Electionland feels like a real country, even if it’s a surreal country under siege. We are on the election trail in the Weald of Kent. The British General Election has come to town.
In Maidstone and the Weald it’s a sea of blue and orange posters and shivers of patriotism on all sides. On one ancient tree all the posters come together in a cacophony of colour. But the reds and mauves are out of the race.
I am completely unbiased. My brother, Jasper Gerard, is standing as the Parliamentary candidate for Maidstone and the Weald of Kent. `The Weald’ sounds like an evocation of Ye Olde England, a lost paradise of rose gardens, apple orchards and bluebell woods. And it does feel lost, at least in neglected Maidstone. As for `the Garden of England,’ Kent struggles to be the garden centre of England. Despite being brought up in Kent, I left long ago and my sense of attachment is faint. Not so my brother, who feels as English as I feel European, and as local as I feel disconnected.
To Winston Churchill, who lived in the Weald, this was quintessential England: we were fighting on the beaches for these bluebell woods. Some of us are still fighting. These pockets of ancient woodland are threatened by Conservative plans to carpet-bomb Greenfield sites with 18,600 new houses. Although a lifelong Liberal Democrat, my brother was stirred to campaign over this issue.
The constituency is, like many, a tale of two nations: the deprived town and True Blue countryside. I overhear my brother talking to a local grandee: “Well, your castle is the loveliest home in the constituency.” As the founder of MORI, the opinion poll firm, the castle-owner insists he must stand above the political fray. Predictably, the largest country houses flaunt the biggest blue posters.
Instead, Maidstone is a mess, a victim of urban blight and political neglect. The heart of town is eviscerated, with a trail of pound shops filling the sorry space. Liberal Democrat volunteers deliver canvassers to key routes, “much as a pimp delivers his prize girls,” remarks my husband, one of the grumpier `girls’. For some reason, we get the Maidstone Prison beat again. I don’t think Churchill would have fought too hard for the prison beat. In estate agent-speak, the prison could pass as an ancient pile, lovingly carved out of local ragstone. In reality, it’s a monstrosity, once Reggie Kray’s `manor’, but now stuffed with foreign nationals and Kentish sex offenders. With the zeal of a Lib Dem convert, I am saddened (for a nanosecond) that prisoners can’t vote.
The scruffy area has absorbed the prison’s spiky energy but my fears of tattoed thugs are unfounded. Even so, canvassing here can still be a challenge, with the Doberman opinions scarier than the Dobermans themselves. After a few scary experiences, my ten-year-old nephew has shown me how to roll up campaign leaflets so the dogs can’t bite your fingers poking through the letter-box. A bald builder tells me he is voting UKIP because “I see nothing but black faces around here.” I see no black faces but maybe I’m the one who’s colour-blind.
Merry Friday afternoon drinkers prop up the bar in the pubs near the prison walls. Some of the boozers can be won round but it might be the beer talking. On the doorstep, a well-spoken young woman rants at me and calls me “a sack of shit.” She will reconsider her position if the parking eyesore at the end of her road can be sorted. My brother is on the case and nicknames me `Sackie.’
One harassed mother offers her vote in exchange for free childcare – only if I can begin the following day. At four separate households, I encounter men who answer the door stark naked – to a stranger, and in wintry weather. Perhaps this is a quaint local custom, a preparation for nude Morris Dancing.
To be fair, one man `hides’ a bottle of beer in his Y-fronts and enthuses about politics, as if he were fully clothed. This nude voter is, indeed, concerned about Tory plans for Greenfield development. Welcome to the mad electorate - allowed to vote when they can’t manage to dress themselves. As Prime Minister, I would ensure voting requirements included the ability to get dressed before 4pm.
Cows can’t vote
Time to canvass the leafy suburbs, where even the streets are named after trees. In political parlance, these are “Soft Cons,” Conservative-leaning voters who might swing slightly in the breeze. Swinging or unswinging, these are unfailingly polite voters who even try to swing me in for a cup of tea. I am impressed by the number of elderly voters engaged by political discourse, not for their own sake but for their grandchildren’s futures. There are some ideological cul de sacs but many agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that: “we are now emerging as the sensible, centre-ground party.”
Onto the rural parts of the constituency. The Conservatives have plastered roadside fields with blue posters. Freddie, my cheeky ten-year-old nephew, suggests we spray-paint the posters with a message saying: “Cows Can’t Vote,” or “Sheep Can’t Vote,” just to vary the bestial message.
Next it’s picturesque Yalding, on the flood frontline, and a sea of Lib Dem orange. With its seven-arched medieval bridge, ragstone church and sense of history, this should be True Blue territory but isn’t. Set at the confluence of three rivers, this regularly flooded village knows that the future is orange. Despite being unelected, Jasper has helped ensure funding for a flood defence scheme costing £17 million pounds.
Back in campaign headquarters, a BBC film crew turns up unexpectedly. Despite the disaster in Nepal, the local Gurkhas promptly join the throng, lending their support. Almost 500 local volunteers are giving their time, energy and funds to the campaign. The star turn is James, a persuasive photocopier salesman and new Lib Dem councillor. I would buy a country from James. There are no phone banks so volunteers spend a fortune on phone canvassing alone. I hear once sensible canvassers going mushy at the promise of a vote: “I liked you before but now I love you.” My Italian husband canvasses the Italian voters, including a charmer called Mr Mafia, leaving the Turkish mafia to my Armenian sister-in-law. I am passed policy notes when my grip on macroeconomics falters.
I’ve finally mastered the code. Few reveal their voting intentions without gentle prodding. “My vote is between myself and the ballot-box” is code for Conservative. “I want my country back” is code for confirmed UKIP supporter. Tact is not my strong point but I’ve learnt to bite my tongue and not say: “Nigel Farage is a clever orator who offers insecure voters an outdated vision of an imaginary Britain that never was.” Instead, I cross myself and purr: “But the Liberal Democrats are also pushing for better defined border controls.” Being economical with the truth goes with the territory.
Get dressed before casting your vote
I don't know how my brother does it: Jasper’s been campaigning full-time (for free) for over two years. After leafletting duties, his children settle down to homework in the campaign headquarters. My nephew's 11th birthday is spent campaigning with the Deputy Prime Minister, who cuts Freddie’s chocolate cake and sings him happy birthday. Not quite a Marilyn Monroe moment but pretty close. Unbidden, out campaigning with his father in February, Freddie informed unsuspecting voters that his father was a kind man, even out canvassing on his birthday. He promptly offered his father his paltry savings, saying that until then he’d thought all Jasper did was “have tea parties with people.”
In the end, I feel more tribal than Churchillian. The Lib Dems and local volunteers have won me over. A sneaking affection for Kent has resurfaced. I am impressed by the engagement of the electorate - it's not every day that you discuss the Lisbon Treaty with a postman, a very switched on postman. To my dismay, young voters are mostly elusive. Still, a politicised student who had shadowed the sitting Conservative MP ends up by admitting that the Lib Dem arguments are more impressive.
The Lib Dem campaign is grossly underfunded compared with the Conservative campaign. The Tories wheel out Anne Widdecombe, the former MP to Maidstone, who is revered by her fans. I do not reveal that I consider her the worst sort of fundamentalist Catholic Conservative. In turn, my brother, formerly chief interviewer on The Sunday Times, is interviewed by Lembit Opik. The last time they met, Lembit was the Lib Dem MP and Jasper was the interviewer.
After seeing grassroots politics in action, I feel chastened, uplifted, radicalised. The idealism and generosity of the volunteers has swung me from apathetic to impassioned. No longer will I view all politicians as people-pleasing liars and self-serving opportunists. As AA Gill says, “We get the politicians we fashion, rather than the politicians we deserve.” Most are not blinkered clones of their birth, class and schooling. Political journalists play up these aspects as it makes for entertaining copy. Matthew Parris, my favourite columnist, goes further, blaming the electorate for their unrealistic aspirations. For now, my plea to the electorate is: please vote. But do remember to get dressed first.
Forgive me for straying from my travel brief but Britain’s role in Europe is far more important than cheap flights and boutique beds – even if tourism will be affected by any decision to leave the EU. Let me nail my colours to the European mast. The EU may be flawed but it’s more than a marriage of convenience. Grab a glass of Euro fizz and get ready to disagree with my musings.