Graeme works as a statistician, and won the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging in 2011. He writes a column in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph.
She’s my age, ish, maybe younger? Her eyes are black-rimmed with make-up. Not a hard face, but a determined one. You can tell she laughs at life. My hopes rise. I was an Essex Tory councillor, back in the day, and a subconscious “these are our people” feeling is present. The prejudice of the party activist! I mentally mark the canvass sheet with a “C”.
But Harlow (where I’d lived, back in the day) isn’t Colchester (where I am today), and I have no experience of fighting Liberal Democrats, who control the town. I don’t look my best on this summer-still estate, with my hot, red baw-heid, and white salt crystals down the front of my sweat-stinking teeshirt.
I hate canvassing for votes (“I’m so sorry to bother you!”), but Ben Locker is the candidate, and ours is a close friendship, forged in the furnace of council elections we fought as part of the Hackney Tory Collective, so here I am, cheeks aching from the activist grin (curious, attentive, not actually insane).
The heat had worn thin my patience, and was reverse-telescoping time: it felt an age to walk to each new front door. My introductory spiel was by now boiled down, reduced, to its essence. “Are you going to vote for Conservative Bennext Thursday?”
“Oh yes. Well you won’t get anywhere with him.” She gestures inside, where I detect a hint of a man in shorts, angrily fiddling with a television cable. It’s not the television he’s angry with. I mentally delete his “C” from the canvass card in my head. “He’s Labour.”
That gets the man from his knees, and into the hall. “I’m not Labour, just another neoliberal outfit, just slightly better than this shower, you work hard, the rich get richer …”
“The bankers,” I offer.
“The bankers!” he agrees.
“I agree with you,” I say. “Honestly. I wish I knew a recipe to make life more fair.”
Canvassing always ends up like this for me. There aren’t easy answers to most political problems, nothing to guarantee good outcomes for good people, and those who pretend otherwise (Miliband, Farage) are liars. The competition Britain faces from an ever more energetic globe terrifies me. I hate the ossification of wealth and the inheritance of privilege, but suspect this to be a prejudice of mine, at least in part, not a political solution. How do you get that across on a doorstep? In 90 seconds, if you’re lucky? In an election which is supposedly about running a borough council?
“The best we can try and do is make our schools as good as possible and reform welfare, to stop it penalising work and families. I’m afraid I don’t set much store in the alternative, which made the crash worse and which now offers frozen gas bills as some sort of…”
He’s gone. Then back. “Maybe I’ll vote Green. That’s it, [now literally shouting] I’m voting Green.” Thus the rise of the protest vote, the V-flick of fury against a universe that just doesn’t care. I liked the guy a lot. Now I’m left with his wife again. She says: “I will be voting, either for you, or BNP, or UKIP. What do you think?”
I’m still shocked when I hear casual admiration for the BNP. My mind nearly deletes the word from her sentence; there’s an atomic instant when my brain tries to look the other way, and forms sentences instead to contrast UKIP (the first and only reference to the party I hear all day) with my party, but another bit takes over. “I can’t help you with the BNP. I think they’re unspeakable.”
If I were a liberal, if I weren’t a Tory, if I didn’t poke at things like a toddler rubbing at a scab until the blood flows down his knee again, I’d leave it there. Treat the lady with disdain, and move on. But I feel the opposite of disdain for this entire family.
The media don’t get these outbursts of Right-wing fury, they never have, seeking always to dismiss bigotry as “simple” racism. That never feels intellectually satisfactory, at least to the extent to which it doesn’t resonate, emotionally with me. I know I’m not racist, but, equally, I “get” all the things which Ukip claim we’re “not allowed” to talk about; have in fact been talking about them for as long as I’ve been writing. The Islamification of East London, the boroughs, totally changed after ten years of Labour, the crushes at the surgery, the translation services, the primary schools where English is a minority first language. And yes, Nigel, the babel tower that is a London bus. I know why that can make people…uncomfortable…and I know, in itself, that noticing this isn’t racism.
There’s no easy route to fairness (ask the lady’s husband, and good luck to him if he thinks his Green vote will usher in a new age of innocence), and there’s no simple solution to managing immigration. Some of this I try to get across on the doorstep.
“You can be as angry as you like about how Labour mismanaged our borders, you can get annoyed to hell with the European Court thing, but what are you going to do? We are renegotiating Britain’s contracts with Europe, which is what we need to fix, and then we’ll hold an In/Out vote by 2017, if you elect a Tory government. What Farage does, what the BNP do…”
I’ve elided them, without planning to do so, and I never would have before UKIP’s poster campaign. Because this is the one easy answer, about how we should talk about our changed world. It’s UKIP’s solutions that enrage me, because they involve demonising people with a perfect right to live here (“They’re coming for YOU!”), using linguistic and pictorial imagery of the most deliberately provocative type. It sickens me, and not in a made-up, that’s a handy piece for the newspaper way.
Unlike most of my media colleagues, I don’t believe Farage would have changed a thing about this campaign or his purportedly off-message candidates. Their antics enable him to attract the votes of the malign, without ever having to be explicit in his message. We know, now, don’t we? That being explicit isn’t part of his tactics? You know what I mean. There is no disconnect between “You know what I mean”, and “They’re Coming For YOU”, and the UKIP candidate who wants to “shoot poofters”, and the one who wants Lenny Henry to leave, and the other one who wants to hang non-UKIP politicians. But most people aren’t malign. Most of them are just angry.
“Demonising entire peoples is wrong, it’s what fascists do to whip up support. Those posters – did you hear him on the radio yesterday? ‘You know what I mean’ – who uses language like that? Who?”
Oh well, that’s another “C” to cross off the list (don’t shout at voters, rule no. 1 of canvassing.) But the lady is nodding at me and our eyes are in contact. There’s a world of a difference between bellowing at the sky in anger, and in devising a politics of evil, designed to increase that anger without assuaging its cause. Pretending there’s a magic “reset” button. Essex voters know everything about hard work. No one gave Essex its riches on a plate.
There’s a pause, I’m still sweating, until I (finally) remember one of the Conservative policies for Colchester: “I can offer you free parking in the town centre? For two hours, for council taxpayers?” And we laugh, thank God.
Maybe we can’t fix the iniquities of modern capitalism, maybe there’s no system on offer that’s better, maybe we just have to live with that – in anger, as her husband does, or in fear, as I do. Maybe the route to a better Euro-relationship takes years and compromises and fudging. But maybe this is all too big a picture.
Maybe Colchester can be run better than Liberal Democrats manage, too, and maybe for once I didn’t fluff my doorstep lines. And maybe a decent Right-wing voter realised that she doesn’t have to vote for a xenophobe, to lose that debilitating sense of powerlessness, upon which the evil feed. “P” for “Possible”, then, for us both.