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

"This lady wants your mum and dad to vote for her". The words are clearly and brightly pronounced. "She's going to be ...," the headmaster checks himself; "She wants to be our MP. Does any one know what MP stands for? Member of Par ...?" Three or four high-pitched voices finish the word for him: "Par-lee-ment." "What do Members of Parliament do?" continues the headmaster. A child at the front pipes up: "They help people."

"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".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'