The dirty milk bottle upon the doorstep

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Quite early one morning, not very long ago, when the property market in Islington was even more mouvementé than it is now, I heard some scratching noises outside the front door. In my dressing gown I opened it, to find two youths inspecting their handiwork, a "For Sale" sign on a pole attached to the railings.

Quite early one morning, not very long ago, when the property market in Islington was even more mouvementé than it is now, I heard some scratching noises outside the front door. In my dressing gown I opened it, to find two youths inspecting their handiwork, a "For Sale" sign on a pole attached to the railings.

"This house is not for sale," I said. "I know. I live here."

"Oh yes," the more senior of the citizens said, as if to suggest: "We've got a right one here." He continued: "We're just following our instructions, like, mate."

"Well," I said, "you can unfollow them. This is my house. I own it."

This invocation of the full majesty of the English law of real property failed to produce any discernible effect. Clearly, a different approach was called for.

"If you don't take down that bloody sign at once," I said (though in the heat of the moment I may have used a different adjective), "I'm going to call the police."

Whether the constabulary would have proved of any help I rather doubt ("Sounds to me like a civil matter, sir. Nothing to do with us, I'm afraid.") Even so, their name served its purpose. The two youths busied themselves with the tools of their trade. Within seconds, the offending sign had been removed to a white van, illegally parked, as it happened.

The Labour Party in what used to be the People's Republic is availing itself of similar tactics. It is not putting up "Vote Labour" signs without the occupier's permission. Even the party of Mr David Blunkett and Mr Tony Blair would not be prepared to go as far as this in the direction of illegality. No, what is happening instead is that the posters on poles are being erected at the front of properties which, so decrepit is their condition, are clearly unoccupied.

It may be, of course, that they are occupied all the time - by Labour voters. It was long held, not least by professional Labour organisers, that dirty milk bottles outside the front door provided persuasive evidence of a Labour-supporting household. If bottles were combined with flaking paintwork and an unkempt front lawn, the case was complete. You could infallibly tick the voters off in the appropriate box, though whether they would turn out on the night if it was raining or there was something on television was another matter entirely.

The People's Party always took a low, even an embittered, view of those who were thought of as its "natural" supporters. In succeeding years that view has become, if anything, even less exalted. That is why the imposition of postal voting on large parts of the North - exceeding the areas recommended experimentally by the Electoral Commission - is so odd. It is not surprising that the authorities have made a mess of things. Given the present state of the Royal Mail, or whatever it now calls itself, who could expect anything else? What is surprising is that the venture was embarked on at all. For the wisdom of the wise in Labour circles was always that postal voting benefited the Conservatives and the Liberals, as they were then named. That was because they were not only more conscientious naturally but more accustomed to dealing with envelopes and bits of paper in their daily lives.

Yet the strongest exponent of postal voting was, it seems, Mr John Prescott, the nearest thing in the present cabinet to the Keeper of the Cloth Cap. Mr Prescott now clearly sees himself as a person of influence, not only over voting systems but over the succession to Mr Blair.

It may be worth recalling, by the way, that in his observations to The Times a few weeks ago he did not once say that the tectonic plates were shifting. "Tectonic" is, after all, a big word, like "marmalade" or "stepladder". What Mr Prescott said was that the plates were shifting. This was clearly a reference - an insight which I owe to the acuity of Mr Simon Hoggart of The Guardian - to Mr Prescott's days at sea, as a purser. There is an old naval saying, deriving from the Napoleonic Wars, though unmentioned in the standard works on that period or even in the novels of Patrick O'Brian: "When plates are shifting, storm be brewing." That was evidently what Mr Prescott had in mind.

But politics is such a strange business that the leader who is in the eye of any storm that may be brewing by the end of the week looks like being Mr Michael Howard rather than Mr Blair. He is an innocent party, or as much of one as there usually is in politics. His idea for a referendum on the European constitution (which many voters understandably confuse with a referendum on the euro) was adopted by Mr Blair to please Mr Rupert Murdoch.

Last week Mr Howard, foolishly rather than opportunistically, said that he supported demonstrations against the price of petrol. He was then forced into reverse gear and said that he supported them only if they did not cause "disruption". Of what earthly use to anyone, I should like to know, is a demonstration unless it inconveniences somebody at some stage?

But his heaviest burden was the UK Independence Party. Its greatest strength, from the point of view of those looking at newspaper coverage, is that for the European elections two of its supporters are better known than any two from any other party. They are Miss Joan Collins and Mr Robert Kilroy-Silk.

Miss Collins, as the boxing posters of my youth used to put it, needs no introduction, though that was usually because the promoters could not think of anything further to say about the fighter in question, which is certainly not true of Miss Collins. Mr Kilroy-Silk was a perfectly serious and, in his way, valuable Labour backbencher from 1974 to 1986. For instance, he tried to do something about the legitimised bullying that went on in youth detention centres. He has, it is true, moved somewhat to the right since those days: but then, so also have many others too. And while Ms Patricia Hewitt, say, used to be a raving lunatic, Mr Kilroy-Silk was always comparatively sane.

Has anyone else noticed that all three of our leaders are now addicted to pop music? Mr Blair not only had his undergraduate band but retains his clear preferences, or prejudices, whose music he plays regularly. Mr Howard recently brought the House down - the members, unlike me, took the reference - when he quoted the Beach Boys' words "Help me ..." in relation to the MP for Rhondda, the super-Blairite Mr Chris Bryant. And only last week Mr Charles Kennedy confessed on BBC television that every day he liked, if possible, to listen to something by Mr David Bowie. They are all clearly suffering from brain-rot. God help us all!

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