Diary MARK STEEL

New Statesman (1996), June 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

Diary MARK STEEL


Who would ever parachute a millionaire into a place where they quote George Formby in the karzy?

While campaigning for the Socialist Alliance, I recall a conversation I had, during last year's London Assembly election, with two students outside Croydon College. One took our leaflet, and in a black, south London teenage accent said: "This is safe, man, keeping it real, for the people, I'll vote for you." Then his mate said: "But you're 17, you can't vote." So he replied: "I can get round that. I've got connections, man." Now, I wish I'd taken his address. We've got a lot to learn about this electioneering game. On Thursday, I spoke in Hornsey, where the lawyer Louise Christian is standing against the Home Office minister Barbara Roche. More than 70 people were in the audience, of whom around half were either in, or had just left, the Labour Party.

One man, who had begun the election campaign as a Labour canvasser, told me: "I was asked to justify tuition fees, the Asylum Bill and further privatisation. I stood silently thinking how to answer, until they said, 'You're not very good at this, are you?' That night, I decided to campaign for Louise Christian instead."

There's something soothing about leafleting rows of streets: maybe it's because you feel you're achieving something without having to think. Until you come across one of those letter-boxes with a spring-back mechanism that requires one hand to hold it open while the other gently eases the leaflet in, as if you're giving medicine to a crocodile. This is how those people who deactivate unexploded bombs must feel. You find yourself collapsing breathlessly as the leaflet makes it through.

Then there are the ones that have a sort of bristle-brush thing, penetrable only by screwing the leaflet into a crumpled ball and poking it through. What is the purpose of a brush in a letter-box? Are these people hygiene fanatics - like Howard Hughes - who daren't pick up their mail unless it's been dusted as it's delivered? And who are these bastards with gates that only open after 45 minutes of jiggling and then jolt side-wards and slice off your knuckle? If the East Germans had put one of these things on the border instead of a wall, they'd have made it through 40 years without a single escape. After one severe clipping, I didn't realise my finger was bleeding until I'd done another street, so 30 houses in Bensham Manor ward received a leaflet with drops of blood all over it, and must assume that the Socialist Alliance is a front for a satanic cult.

The stroll to the meeting in Leamington Spa took me past huge Georgian houses, antique shops, delicatessens, tennis courts and an immaculately kept cricket ground. If there is such a thing as Middle England, this is it. But 120 people crammed into the hall, where the candidate Claire Kime, along with the secretary of the pensioners' association and myself, was speaking.

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