Election '97: THE CANDIDATE

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The Independent Online
Auntie stood at the back of the university hall, and waited for the speech to begin. Today was her 40th birthday - and this was her third election campaign. Ten years ago she had been a much younger, much more innocent woman. Her hair was grey now before her time, although she was still pretty. And she liked to think that she had never become hard; had never stopped believing that what she was involved in could improve things. Just that what could be promised had lessened over time. The shining city on the hill was now more of a pleasant village on a low knoll. But it was still better than abiding in the gloom, as the Welshman had once said.

Ten years ago - and again five years back - at the side of the Welshman, she had tasted the wine of expectation and supped the bitter sediment of disappointment, each time getting back up and starting again. Now, as one of the inner circle of Campaign Mums, she was caught between the two sensations again. Surely, this time ...

The Candidate was certainly different from the Welshman; not so brittle, nor so damaged. At the moment it was not defeat and personal failure that was haunting him but the manner of victory. "It's the mandate," he kept on telling everyone urgently. "We need to turn as many votes against them as we can into votes for us. Otherwise they'll claim we only succeeded because we weren't them, and I wasn't the Grey Man."

So today, to add to the positive Ten Commitments and the positive Five Pledges, here were the positive 21 Educational Steps. Surely to God they would have to write this one up, er, positively.

Or would they? Auntie swept her eyes over the representatives of the press who were now filling four rows at the side of the hall, their incontinent gadgetry going off intermittently in a ragged chorus of bleeps, chimes and buzzes.

The press! There, in his usual yellow tie was the chubby bad-tempered cherub from the Express; a one-time Trotskyite who has now turned his intemperate pen to the services of God, Family and the Tory party. Next to him was a grande dame of Fleet Street, all fags and stories, disinclined to repose confidence in a mere lad when she had seen Gorby fail and the Shah fall.

There were the clever-clever ironists swapping apercus with reporters from television, and - above all - the boy hack-pack with their catch- all cynicism: cynical when it was right to be cynical, cynical when there was nothing to be cynical about. With the education correspondents sweeping up the big story, they would be casting about for any half-tale. When they got it, the scene on the battle buses would resemble what happened when you threw a dead puppy into a piranha tank. All foam, blood and a tiny bit of meat each.

The tubby little vice-chancellor was now on stage, painting a picture of heroic academics struggling against low pay and large seminars to educate the young. And now, in a charcoal double-breasted suit, the creases of his trousers knife sharp and the fall to his ankles like draperies in a Leonardo, the Candidate was on. He looked, she always thought, like a pixie, with slightly pointed ears, plastic features, close-set mischievous little eyes, and the face narrowing from top to chin. Perhaps pixies also converted their "Ls" or "Rs" to :Ws"; chiwdren, wowld, stiw.

It was a long speech - a good speech. The young voice was not quite rich enough to suggest extremes of feeling. There were no swoops into deep shaded valleys, no sudden bearing up over green wooded plateaux, no gliding over foam-flecked oceans. True, he did try to liven it up with little ad-libbed passion breaks between the hard policy bits, suddenly departing from the text to express huge enthusiasm for this or that. The appearance of the phrase "you know" was a sure sign of deep caring.

The Welshman, she recalled, had been at the top of his game at moments like this. He could hold a crowd for an hour, no problem. He would use his whole body, flexing his knees, bouncing up from his midriff, dancing around, clutching his clenched fists to his abdomen to convey agony, or spreading his arms wide above his head to signify delight or victory. No, crowds had not been a problem for the Welshman. Nations had been a problem.

Auntie glanced down at the press seats. The Express cherub was ostentatiously folding a copy of the Sunday Times, the grande dame was itching to get outside for a cigarette and the ironists were examining the Candidate's body language. Only the piranhas were scribbling away - so perhaps the speech would get big coverage after all. After 10 years she was not holding her breath.