Election '97: The invisible politician revealing a novel route to success

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The Independent Online
There are few politicians who shun publicity. There are even fewer who do so and are successful. Andrew Smith, Labour's transport spokesman, who is almost allergic to generating headlines, falls heavily into the latter category.

A fairly Blairey politician, Mr Smith was brought in last summer to lower the profile of Labour's transport post - which had suffered an indecent amount of exposure under Clare Short, the populist Labour MP for Ladywood.

Mr Smith had produced spectacular results. In a poll of 1,000 people earlier this year, 6 per cent recognised the road protester Swampy, 3 per cent recognised the Secretary of State for Transport, George Young - and not one could identify Andrew Smith.

However, the cloak of anonymity was cast from the 46-year-old last week after his leader's admission that some publicly-owned concerns would have to be privatised to meet the Conservatives', and hence Labour's, spending plans.

The problem for Mr Smith is that he had made a rare passionate plea at last October's Labour Party conference against privatisation.

"They (the Conservatives) want to flog off the National Air Traffic Service ... Labour will do everything we can to block this sell-off. Our air is not for sale," he told delegates.

Mr Smith's brush with fame has done him little harm. He remains part of Peter Mandelson's "key campaign" group - a squad of New Labourites which targets swingable seats and is virtually assured a place at Tony Blair's Cabinet table.

The burst of publicity is also unlikely to affect his prospects in his constituency. The fate of the country's air traffic control system is not on voters' minds in Oxford East.

On the doorstep, the Labour candidate is taxed on Europe, on education, on health. The Big Issues. And in each instance he trots out the standard spiel: "The Tories are a divided party lacking leadership ... we will cut class sizes to 30 or under for young children ... it is the burgeoning bureaucracy that is so wasteful in the National Health Service ..."

The best question comes from a lad who's pushing his mate into a hedge: "Oi, is it true what my mum says that Labour will make me do my homework and lock me up at home at night?" he shouts. The question about Labour's much-vaunted law-and-order policy from a lad likely to be grounded under a Blair administration, hangs in the air for a second or two before the tyke's mates realise how useful such an act might be. 'Tony Blair, Tony Blair, Tony Blair!" they all chant.

If there is one place where Mr Smith is well know, it is Oxford East. A former councillor, he has been the MP since 1986 when he unseated a future minister, Steve Norris, by upping Labour's vote by 20 per cent. The voters are far from the dreaming spires of Oxford (Mr Smith attended St John's College), and the constituency is populated by car workers from Rovers' Cowley complex, students and ethnic minorities.

Oxford East, geographically, should be typically Tory territory. Hemmed- in by the constituencies of Douglas Hurd, Michael Heseltine and John Patten, it was a seat traditionally held by Tory grandees such as Lord Hailsham.

Today there is something faintly surreal about the Conservative candidate. He is plunging into a seat of humanity on Headington High Street - pressing flesh, touching shoulders and being shouted at by an old lady. "Look at him, I bet the last old lady he helped across the road was his mother," she shouts. "See you in five years, love - when you next need my vote."

Jon Danogly, the fresh-faced Tory candidate, is pretending he cannot hear. For Mr Danogly (pronounced by himself as "Ja-nog-lee, and by the voters as "D'jungly", "Ginola" or "Geology") no obstacle is so large that it cannot be overcome.

The 31-year-old City solicitor is nonplussed that the seat is solidly Labour (with an 8,000 majority) and there is not even a Tory city councillor. "Voters in Oxford are a clever bunch - too clever by half," he grins.

He is also unimpressed when the seat is described as "predominantly well- to-do working class, and might not take too kindly to a public school- educated young upstart".

"The voting roll has changed by 50 per cent since the last election," he challenges. "So I don't think you can say what voters are going to do."