The Mellor Affair: Home is . . . where the votes are

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The Independent Online
'WHAT'S OUR MP really like?' a headline in Putney Conservative News asked voters in David Mellor's constituency just before the general election. It was meant it to be a rhetorical question.

A photograph in the newspaper, which was delivered free to all homes in the constituency, gave the answer. Mr Mellor was pictured having breakfast with his wife and two children. Everyone was looking attentively at mother as she enacted the traditional wifely role of pouring the tea. The image gave a clear message to the voters: our MP is a decent man enjoying the respectable, traditional pleasures of life in a nuclear family.

In the text, Mr Mellor explained how the mere fact of living in the constituency had contributed to his happiness. '(Putney) is a great place to bring up a family,' he said. 'Life is never dull and there's always something going on.' Indeed.

The minister's use of his wife and children was far from exceptional. His literature, in fact, was a model of restraint when compared with the outpourings from other candidates, which can be found in a London School of Economics collection of nearly all the election leaflets and addresses sent out in this year's campaign.

Families were wheeled out at every opportunity. There were descriptions of how household chores were shared, what the husband thinks of the wife and what the wife thinks of the husband.

Nicola Trevett, wife of Martin Trevett, the Liberal Democrat candidate in Hertfordshire West, appeared in election photographs, gave details of her job and provided a breathless description of life with her husband. He was a problem solver. He liked to talk, but also to listen. 'And as for his commitment to social justice - well, in 11 years of marriage, we have always shared the household jobs. I am proud to say I have a husband who actually does the washing and ironing. I hope you vote for him. He's worth it.'

In the neighbouring constituency of Hertfordshire North, Roger Liddle, another Liberal Democrat candidate, provided so much information about his wife Caroline that it was hard to tell who was standing for election. Mrs Liddle, the voters were told, 'is no ordinary political wife', but the head of corporate affairs for Channel 4 and a keen gardener in her spare time. The couple have the 'same views, the same friends and very much the same interests', he said, before revealing that he too displayed a concern for social justice by 'doing quite a bit of the cooking'.

The most convincing evidence that portraits of families are a political imperative came from the candidates who have no spouses but nevertheless hijacked images of matrimony. Thus, Liam Fox, the Conservative candidate in Woodspring, Bristol, compensated for his lack of a wife by presenting a picture taken of him, his brother and and two sisters at a wedding. The siblings, all in suits and bridal frocks, were named and the electors told how old they were.

The family remains in the constituency when the MP goes to the Commons and can be presented as a living sign of a politician's commitment to an area.

Clive Efford, the Labour candidate in Eltham, south London, took this tactic to the limit in April. 'I and my family live in Eltham, use Eltham shops, Eltham doctors and my daughter Alice will soon be using Eltham nurseries,' he said. It's probably a good thing he lost, otherwise poor Mrs Efford would be committing treachery every time she bought a packet of tea outside the constituency borders.

(Photograph omitted)