I last went to a candidates' meeting in 1997, uncertain how to vote. Part of me desperately wanted an excuse to vote Labour so that I could be part of the overthrow of Thatcherism and be sure that things could only get better. There was only one meeting. I sat on a hard pew in the packed local Baptist church, surrounded by hopeful voters, and wished that I shared their optimism.
This year, there's a choice of candidates' meetings: five, I think, in our part of the constituency. The local newspaper has got involved and is sponsoring debates. I wondered how many people would attend the meeting I'd selected. It was in a local school and clashed with the beginning of the first party leaders' debate on TV. Once again, I wasn't keen but I accompanied my son who's thinking hard about how to use his first ever vote.
We were ten minutes early. The organisers must have been pessimistic about attendance as there were only eight or ten rows – mostly full. We found two seats together in the second row – apparently no-one wanted to be too near the candidates. As the hall filled, more chairs were found until the rows stretched to the back of the hall. Then I settled down to watch.
The meeting was more carefully managed than some, perhaps influenced by the rules for the leaders' meetings on TV. Members of the audience weren't even expected to ask their own question – instead questions were written down and handed to a steward who would pass them to the chair who relayed them to the candidates. Whole areas of policy, including education and civil liberties, were ignored except when a candidate mentioned a single measure in passing.
I'm not sure how clear an idea it gave me of the candidates. I didn't get any sense of the BNP man, since he chose not to turn up. I wasn't going to vote for him anyway. Personal impressions counted for a great deal.
The UKIP man was surprisingly likeable - I didn't agree with him but he listened to people, answered clearly and seemed straightforward. He seemed the sort of man who would be a good friend, colleague or boss – and probably a good conversationalist over a coffee, beer or wine.
I wanted to be impressed by the Green candidate. Every survey I take tells me I'm more aligned to the Green policies than those of any other party. Again the candidate seemed personally likeable and his experience – as a self-employed craftsman and school governor – is just the kind of experience that's needed in the House of Commons. But he was unclear on policies – actually unsure what they were or how big questions could be addressed – and plainly unready for parliament. With six months of hard work he might become a decent candidate but he's not ready yet. It's a shame.
The Liberal Democrat is a sitting councillor. He was confident on local issues and broad policy areas and was probably the best speaker of the evening. He had a couple of good soundbites - “We were right on Iraq and right on the economy” and “Charlie Kennedy was drunk and he was still right on Iraq” - and spoke particularly well on the need for international aid, drawing on experience of life in Malawi. Apart from that, I was worried that his strengths were local rather than national – an MP has to deal with national questions.
There was only one woman among the candidates – the conservative. I’m far from being a tory supporter but I’ve seen some good tory initiatives such as David Davies’ support for civil liberties. I’ve also had enough experience of being the only woman in a male environment to know it’s difficult so I tried, at least, to like the candidate. I couldn’t. She seemed like a lacquered version of Margaret Thatcher without the smiles. There was no pretence at liking the audience or the other candidates, just an array of facial expressions that ranged from the sneer to eye-rolling incredulity. Her manner as a speaker shifted between the deliberately informal to the rehearsed speech with hand gestures, reminding me that she had been a broadcaster and was now a barrister. Some of the things she said were good – she asserted that she had opposed the war in Iraq and favoured international aid – but she also declared that she agreed with every word in the tory manifesto.
The Labour candidate had all the advantage of 13 years as the constituency MP. He was familiar with the major political questions as well as local concerns so his answers were thoughtful and knowledgeable. He was polite to his opponents and took the audience seriously. He even said he’d been wrong to vote for the war in Iraq and that he now opposed ID cards because they would cost too much. This was quite a U-turn – he used to be a keen defender of government policy and took personal credit for advancing the proposal for ID cards. His line was the hackneyed one that people who had nothing to hide have nothing to fear – perhaps he’s the only person in the country to reckon he’s lived an entirely blameless life. He also spoke against government policy on asylum seekers on the grounds that it was too harsh – but I don’t think he’s ever voted against it.
I like the Labour candidate. I think he’s an honest man who honestly convinces himself that, in most circumstances, his government and party is absolutely right. I live in a Labour-Tory marginal and, if I don’t want a tory government, which I don’t, logic demands I should vote Labour. I won’t do it.
Labour is better on some issues. There’s a historic link with socialism and, although it’s frayed almost to breaking during New Labour days, it probably still means that the cuts which the new government will impose will hurt the poor less under Labour. But this government has supported war and opposed civil liberties to an extent that has made me fearful. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act is one among many dangerous pieces of legislation. I used to think of myself of law-abiding. Now I take it for granted that, if the government wanted, they could find some law that I’ve broken and use it to imprison me. There’s a certain perverse freedom in that. I no longer worry much about what the law says.
New Labour has also supported mistreatment and torture of prisoners, including prisoners who haven’t been found guilty of any offence. These range from asylum seekers and their children – some very young indeed – to suspects who were kidnapped by the Americans, bundled into planes and transported overseas to be questioned under torture. It’s called “extraordinary rendition” and the Americans have now admitted that it happened. I wrote to my nice, tolerant Labour MP about this in January 2005, when the evidence was mounting up. There were witnesses who had seen what was happening, records of flights tallied and companies were named. My MP responded that the evidence was “thinly-based,” that the British government couldn’t be expected to ban flights from stopovers or subject them to scrutiny. He added, “If there was a specific allegation that a prisoner was being held captive in a plane … I’d take a different view and I’d think his lawyers would have a strong case for asylum.” The idea that someone who has just been kidnapped by the CIA will have access to lawyers us so ludicrous that it suggests my MP lives on a different planet.
When I think about the war, civil liberties and government attitudes to torture, I know I can’t vote Labour, even though I dread a tory government. I suppose it will have to be Lib Dem. I don’t feel happy about it. But at least it will annoy the press, which is on the attack. The Daily Mail this morning misrepresented a fine article Nick Clegg wrote as “Clegg’s Nazi slur”. I firmly expect an eve-of-poll headline saying “Nick Clegg will eat your babies.”