague asked her what she did before she became a politician, she replied: “I floundered around.”
There is a long tradition in England of what might be called boastful self-deprecation: speaking ill of oneself in order to gain credit for honesty, and prompt people to say that one is not as bad as all that. But I think Leslie is right to say that national politicians no longer command an audience, because they no longer sound in the slightest bit genuine.
What was the message of Reedley Road? It too was quite hard to pick up. Leslie appeared to be popular, but because she is seen as a human being rather than as a Conservative. She has become, at local level, part of the anti-politics movement.