On an electoral roll

Pete Davies spent a year with a labour candidate. Edward Pearce finds the result instructive
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The Independent Culture
This England by Pete Davies, Little, Brown, pounds 16.95

In Calder Valley last April, a woman "looked at some Labour leaflets and asked the neighbouring MP's wife: 'Who's in now, then?' Yvonne Clapham took a deep breath - and said: 'The Conservatives.' 'Oh. When did they gerrin then?'" Again, "a petulant young woman announced with a hostile sneer 'Don't look at me. I'm Conservative'. Her mother snapped 'Oh shurrup, you dunno what you are.' 'I am Conservative. I live in a big house, me.'"

Pete Davies knows who's in and, even more, what he is. He barely draws breath to tell us that the Conservatives had been in since 1979 and are plonkers, wankers and "sad". Such head-butting demotic prose thumps through the text, lightless, shadeless and on full. Which is a pity: Davies's idea, to spend a year with a Labour candidate in a robust, strong-minded constituency, was excellent. He piles up masses of detail - useful, decorative, and neither. And in spite of his finger-up-the-nostril style, he sounds like a voice which, carrying from public bar parlour into snug through double doors, often talks sense.

His subject, Christine McCafferty, sounds like a good thing: a social worker of the helping, non-pronouncing, non-jargonising kind, going for parliament at 51 after 16 years bringing up her son, then running hard with a Well Woman clinic, getting on the council, and running round again before taking on a candidacy. Calder Valley - eccentric Todmorden, scenic Hebden Bridge, well-heeled Ripponden and variable Brighouse, plus a tranche of moorland - is where, furiously overworking, she runs around. Tony Blair will find Christine McCafferty sweet - but he won't be close. She shines out here as the sort of person without whom the Labour Party would have no point.

Sir Donald Thompson was the incumbent in Calder Valley. In his late sixties, he was a local man and Tory moderate with no cash from Al Fayed or Paul Sykes - also a good thing. Even Pete Davies, who is Labour the way Vinnie Jones is a bit rough, concedes Sir Donald's decency through clenched teeth. Davies attends a debate. "I met Sir Donald outside as he arrived. So we went across the road and he bought me a Coke and we agreed that the government of Sudan were a rotten bunch."

Such tolerance is exceptional. A fat, angry man in a Mercedes nearly knocking someone down represents "the last 18 years in miniature"; the Referendum Party people at the count were "a stubbly dwarf, a tub-shaped woman with hair like you get on those plastic Disney models from McDonald's and a kind of lounge lizard figure in a bilious tweed jacket".

Davies is hardly more cringing to Blair himself. At one point, the Leader "did the Skinner and Baddiel number out of Euro '96: 'Labour's coming home. Seventeen years of hurt. Never stopped us dreaming. Labour's coming home.' I was gobsmacked ... if the political discourse of this country is now so debased that the way to win power is to peak your speech on a football song and you get acclaimed for it, then God help us." But at Blackpool last year, it was Lord Rees-Mogg - drawn to power like a non-sting wasp to jollop - who perceived a great statesman behind that fine spray of scented slop.

The impact of Blair and Blairism on the Calder Valley crowd may be instructive. They are loyal, they want to win, but the marmoset charm doesn't blind even the teenage volunteers. At a conference "Blair swept out of the room flashing his smile all about ... he gave Alex a nod and said 'Hiya'. She said, 'I can tell my grandchildren, Tony Blair said Hiya.' 'But,' she frowned, 'it's because I'm a young person isn't it?'" When the young leader promised to carry on privatising, McCafferty and her people sighed and kept their heads down.

Written by a high intelligence higher yet on partisan invective, this worthwhile, irksome book lingers enlighteningly over northern ex-industrial melancholy - housing, schools, health care and hospitals - and ends with the triumph of the count. After McCafferty had won a 6,000 majority, "someone told me Portillo was gone. At that moment I knew and could start to believe that after 18 years this England really did belong to Labour." Or will someone ask, "Labour? When did they gerrin then?"