(UPDATED) By Denis Campbell
General Election “speed-dating” best characterises the 31-day sprint to the UK’s 06 May finish line. Forget the hoopla surrounding 1st ever televised leadership debates, SPIN rooms, 3D graphic holograms and breathless pundits. All 650 UK House of Commons seats serving 60 million people (a 92,000:1 ratio) are up for grabs (compared to 435 US House seats serving 330 million or 760,000:1). If you think all US politics is retail and local, to borrow from the song, “you ain’t seen nuttin’ yet.”
Alun Hugh Cairns, 39, a Conservative (Tory) Party Welsh Assembly Member, wants to be my MP in Westminster. He is mounting his 2nd challenge for the Vale of Glamorgan seat in South Wales. The seat is filled by retiring Labour MP John Smith. Cairns and Smith clashed in the 2005 General Election with Alun losing by 1,800 votes (3.9% of 46,000 votes cast). The challenge is getting voters to show up. Apathy is real as 56% of the youth and 35% of Afro-Asian voters nationwide have not even bothered to register.
Some 300+ seats nationwide are solidly red or blue and already long decided (here, red is Labour, blue is Conservative). The rest are “marginals.” Win 326 seats, your party forms a government and your leader becomes Prime Minister. It’s that simple and that difficult.
While popular 3rd Party leader Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) is winning television hearts and minds in the debates, this election is not a ‘Presidential’ popularity contest. Clegg’s LibDems control 10% of seats and whilst popular, do not have many strong candidates and will not likely challenge in many districts, including this one.
The Home District
The South Wales Vale of Glamorgan constituency sits between Cardiff and Bridgend. Bound to the north by the M-4 motorway and the south by the historic Glamorgan Heritage Coast, it is mostly rural farmland dotted with several villages. The working-class, historically Labour supporting port city of Barry is its easternmost boundary, while the more upscale, Tory leaning, bedroom communities of Ogmore-by-Sea and Southerndown lay to the west.
The seat has historically swung back and forth between Labour and Tory over the years decided by razor thin margins. One past contest was won by only 19 votes. This year it is a key national Tory target. The Tories must win 116 new seats nationally AND hold their existing seats to win a majority. A close marginal, Alun and friends will likely not retire early on election eve.
The Making of The MP
With apologies to historian Theodore White, I spent a day travelling across the constituency district with Alun. His political blog keeps track of the miles he walks daily on the campaign using his pedometer. Trying to keep up with the rapidly moving candidate and his team was a daunting challenge.
In his constituency office along Barry’s High Street, he explained all candidates need to submit a filing form along with a £500 ($750) registration fee/deposit and nomination papers signed by 10 registered voters. That’s all one needs to get on the ballot. The fee is returned if he attracts 5% of the vote. While not an issue for Alun, you might pause if you are the LibDem (13% last election) or Plaid Cymru (5%) party candidate (figure originally reported incorrectly).
Those are the money sums we talk in this contest. Forget huge media ad buy budgets. In the UK there are strict campaign finance and advertising limits. Each candidate can only raise/spend £10,000 ($15,000) for the general election campaign. (Imagine a US Congressman, running for re-election, that amount would buy one telly advert on one Los Angeles station one time.)
Too, if you think Barack Obama ran a grassroots campaign, everything in this election is grassroots. With only national, mandated party messages on television and limited opportunity to get in front of constituents, this is (despite the candidates’ Facebook, Twitter and blog presences) a decidedly low-tech and hi-touch affair. Alun’s office was a hive of low-tech activity. It was covered with stack upon stack of printed brochures neatly wrapped and sorted for distribution street by street. Cars left with volunteers loading the boot (trunk) with envelopes and flyers.
He picked up his party’s position document on housing and homelessness, his election agent (campaign manager) reviewed the day’s schedule and off we headed to the first formal ‘hustings’ meeting of all candidates since Mr. Brown visited Her Majesty, asked her to dissolve Parliament and thus set the election date starting this race.
On the ‘Hustings’
For the forensic etymologists, it was amusing to learn none of the four candidates knew its origins; “it was ‘just always called that.’” The common definition is “a place where political campaign speeches are made” as well as “all activities in an election.” It comes from Middle English and refers both to the wooden box candidates stood upon to give those speeches and was the original court of common pleas. Since all are running for a Parliamentary seat in the House of ‘Commons,’ it was a rather tidy semantic connection.
This hustings was about housing and homelessness and was fascinating to watch. It looked and sounded very much like a hybrid debate/Town Hall meeting. One could not just stand and deliver a modified “stump” speech whilst taking planted questions. All four candidates took very real audience questions for two full hours. It was exciting to watch them react on their feet and interact with each other. After 16 months of covering healthcare birthers and death panels in the USA, it was a civilised and refreshing display of real democracy.
It also underlined a real problem in this election. The four candidates gathered and eloquently spoke to an audience of… 16 people.
What a shame, because those voters got a very real look at all 4 candidates: Labour’s Alana Davies, the LibDems’ Eluned Parrott, Plaid Cymru’s Dr. Ian Johnson and Alun Cairns. Too, during this Barry husting, it was evident there were few substantive policy differences amongst them.
It was all rather dry, substantive and emotionless. The exchanges were orderly and, almost painfully, polite. There was only one moment where it approached ‘testy’ and I swear I saw a set of rolled eyeballs. I tried to imagine an addled and panicked FOX News or MSNBC producer screaming into someone’s earpiece, “no one’s fighting! Quick, cut to the Tea Party group!”
It’s a shame this was not broadcast live because it was a riveting and real exchange unlike the 60-second clock in the leadership debates or most of the 7-second, out-of-context sound bytes one usually sees on telly.
The Main Candidates
Probably toughest to do in an election with this short of a time fuse is to get a true measure of each candidate. Most are generally aware of the Party’s views but unless one has spent a lot of time on the hustings, few know the candidates that will appear on the ballot.
Both the Tory and Labour candidate have issues.
Alun is driven, colourful and candid. That can be a double edged sword. He was involved in an incident Spring of 2008 where he let slip an Italian ethnic slur jokingly on a live radio talk show. The resulting furore led him to admit his error and resign his shadow cabinet position for Education and chair of the Welsh Assembly’s finance committee. The opposition, smelling blood in the water, wanted him to also drop this run for the Vale MP seat. That was clearly a bridge to far.
Very few are neutral about Alun or his candidacy, he is either loved or loathed. That usually means some level of effectiveness goes alongside an over-arching personal drive.
The incumbent party candidate has other issues. Alana Davies resides outside the constituency district in Porthcawl (and Bridgend before that). There is a natural tension and rivalry between Bridgend and Barry leading many to question where her allegiances would lie in Parliament.
A more sensitive and non-PC issue; if the incumbent Labour MP is ‘retiring,’ how can someone older than the person retiring seek the seat? The pundits ask that in hushed tones. Is age a real or imagined issue, especially amongst an already largely older voting bloc?
And, if you want to run in South Wales, why on earth, with so many struggling local web businesses in your district, would one acquire a website that so publicly states it is hosted in Burlington, Massachusetts in the USA? That seems tone-deaf bad form. Nobody cares where a site is hosted unless it is publicised on EVERY page!
The LibDem and Plaid Cymru candidates were both very impressive debaters, articulate and… largely unknown. The consensus opinion is they are using this election run to gain campaigning experience and are thus being groomed for future party runs.
After a brief lunch break a team of 12 hit the High Street of upscale Cowbridge with a leafleting campaign. One best describes this activity as a controlled wave of sprinters. Each ‘leafleter’ has a stack of brochures. The object is to knock on the door of every household in the community. The team fans out and ‘leapfrogs’ itself several times over. This was lunchtime so many homes stood empty with folks at work or school. However, if there was someone home, a hand is raised and the candidate either doubles back or sprints forward for a brief conversation.
A key person in this exercise is the “clipboard holder.” They have a detailed list of the voting rolls for this street. House by house they check off who was home or not and if they registered a voting preference. Whilst sworn to secrecy on actual numbers, it was a quite impressively low-tech (and thus probably highly accurate) indicator of likely votes. Alun was pleased.
The team moved with spectacular speed. You could tell they’d been doing this for quite some time. I stopped for a moment to converse with the editor of the local newspaper as we passed his operation. When I exited the building 3-minutes later, the team was already approaching on the return side of the street. As a marathon runner, even I was left gasping for air.
This surgically efficient team continued for an hour after I left. It moved at 5:00 pm to another town in the Western Vale before Alun headed off at 7:30 to yet another ‘hustings’ on climate change. And this was how the schedule will play out until election day.
Alun has spent nearly every weekend since last fall leafleting the constituency with position papers, knocking on some 70,000 doors and asking for votes. He begins on the road before 9:00 am, returns home about 10:30 pm and answers e-mails, updates his blog and conducts business until about 12:30 or 1:00 am. (The text message confirming our day together arrived well after 11:00 pm the night before.)
As we said our goodbyes, my last glimpse was of Alun sprinting to the catch up with the team. While I was certain his pedometer was working overtime, I also felt reassured and informed. There are four dedicated candidates in this race who could all ably and really want to represent the people of the Vale of Glamorgan.
That kind of dedication would make Mr. Smith very proud indeed.
(Reference is to 1939’s film, ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ starring Jimmy Stewart vs. the current Labour Party incumbent. I know, I know, if you gotta explain it… but now EU readers understand the title reference as well.)