The rich, thick soup of democracy

THIS ENGLAND by Pete Davies Little, Brown pounds 16.99
In 1984, Pete Davies wrote his first novel, The Last Election. "I imagined that the book took place in the mid-Nineties and I predicted, among other things, rave culture, wall-to-wall sport on multi-channel TV, a top football division full of Scandinavians, and a political culture of raging imbecility driven entirely by PR men." Another novel (Dollarville) later, and he has just witnessed Tony Blair's Three Lions chant to the 1996 Labour Party Conference: "Labour's coming home / Seventeen years of hurt / Never stopped us dreaming / Labour's coming home" (exit, pursued by Cherie, D-Ream, and a gigantic Union Jack). "Well, not wanting to crow here - but look where we were now, eh?" as Pete Davies says.

The subject of this book is the 1997 general election campaign in middle England, as it unfolded around the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire. "This England, at this island's centre, is a place like the Calder Valley - 210 miles from London, 210 miles from Cardiff, 210 miles from Glasgow - where three-quarters of the people own their houses, where virtually all of them are white ... " The plot has its denouement, of course, on 1 May, 1997; but it opens a good year earlier, with the launch of Labour's Road to the Manifesto, which, as Davies notices, just so happened to come in the week immediately following the end of Euro `96.

The protagonists of the Calder Valley drama are sketched as vividly as if we had them right there in the living-room in front of us, on a trendy television documentary fly-on-the-wall. The sitting MP, Sir Donald Thompson, is a genial old Tory, "a kind of roly-poly Candide", who genuinely believes that low-paid outworking women are delighted to be receiving wages of pounds 2 an hour. His opponent, Christine McCafferty (Lab), is 50 years old, a former local councillor who weeps as she leaves her job at the Well Woman Centre, and who never once puts a foot wrong. Fatally for his portrayal in this book, Stephen Pearson, the LibDem man, suggests that voters "rat" on his party. "Voters, eh? Rats ... and it's time, I think, to pass on from this unedifying fellow ..." But even Pearson gets off lightly in comparison to the Green and Referendum candidates - "pleasant nitwits with bees in their bonnets" - and the goatee-bearded BNP lad, immortalised as a "paranoid racist jerk". "Such is the rich soup of democracy," Davies sighs, in a you-are-awful way; such it is indeed. And Davies likes his soup thoroughly stirred up.

This England is not at all a serious analytical work. Davies starts his book as a Labour supporter and ends it as an ecstatic Labour triumphalist (though he wouldn't be the only one, would he? The Labour landslide is a bit like the French Resistance after Liberation in that way). The Labbies he meets are without exception hard-working, competent, good-natured, GSOH, and physically attractive to boot. The Connies, on the other hand, are not so, and are ribaldly mocked for their every failing and mistake. In places, the mood of schadenfreudig hilarity slips into something a bit meaner, I think, than Davies intends. "How about scraping [sic] Parking Meters (Labour Council)?" an orthographically challenged voter writes in to Chris McCafferty. "I'd take this person more seriously if they could spell," the author pusillanimously jibes.

As a football writer of some standing - he is previously the author of All Played Out, a much-admired avant la lettre Hornbyssey around the 1990 World Cup - Davies right at the beginning of his book makes an interesting link. "Reality: football does not house the homeless or make jobs for the unemployed, it does not fight crime or make our food safe. Politicians are supposed to do these things - but after 17 years of the Tories ... who'll pay attention to that when the football's on?" As his book proceeds, however, Davies rather loses the thread of this half-promised critique. Once victory starts being scented, Davies is right down there and brawling on the Labour terraces, along with everyone else. This ambivalence prompts an interesting question. Politics and football are our culture's two great levellers and social mixers. Why exactly is it so rhetorically important that one be seen to keep them apart?

Despite such problems, however, Davies is a lovely writer to read. His tone is acute, and affectionate, and sometimes elegiac, in a genuinely moving way. His book moves rhythmically and has a surprising emotional depth to it, like one of those old John Grierson documentary films. His material would have made a wonderful Cutting Edge programme, edited fast and transmitted within a week of 1 May. It makes for a pretty good book also, although the more time-consuming literary process means that inevitably, its spots of over-excitability already seem a bit half-baked.