Terry O'Connor

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Electoral dysfunction

It was the Tory canvasser that did it. I was not going to write anything about this depressing General Election campaign, then along she came, all good intentions and foot in mouth. Would I be voting for our local Conservative candidate? No. She glanced down at her clipboard and asked would that be no for both of us? As politely as possible, I pointed out that I would not presume to predict my wife’s voting intentions, and could only speak for myself. Fortuitously, the ‘phone rang at that point, enabling me to leave the polite lady canvasser to work out for herself whether it was smart to ask me how my wife would be voting.

Are canvassers trained? Or are Tory canvassers trained to behave as if it is still 1950? I ask because of a previous doorstep encounter with one of that ilk. We had not long since moved from South Wales to York, and there were council elections about to happen. A knock at the door, and there stood an elderly but erect gentleman in a tweed suit, sporting a clipboard and a moustache that might have seen action in the Battle of Britain. It was the early 1980s, so the man and his moustache may genuinely have been battle-hardened veterans. “I’m canvassing for the Conservatives” he said, needlessly. “You must be Mr S———-“. I corrected him, that family having moved on, and gave him our surname for his clipboard. “O’Connor?” he trumpeted. “Sinn Fein voters?”. This was, I should point out, while the Troubles were in full flow and Irish Republicanism had, shall we say, a serious image problem. I was briefly and unusually lost for words. Fortunately, Sonia had been listening to the exchange from her sniper position in the hall. “I voted Plaid Cymru at the last election”, she called, “And so did he”. I nodded my confirmation to the by now puzzled Wing Commander and gently closed the door.

Sinn Fein voters in York? And how will your wife be voting? The UK is collectively proud of its democratic traditions and procedures but encounters such as these make me wonder whether the implementation is somewhat lacking. At what should be the other end of the process, it was equally worrying to hear Ed Balls, the would-be Chancellor of the Exchequer, being interviewed by John Humphrys, the would-be Welsh Inquisition, on the BBC Today programme this morning. Apart from Humphrys’ usual interruptions and showboating, he seemed not to understand the difference between current account deficit and the National Debt. How does that work in the Humphrys’ household? “We’re in the red this month, cariad. My salary’s not enough to pay off the whole mortgage loan”.

Then there are the politicians themselves. In the Thanet South constituency, where I went to school as it happens, a comedian and TV personality best known for his exaggerated saloon-bar populist characterization is standing as a candidate. And so is Al Murray. Say what you like about Nigel Farage (and personally I wouldn’t piss in his ear if his brain were on fire), his success in gaining a generously-paid European Parliament seat and in gleaning hours of media exposure has served to highlight the parlous state of political discourse in Britain. And yes, I do seriously mean that.

What is a chap to do, faced with gormless canvassers and hopeless candidates? Well, I have tried. I have carefully thought about what I would want from a governing party: internationalist not parochial, socially progressive, fiscally prudent but redistributive, rationally green and instinctively devolutionary. That leaves me with a simple choice between the SDLP and Plaid Cymru. And in Yorkshire, that’s something of a quandary.

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