Down among the doubtfuls: David Caute, out canvassing for the local elections, takes on the waverers and the underwhelmed

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SOMETIMES I am sent canvassing along a privileged stretch of Hammersmith riverfront where William Morris lived and set his deservedly little-known Utopian novel, News from Nowhere. Here one has the pleasure of entering untidily decorative front gardens and finding at home some distinguished painter, writer or film director who firmly intends to vote Labour. Reluctantly I drag myself towards the neighbouring mansions and immaculate terraced houses of the enemy. And here he is:

'Frankly, the best thing would be to get rid of that white elephant.'

The man - probably a banker - gestures from the doorstep of his grand, four-storey house towards the east. My gaze anxiously follows his arm but I see no elephant.

'The town hall,' he explains contemptuously.

'But surely you want services?'

'Privatise the lot and then you'll get efficiency and service.'

I put an X on the canvass card: 'against'.

We assume that all those who are 'against', even if they don't declare a Tory allegiance, will vote Conservative. The difficulty arises with the 'doubtfuls'. A 'doubtful' can mean several things: a) 'I haven't made up my mind/I'm still thinking about it'; b) 'I don't see any difference between any of them'; c) refuses to come to the door after her son opens it. You can see her there in the kitchen. 'She's out,' the son says, after consulting her.

Three other categories of 'doubtful' smell to me distinctly 'against': d) 'We're in the middle of dinner'; e) 'How I vote is my business'; f) lets dog eat your leg.

'GOOD evening, is it Mr S-- ? It is? - And I believe there is also a Susan S-- living here . . .'

'That's my wife. She's in Charing Cross hospital.'

'Oh I'm sorry to hear it. Lucky we haven't let the Tories close it down, isn't it? When do you expect her out? Before or after 5 May?'

'The doctors don't give her much chance.'

'I see. I'll put her down as 'doubtful' then. Now, Mr S--, I'm here on behalf of our two Labour candidates. I hope we can count on your vote. Are there any particular local issues that concern you and that you'd like to discuss?'

'I thought they had an election two years ago.'

'That was the general election. This is the local council election.'

'Sorry, my dinner's burning.'

I try the next door. Single woman, probably won't answer - but she does. Miss J-- has voted Labour for 50 years. That's the first thing she tells me. The main theme of Labour ideology, on the doorstep, remains 'I always have'. Each election is a kind of test of loyalty and stamina for elderly Labour voters still manning trenches and dug-outs over which enemy tanks constantly sweep. But on this occasion Miss J-- is seriously considering abstaining. She is the longest-serving tenant of what I shall call Lynedoch Court, which the Labour council has not redecorated 'for 10 years'. 'We're fettered by the Tory-imposed budget cuts,' I explain.

Miss J-- agrees, but is locked into her grievances. She is now plagued by noisy neighbours who scatter filth and damage the stairs. Appeals to the town hall have brought no solution. I am attentive, solicitous. I write it all down on a special complaints form which will be whipped to headquarters for instant remedy. Perhaps carpenters and decorators will pour out of a political ambulance on the morrow? I also explain to Miss J-- that her 'real problem' (and mine) is the lack of a Labour councillor in our ward, someone who knows the ropes and to whom she (and I) can carry our woes. She nods, convinced; and she could never betray those 50 years of loyalty, could she?

VOTERS] Why should I give a damn about their miserable, selfish lives? What are they but the even and odd numbered sides of a street; or blocks of flats you can't ever get into; or letterboxes sited six inches from the ground? And how can you care about their stories of landlords, rents, unemployment, domestic violence, and all that stuff, when they insist on living on the top floors of rabbit-warren buildings packed with lodgers whose bells don't work or aren't properly identified, so that you stand there with your canvass sheet flapping in the wind shouting into intercoms with 12 buttons until you completely lose track of who you're shouting to as the heavy lorries roar past? May I add that I'm too old for this lark anyway. My special thanks to those tall houses where broad, easy steps lead straight to Tory voters while narrow, broken basement stairways blocked by litter bins lead to the man or woman you must 'get out on the day'. Ms C--- is one of them, or should be: poor, young and black with a child on her arm, but she's in an aggressively 'couldn't care less' mood, and when I inquire about the male voter in the household she snarls: 'He left, didn't he?'

I write 'doubtful' on the canvass sheet since 'won't vote' is not a comment our organisers find useful.

'WHAT do you (EXPLETIVE) take me for? Do I look like an (EXPLETIVE) Tory? Excuse my French.' Mrs R-- is ground floor (but actually she might be Ms or Miss because the voters' roll does not say - one cultivates a kind of neutral 'Mss' sound). I always forget about Mrs R-- until I meet her again (I've been at it since Michael Foot's inspiring defeat in 1983). She is holding a sweet little Labour terrier who, she explains, is 13, half blind and 'not used to a lead'. She then goes off into an account of her class wars with posh ladies who follow her around, insisting the dog be on a lead, and telling her to go somewhere else. 'No snob bitch is (EXPLETIVE) telling me to go somewhere else]' I am looking for ways of retreat without losing this woman's (EXPLETIVE) vote.

This is the most low-key local campaign I've experienced. In 1986 we had the Alliance yuppies barking on the patios; by 1990 the SDP had been barbecued, but 25 per cent of doorsteps were painted Green. There are no longer any ideas in the air, new or old. The two big party machines are slogging it out, with the Tories running short of their old demons, whether loony Livingstone or wrestling mats for lesbians in Islington. I haven't even met my old friend, the Labour voter who wants to throw all of 'them' out of the country, 'back where they belong'. Perhaps he has moved to Tower Hamlets. Why do I get into all this time-consuming news from nowhere? It's simple: someone has to do it.

The writer's latest novel, 'Dr Orwell and Mr Blair', will be published by Weidenfeld on 16 June at pounds 14.99.

(Photograph omitted)