“Look, I was a Communist for a long time and it makes me ashamed to see you wearing red.”
It was late into the “question time” meet-the-leaders debate at the Queen’s School, and it was only now really hotting up. With a full hall comprised of the good people of Watford and students and parents of the school, and a panel which had, unusually for election hustings, the presence of the British National Party, the event had a fair degree of heat and light. But it was still, by any standards, painfully civilised.
“The bankers caused this crisis but the people being asked to pay for it are in Watford…”
Yes, I had finally got to Watford. On the London Overground through the vast hinterlands of British suburbia, places famous like Wembley, and no zones like Carpender’s Lane. You look out at the high street leading off from the station, the row upon row of Victorian terraces, the stacks of public housing, and realise that 200,000 people live here, in the purview of this one station, and you will never meet any of them, and you will never be here again.
This is England, a good half of it and thus half of the UK crowded into a small south-eastern corner. It’s a web of high streets, railway sidings, old brick Victoriana, Tescos, car parks and cheek-by-jowl-housing stretched from the South Coast to Peterborough.
“Watford was once the printing centre of southern England,” Keith, the convenor of the hustings would tell me later, as we ogled girls in halter tops in a fauxhemian Bounds Green bar.
“All gone now.”
Indeed. The place is now a feeder for London, its high street deserted by 7pm, with all the action at the Junction — a no-place of chain hotels and business parks. You have to say that if you had your chance to redesign post-war Britain, you wouldn’t turn it into this London-centric urban net, everywhere somehow feeling that life is somewhere else. But there it is.
Watford is a three-way marginal, barely 1,500 votes separating the sitting Labour member from the third-place getter. Always dodgy, in the current climate it is utterly uncallable. Claire Ward for Labour, a polished New Labour operator in the aforementioned scarlet business suit, Richard Harrington, a Tory horn-rimmed and blue-suited speaking like a bank manager who isn’t giving you a loan, and Sally Brinton, the Lib-Dem, a large woman who looked like she probably spent a lot of time handing out redundancy notices at a large public institution.
At the far right of the table was the United Kingdom Independence Party rep, a man who looked surprisingly normal — no blazer or hound’s-tooth waistcoat and fob, until I realised that he was only the election agent. The British National Party man who listed himself only as Dr Emerson was the single most boring BNP candidate I have seen in my life, a mild accountant type although his posse was a row or two of sinister fat men, back of their necks like roll-top desks, shaved head and steel glasses. You know the look — the kids will be wearing it in 2015.
As with all such meetings in this strange, strange election, the possibility of real political conflict was forestalled not merely by the deep and ultimate stultifying spirit of British reasonableness, but also by the lack (among the three parties) of anything resembling a programme, or the political expression of a world view. At Leeds a few days earlier, one man had got up in exasperation and asked why all the candidates were talking either about what they had done, or what their opponents hadn’t, and not what they would do. At which point the Labour member talked about continuing to do what they had done, while the Conservative said they hadn’t done it.
Here though, surely, there would be a bit of fire and ice, because the thing was happening mere hours after Gordon’s gaffe, his now famous 30 seconds or so telling a group of advisors, and an un-removed lapel microphone, that he had just spent three minutes talking to “some bigoted old woman”.
Brown had been on walkabout in Rochdale, another place that has suffered from a feeling of epic decentering, a town that would have once been a world unto itself, with one of everything, and is now a part of the great urban web of Manchester. Mrs Duffy had accosted Brown in his walkabout there on a whole range of issues — the deficit, tax, education, etc — and when she finally got full face time she revealed herself as a former teacher of special needs children, and someone not keen on Eastern Europeans.
“I don’t tell people I’m from Rochdale, I’m too ashamed of it now,” she said, a quote not getting much airplay in the subsequent report. “I mean these Eastern Europeans, where are they coming from?”
Brown, at this point, must have been repressing the urge to say “Eastern Europe, you daft bat” and went into Labour’s response that as many people from the UK have gone to Europe, as Europeans have come here, etc. It was only when he got in the car that he made his true feelings known.
Whether Mrs Duffy was a bigot or not, what she was saying wasn’t racist or racialist. It was simply expressing a home truth that large numbers of people — many of them staunch Labour — simply do not accept the premise on which the open borders regime of the EU is based. In that respect, Brown’s rendering of her concerns as “bigoted” expressed the full divide between the political elite and the punters in one pithy sentence.
Quite possibly in a couple of days we’ll find out that she was a “Joe the Plumber” type figure, someone claiming to be an average schlub who nevertheless has a shedful of axes to grind. But until then she’s a special needs teacher whose life the PM dismissed in a single phrase.
Man if I were up against Labour in Watford I would have hammered that one home through the whole evening. But one by one candidates ducked the opportunity. No surprises from the major parties — they are all in the business of managing public compliance — but I would have thought the other would have got stuck in. As “Dr Emerson”, a moustachioed suit with a tuft of hair at the centre of his male pattern baldness, started to speak I could feel myself urging him on to get in a punch for goddsake and then realising that I was barracking for the BNP.
Mind you, at some point there’s a question as to whether simple human sympathy kicks in. For the enormity of what is being laid at Gordon Brown’s feet is simply astounding. He has led the mighty British Labour party back into the third place slot it emerged from in 1924, a result so bad that no-one had even picked it as possible a fortnight ago. The only thing mitigating that disaster is a low Tory vote, achieved not by Labour but by the Lib-Dems. Everywhere Brown goes his wife stands in the background trying not to look sad, less the look of a concerned spouse than a nurse fallen in love with her dying patient.
Brown has presided over a campaign featuring one disaster after another, from identifying David Cameron as Gene Hunt, the charismatically un-PC cop from Ashes to Ashes (the sequel to Life On Mars), to having Brown appear with an Elvis impersonator, and now to Bigot-gate. The last is his own fault, plain and simple. Exhausted he may be, but it’s dotting the ‘i’s, etc, and you can be sure as sh-t Mr Tony would never have done it. God knows what happens when Labour dumps him after the election to put Alistair darling, Alan Johnson or David Miliband in as PM in a coalition. The blood will reach up to the third row of the stalls.
So the debate didn’t fire up on that. Aside from a whacky interjection by a social credit enthusiast it wouldn’t shut up, until the old Commie took the mike and gave us all a blast. Lean and stooped, he looked like someone from another era, one of physical work worn in the body. The chair tried to cut him off, but he kept going, putting the basic but unheard argument that the GFC was a bankers’ crisis for which the public was paying hard and fast. When he sat down the kids around him looked embarrassed, but he didn’t care. He’d fired up the quattro.
So that was it for Watford. When we left, BNP rowdies were hustling their candidate into the car, security phalanx style, as if anyone gave a toss. The town was quiet, save for the persistent hiss of traffic on the ring road. I’m no wrap for the old ‘Rochdales’ or Watfords worlds unto themselves because no-one ever got out of them, but it’s a measure of what has happened in many peoples’ lives — that is the image of the good society that comes forward, unbidden and unbiddable. And when the last of the Commies go, who will be there to say it could be otherwise?