My brief encounters of a lasting kind on road to the House House election trail
Yvette Cooper, Independent journalist and prospective MP, describes her baptism of fire in pursuit of a seat
"That's right," responds the head, while I reel from the direct hit. Cynicism, disillusion and hostility; all these I am braced for, but a burst of straightforward trust knocks me between the eyes. Recovering composure, I try a question myself: "Can anyone name the political parties?"
Eight hands pump up into the air, shoulders and bodies straining to catch up with them. Perhaps the question was too easy. "Labour," beams the first child I nod at, and the other seven hands descend. There is a puzzled pause. "Any other parties?" prompts the class teacher from the corner. Apparently not - not as far as these 32 Pontefract six-year-olds are concerned, anyway. Even after another pause, and a lot more encouragement, the best they can do is one tentative suggestion from a girl at the back: "New Labour, Miss?" I suppress a grin, and we move on to the next classroom.
Here in Pontefract and Castleford, the constituency that selected me as its Labour candidate just over three weeks ago, Conservative voters don't crop up much on the campaign trail. Our job here is not to persuade waverers, but to get the Labour vote out. My task, as a new face, is that I am working hard and here to stay. Leaflets and posters have been printed and parcelled for sending out to voters and supporters. Days are parcelled up and distributed too. I handed activists and councillors in every corner of the constituency a package of time to fill for me with local visits and events.
On day one I visited two factories, a technical college, a day centre for the elderly and a line-dancing class. Day two took me through four schools, three pensioners' groups, a working-men's club and a barber's. I have kicked off for Castleford Rugby League and called the first line of bingo at the huge Gala Bingo Hall.
At every stage I am chaperoned by dark suits - predominantly burly men, be they councillors, local union activists, or party organisers. Jacketed and rosetted, they are lethal with a roll of stickers. The protective warmth and enthusiasm with which they watch out for my welfare is astonishing - especially given that we met less than a month ago.
But then meeting strangers is all I have done for weeks now. I assume it gets easier with practice: pressing the flesh. The challenge is the first few lines of conversation. Waffle, and people smell it. Dissemble, and they sense it. There is nowhere to hide, no unwritten rule of politeness to defend you from the judgement of a fellow citizen.
Nor is there any way to stick to soft and soppy tasks like kissing babies. Campaigning for votes means entering, however briefly, the lives of the people you seek to represent.
Some of those lives aren't easy. At the first infants' school I visited, the head teacher told me the first task for the caretaker each morning was to sweep the used needles from the playground. Over half the children arriving in the nursery class have speech problems, because - a party member suggested - no one at home has been talking to them properly.
It could have been a dismal encounter, listening to tales of abuse, drugs and woe. But the head teacher and the governors were brimming with determination and optimism about what they could achieve, not least through the parenting classes and literacy classes they were pursuing for local mums and dads.
Leaping swiftly forward through the lifecycle, we pass junior schools and comprehensives. Somewhere along the way, I remember to eat; but not often and not much.
Bridget Jones would be proud of me: Cigarettes: none (apart from a bit of passive smoking at the working-men's club.) Alcohol: 4 units. Calories; not enough. Hands shaken: 70. v good.
Next stop, the world of work: pits as miners finish their shift, a clothing factory where rows of women stitch and snip, several chemical factories, and a dark and clanking glass factory. At the pensioners' day centre where we stop for tea, one woman is determined to draw blood. She is seething even before I open my mouth. Lips pursed, arms tightly folded, eyes flickering up to the ceiling, she looks like a teenager who is being told off by a teacher.
And she is furious with me or with herself, or with something. Whatever I say she spits back a comment. All politicians are the same; none of them have done anything about that bit of wasteland round the back of the home; who do I think I am, coming in from outside; why won't anyone raise her pension; and on and on. It is a delicate situation to handle. Weaken under her hostility and the crowd will all sense it and crow. Fight back and they will close ranks and lynch me. Ride it, ever reasonable, and sooner or later the pack turns on their own. By the time we left, Mrs Pursed-Lips had been roundly trounced by everyone in the room and the candidate pronounced a lovely lass. One elderly woman explains, as we leave, how her mother insisted on being carried to the polling station as she was dying. "She never missed a vote. Nothing would stop her. That's how we were taught. Our family fought, you know - for the miners, for the Labour Party. I'll never vote anything else."
This deeply religious attitude to voting is a severe contrast to the glazed eyes of younger voters. One of the final campaign stops is at a youth club in the south of the constituency, where they are holding a mock election. Try as I might, I cannot tempt any of the teenagers into talking to me about politics. So we stick to who-fancies-who. The 14-year old Labour candidate is a bit of a heart-throb, it seems, so that presumably explains his support. But the Socialist Labour candidate has done better, targeting the 11-year-old boys on bikes who are swiftly bribed into sabotaging the other candidates' posters. Be it the teenagers' love-life, or the pensioners' operation, I am amazed at people's willingness to tell politicians their life stories at the touch of a knuckle. And then, on the eve of polling day I am reminded why they do it. A woman we have met briefly in the pub on the way home tells about her severely disabled son, who has become too heavy for her to carry upstairs to the bathroom. But she can't get the help she needs to adapt her house.
Is there anything, she asks, that I can do? Real-world responsibility drenches me suddenly like a cold shower. I promise to do whatever I can to help, without any idea how much difference an MP can make in a case like this. Labour's policy handbook provides no clues on the matter. This, poking up between the stickers and the handshakes, is the important stuff; as the Pontefract six-year-old told me at the beginning, "helping people".
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