Behind the pale-stone, modestly spired, 18th-century church, a path ran down to a community centre, grey, breeze-blocked, flat-roofed. “Hustings this way” said a sign, flapping a little in the early evening wind off the sea. I rejoiced silently. I hate sitting in a church for a hustings (the obscure Germanic term for a meet-the-candidates evening), the bizarre process whereby six locals sit in plastic chairs afront an altar, with Jesus, arms outstretched, leaning on their shoulders. Eighteenth century doesn’t do much for me in England; there are four 14th-century churches in a half hour’s radius from here.
The grey-flat community centre is far more like it. Municipal buildings, Britain does ’em well. Grey-brown glass, a foyer with a series of pamphlets — Help For Sudan, Could You Have Gonorrhea?, Stay Afloat! (a guide to what to do in case of near drowning) — and dozens of others, duty rosters, modern hymn books with terrible hand-drawn covers. There’s a harvest cupboard below the posters, a place where, in the spring, people leave food for the harvest blessing service. Fresh vegetables and fruits are put across the altar, a last pagan vestige at the heart of the church. This one is mostly filled with tins. Ravioli is popular.
Inside, the hustings has started, 120 or so people in a wide semicircle of stackable chairs, five candidates at the front in a row, and, at the centre, a bishop in purple vestments who is, as his name plate suggests, and inevitably, Trevor Willmott. There is a voice, a voice speaking, nasal, drawly. “Walll look I votuhd ugunst thuh privatisation of thuh harbuh, thuh purty dudn’t like me fuh thut …” A hound-faced man, the Tory, dressed, inevitably, in dark-blue blazer, light-blue shirt, sand chinos. Charlie Elphicke, lawyer, PPS, a man who looks like he asked for chinos for Christmas, when he was six.
A quick scan across the rest of the candidates, pretty sure I can get five for five: young woman in her 30s, bobbed dark-brown hair, dressed like a maths teacher (Labour), then Churluh, then a big, flabby bloke in an untucked business shirt, and small sideburns, His Grace in purple, a woman with long grey-brown hair, a white T-shirt with what looks like Kermit the Frog and a nuclear power station on it, over a long, patterned skirt (erm, Green), and at the end, another divine, vicar, dog-collar over peach-coloured shirt, paunchy, beaming. Sideburns looks confused, the vicar blithe, so I’m saying Lib-Dem, then UKIP. I get closer to the table, as I find a chair, check their little name wotsits on the table. I have got, as almost anyone would, five out of five.
Dover on a Friday night, three weeks out from polling day. The Manchester bombing is three days away; Labour’s numbers have not yet started to rise. The election still feels like a foregone conclusion, especially here. Charlie Elphicke has held the seat since 2010, with a 6000 majority, and with UKIP holding another 7000 votes to the right; the seat voted Labour through the Blair years, and was largely Conservative before that going back to, Jesus, 1389. Nothing will take the seat from Elphicke this time, not even if his body disassembled like a Transformer and he began killing people with his laser eyes. The Labour candidate — named Stacey Blair, the most Labour name ever — is doing her best, but she looks like a ring-in, hesitant and unsteady when she gets onto figures. “Well look, Stacey, you clearly haven’t done your sums.” Elphicke sounds like a divorced man berating a waitress at a gastro pub; Blair sounds like the waitress. It’s a tiny little class-arsehole drama in one place.
Beccy Sawbridge, the Green, is what you might call an “Old Green”, in the manner of “Old Bolshevik”, and her performance makes it more clear why what happened to the Old Bolsheviks did. “Everything’s connected,” she said. “How we deal with the port in Devon affects giant snails in South America.” Good.God.Why.Is.This.Still.Going.On. The Lib-Dem is a ring-in for the candidate Simon Dodd. His name is Adrian Briggs. They’re like interchangeable people the Lib-Dems, acquired from Homebase, in standardised sizes. “[Lib-Dem leader] Tim Farron cares about normal people! In fact he is a normal person!” says Briggs, with a tone of great achievement. Down to the vicar. “Piers Wauchope, the candidate cannot be here tonight. I am in his …” — don’t say stead — “stead.” He puts his face down close to the table, then looks up again, beaming over his flock, 98% of whom won’t consider voting for him. “If I stare a little strangely do not be alarmed. I have a focal length issue.”
Long story short, Elphicke has a field day. Though Stacey Blair lands a few blows on him over a few contradictory statements — support for free school lunches, which the Tories propose to abolish in favour of free school breakfasts — she does it with a near-apologetic air, recriminating maid on Downton, or passive-aggressive girlfriend. “You said you supported school lunches/you’d marry me and start a haberdashery/I was pale and now I have an eating disorder.” For the rest he gets away with murder. “It’s uh the poorest of the poor, we’re concerned about, not the richest of the poor.” Richest of the poor? Out in the main street of this ancient, storied town, the “richest of the poor” are shambling around the street, drinking lager from cans, ’cause they can’t afford the pub. The poorest of the poor are in doorways, begging from them. Let’s see if UKIP can land a blow. The vicar beams.
“Who do you trust to deliver Brexit?”
“Theresa May,” someone yells.
The audience breaks up laughing. The vicar has no comeback. There’s no heckling in the church at Bray, of a Sunday morning.
I came to Dover not so much to see why UKIP is collapsing — that’s obvious — but the thing itself occurring. They would be caning it in another reality: one where a new Tory leader had fumbled the post-referendum politics, said something like, “well, look, we do actually have to get a good deal from our largest market” and everyone had then yelled “soft Brexit!” May has saved the Tory party by being adamantine about Brexit — “no deal, if we have to” — and most likely condemned the country to a massive loss of demand over the next decade and more.
So UKIP has no comeback, has had four leaders since Nigel Farage departed post-referendum — two of whom were Farage himself — and is currently led by the well-named Paul Nuttall, who looks like a football hooligan at a court appearance. UKIP had their party launch today, which almost turned into a riot when the assembled faithful objected to a BBC journo’s question about flagging support. “Orrrrrr”, “Come on” they yelled, menacing the press pen. “Bloody BBC!” Here they have a little claque, two ginger-bearded men in fat shorts, and an elegantly-dressed woman with a black bob, and a sharp face, the brains of the outfit.
“Give him a chance!” she yells at the heckler. “No one else gets this treatment!” She does this three or four times, including once when his enpurpledness cuts off an anecdote from the vicar about Africa that is well on the way to a lantern lecture. But the vicar has a serenity that cannot be disturbed by mere reality. His beaming smile spreads wider as the evening becomes more disastrous for him; it appears to engulf his whole head. Afterwards, I will interview him and find out why:
“Given that May has gone for ‘hard Brexit’, what do you-“
“There is no hard Brexit; there is only Brexit.”
“Yes, but she could have tried to do a single-market deal at which point-“
“There is only Brexit. People will see that we are the only party committed to it.”
“So after a turn in the wilderness …”
“They will return.”
Ah, the lost flock. He will endure the coming shellacking as a sign of God’s love for the project. Thus he sits through the husting undisturbed at the fact that people are heckling him.
To be fair, UKIP has given him little to work with. With Farage gone, and Brexit won, the party could have become a communalist nationalist party, tying the winning of Brexit to a fight against austerity, and a fair deal for the Brits who are now independent, etc, etc: “Now let’s fight for our NHS.” “Now, let’s …” etc. Lacking Labour’s encumbrance of being pro-immigration and pro-multicultural, they would have had a platform free of contradictions. With a more palatable leader — for many older Labour voters leaning to UKIP at one time, Nuttall is less attractive than Corbyn, which is saying something — they would have shored up their vote in the north, the Midlands and the south-east coastal areas. But the party never mainstreamed; its core remains a freakshow of obsessives, including not a few libertarians of the “buy token to access emergency dialysis” sort of thing. Nuttall himself compared the NHS unfavourably to the US health system, and so on. They have a number of solid candidates in the north, and a more dependable apparatus there, many ex-Labour people, Labour anti-EU types from the ’70s.
But that’s there, and this is here, and what is really striking, and tells us something about politics now, is that Charlie Elphicke is not only the best candidate there, in terms of focus, detail, confidence, etc. — he’s the only candidate there reaches the standard of projecting basic public competence. And that’s something I noticed at hustings all over in 2015, and now; the sitting member, even in quite marginal seats, is often the only person who you could imagine, not merely as an MP, but as capable of running, say, a dry-cleaners with three staff. It’s as if politics as a mass practice is dying as fast as one of those briefly popular hobbies like line dancing, or picking up on trains. It’s as if no one can quite remember why anyone was so into it in the first place, and why things should not simply be administered.
Even Labour’s leftward shift has not changed that. There’s an air of sadness to these events, redolent of the last ramble of a bushwalking club. It is modernity exhausting the resources and possibilities of democracy — democracy in the wider sense of being able to imagine and discuss how we might categorically change the framework of our lives, its character, how we might clarify our collective desires. Instead, politics becomes a focus for the dissatisfactions that are irreducible in modernity, when the project no longer has a heroic dimension, the horrible intimation that there might be nothing more than hot-desked offices, performances reviews and binge-watching-downloads from here on in. It’s possible I may be projecting a little bit more on to the good folk of Dover than they are actually feeling. Chatter is lively afterwards, but none of it is about politics. Save for black bob UKIP lady, who, after I have got the pabulum from the vicar, gives me a cogent denunciation of May’s strategy and program. “You should be the candidate,” I said. “I’m a medical secretary,” she said, as if that told me why she wasn’t, as the vicar brayed behind us.
Seven hundred years ago — 700 years! – apprentice boys came up from here to Canterbury to join Wat Tyler’s march on London. It was partly in response to that — in 1381 — that Parliament became a regular institution, and an assembly of commoners included (though it predates 1381). Through these streets, they streamed, the ones we stream into now, the same streets following the same lines, past the lit convenience stories staffed by lonely Arab students, and the kebab shops, and the faux half-timber pub with a Hollywood disco night, pink lights outside, full of chubby 16-year-olds drinking alcopops and dreaming of being anywhere, anywhere but here. Streamed up the Kent road (the Old one) to London, to be defeated, executed, quartered, their bodies posted along London Bridge. Presumably politics does not end here, 700 years later, at a bus-stop beside a churchyard, with pale stone graves worn down to points from centuries of rain. But it’s hard to know where it goes to.
Postscript: what a difference a week makes. However much local hustings may bear the mark of death, the aggregate national campaign is providing thrills and spills. Just a few hours ago, Yougov produced a seats projection on current polling, which forecasts a hung parliament, the Conservative dropping from 330 seats to 310 (326 is needed for a majority). That gets really interesting, because they would have to make the gap up — getting first call — from Northern Ireland unionists (who may deplete) and then … ? The Lib-Dems rejoining the Tories is out of the question. Labour, with a projected 257 seats, would need everyone but the Unionists, and still fall short, unless haha, Sinn Fein made one single breach from abstentionism. Let’s see if things haven’t come back in the final week, but lordy, they must be bricking themselves in Tory HQ.