Scenes From the British Election

Selling Snake Oil at the Farmers Market
Notes from different corners of the world.
April 29 2010 1:06 PM

Scenes From the British Election

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Martin Tod speaks with a local farmer. Click image to expand.
Liberal Democrat candidate Martin Tod speaks with a local farmer

WINCHESTER—There's a rather pompous phrase used by British prime ministers who have called a general election: They say they are "going to the country" to get a mandate from the voters. Nowadays, it seems politicians are going to the country fair: In this dispatch, Inigo Thomas describes the campaigning at the farmers market in a very mixed, urban, north London constituency. Meanwhile, 75 miles away in Winchester—a prosperous cathedral city near the south coast, which is seen as very upper-middle-class—the Liberal Democrat candidate Martin Tod is working the stalls at his local market, sampling artisanal cheeses and discussing the exact provenance of the meat. "It was running round in the fields last week," he proclaims—an admirable trait in a piece of meat but not a sentiment that will win the votes of the soft-hearted. The farmers market is a place where you can discuss immigration policy and buy homemade cakes.

Slate looked at this constituency five years ago, and it's interesting to see what's changed since then (apart from the boundaries, and thus the name; it is now Winchester and Chandlers Ford). In 2005, Mark Oaten held the seat for the Lib Dems with a healthy majority: He was a popular, hard-working MP mentioned as a possible future leader of his party. (The number of Lib Dem MPs is so small that anyone in the parliamentary party could go far, but still.) Those were heady times. A year later, Oaten was caught up in a rent boy scandal—which absolutely nobody mentions now—and with the shreds of his dignity wrapped around him, he said he would stay until the next election and then give up the seat. There is not much evidence of his campaigning for his potential successor. Perhaps—like the Republicans when Richard Nixon offered help in 1976—the local party said, "You have done enough."

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As Anne Applebaum noted, the Liberal Democrats are having a moment. Does that mean Winchester is a safe seat for them? Labor Party candidate Patrick Davies (standing for the fourth time in this constituency, always coming third—Winchester hasn't voted Labor since 1945) says the Lib Dems will romp home with a big majority, but everyone else is more cautious, using the time-honored phrase "too close to call."

There is heavy campaigning—our household has three voters and has received more than 30 election leaflets and letters in the last three weeks—and Winchester is likely to be a good indicator for the rest of country. The choice being offered by the two main contenders seems to be this: Do you want to get rid of Gordon Brown so much that you will vote Tory, or do you want to stick with the known and loved idea of a Lib Dem MP and hope that there might be a hung Parliament, a coalition? There's not much for a Labor supporter there.

Tactical voting—voting for a party you don't really support in order to defeat someone you hate even more—used to have a bad reputation. The two main parties, ever high-minded, were snooty about it (because it almost never worked in their favor), while the Lib Dems and their predecessors were the cheeky mavericks suggesting it. "Labor/Conservatives cannot win this seat, so a vote for them is wasted" was the usual appeal. But now the situation is so complicated that everyone is rather embracing it. There is no more pretence that we are all idealists who vote for what we believe in at all costs.

Steve Brine. Click image to expand.

The Conservative candidate, Steve Brine, is urging people to vote tactically, telling the Lib Dems they must switch to the Tories if they really want Labor out. The day I met him, he had company, writer Michael Dobbs, author of the highly popular books that were later made into a TV series The House of Cards, as well as many other novels. He is the godfather of the British political thriller, famed for his Machiavellian plots. So will his black arts be needed in this lovely, respectable constituency? It's the perfect opportunity for the famed catchphrase from his most villainous character, "You may think that, but I can't possibly comment." Instead, he just laughs and says, "No."

Jocelyn Penn-Bull and Mark Lancaster. Click image to expand.
The fringe candidates: UKIPs Jocelyn Penn-Bull and English Democrat Mark Lancaster

There are also two splendid fringe candidates. Jocelyn Penn-Bull of UKIP, the anti-EU party, was once a Conservative activist, but he resigned in disgust over the Tories' policies on Europe. He says he can be much less restrained now that he is with the smaller party, but after five minutes with him, you suspect he was always this opinionated and indiscreet. His predictions are as fascinating as a Michael Dobbs novel ("maybe they don't really want to win"; "the boys will have their knives out"); some of his character assassinations verge on slanderous; and he uses words like balderdash. "If your readers are American," he tells me, "they'll understand what I mean when I say [Conservative leader] David Cameron is a snake-oil salesman." It's as if he thinks there might be snake-oil booths at U.S. farmers markets.

Mark Lancaster is with the English Democrats, a group campaigning for an English (that is, not British) parliament. A veteran police officer, now retired, he was politicized by the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal. He says that if anyone had told him nine months ago that he would be a candidate in this election, he would have thought them mad. His party is fielding 108 candidates—enough to get them a party political broadcast on national television—with no hope of winning any seats. His memorable take on the current system: "We end up voting for the party that is the least furthest away from our own views—we probably only agree with 50 percent of their policies."

There have been seven public meetings in Winchester. All have been well-attended, with more than 100 people at some of them, but they have not produced any surprises. (Penn-Bull not turning up at a discussion of climate change, saying he doesn't believe in it, doesn't qualify as a surprise.)

Door-to-door canvassing is still a big part of the electoral system here. Despite being a man very much at home with new technology—he helped create the first Conservative Party Web site—Steve Brine insists that he wants to meet voters in person, not hide behind e-mail and Twitter. He thinks it important to look people in the eye and shake them by the hand. (Completely by chance, he made an electioneering visit to my house.)

Brine raises a laugh with the story of one voter who asked him: "Why on earth would you want to be the MP for Winchester? It always ends in tears." This resonates with long-term residents: The last three MPs, covering a period going back 20 years, have indeed ended badly; it's a bit like being the drummer in Spinal Tap. One was suspended from the House of Commons for failing to declare his business interests; one forced a rerun of an election he had lost by two votes and then lost the rerun by a dramatic 20,000 votes (no one likes a sore loser); and, as I mentioned before, one got caught up in a sex scandal.

Better luck next time? It doesn't matter. In the end, being an MP is always going to be desirable; there's never going to be a shortage of candidates. They'll always risk the tears for the power.

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Moira Redmond, a former "Fray" editor at Slate, is a freelance writer living in England. You can e-mail her at moirared@hotmail.com.

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