The 2001 Election by Dave Boyle

I was on pins for the 2001 election. For most of the country, it seemed a foregone conclusion, but the marginal I was working in, we didn’t have a clue. We knew that ultimately, the ability to form a government wasn’t dependent on holding seats like that. It was knowing that the MP was a good guy, that he’d made a difference and he was a bloody good constituency MP and deserved another 5 years.

It was always going to be tight. Lancaster was one of those that wasn’t in the wildest dreams of 1997 party planners. It had only ever had one Labour MP since 1832 – from 1970-1974 – and had briefly achieved fame through the efforts of the insanely bigoted dame Elaine Kellet-Bowman, who commented that it had was good to see ‘an intolerance of evil’ when the offices of Capital Gay had been firebombed in the 1980s, and before that, the flamboyant tory Humphrey Berkeley, creator of the electoral system for the Conservatives that eventually proved Thatcher’s undoing in 1990.

It was an interesting place, sociologically and demographically. The urban parts of the seat where Labour, whilst strong, had never been as strongly Labour as many an industrialised town. Lord Ashton, the local Baron of Industry, was the classic paternalist; he gave banquets for 1000s but threatened to close the factories if anyone had the temerity to vote Labour. There wasn’t as great a Trade Union tradition in the place, which surrounded by villages and hamlets, wore industrialisation like an ill-fitting winter coat rather than new wardrobe.

A big factor was Blobbygate. The MP had been one of the leading Councillors when they’d signed a fateful deal with Noel Edmonds to develop a scraggy park in Morecambe into a Crinkley Bottom theme park, with the theme apparently being ‘rubbish, unimaginative’ and ‘past its sell-by date’. The resulting furore had still to settle down, with District Auditor’s reports expected to be critical. The local Labour council had been routed in 1999 by the motliest crew of 1974 Local Government boundary refusenik poujadists and the Green Party.

Another factor was the bypass. Lancaster is a medieval City, with roads built for horses and carts. There’s been talk of a bypass since the thirties, and a lot of the constituents thought it was the absolute priority; an alliance of personally affected nimby voters and green voters were also sizeable. The MP had robustly held the line that it was necessary, but changed tack in the days leading to the poll. The Greens were standing a candidate and there was a fear they’d take votes from the left and let the Tories in. I recall urging green voters to split ticket when it came to the County Council Elections being held the same day, which as a Labour canvasser wasn’t something I should have done. Needs must.

Despite this, the canvassing was going reasonably well. Most were supportive, but there very much an air of one more chance; people hadn’t felt like they’d had a Labour government and wanted more, much more, for a second term. But in a marginal, reports and returns are one thing; it all comes down to getting the vote out.

Party volunteers often have to be reminded to vote themselves, so we decided to vote early. Too early. The Polling Station hadn’t opened, as the school caretaker had overslept, so the poll clerks set up a temporary station in the boot of the estate car belonging to one of them.

The school was on estate itself that was a heartland area for Labour, having amazingly (to us) gone Green in ’99. Canvassing then, I’d seen a dead body, and overdose victim, in a garden. It’d been there for longer than a good neighbourly neighbourhood would like. I’d be spending a bit of time there during the day.

That always worried me, because in addition to strong Labour voting, council house estates have a strong correlation with dogs that seem very aggressive and often not tethered. They roam placidly, until you approach the house where it lives, when it reacquaints itself with its defensive security role. And as it’s roaming around, the owners are often away or out or don’t care, and so no owner comes to rescue you as you wonder whether the dog can smell your fear, or sense your legs shaking nervously despite straining your muscles to keep them still.

According to those who’d canvassed in 1997, there were more people out during the day this time around. A telling sign of the fact that more people had jobs than in 1997, we speculated: would they draw a link between what happened in 1997 and their situation now? Or would the inflatable pink doll dominate?