Sunday, September 3, 2000
A recent telephone call soliciting a political contribution got me thinking about my experience with the more colorful political scene in London a few years back. A by-election was required in my North Kensington neighborhood because our Conservative M.P., Sir Brandon Rhys-Williams, had died in office. Local Labourites had dumped their candidate from the previous election, while the SLD and the SDP ï¿½ once upon a time the Alliance, a union of the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats ï¿½ were canceling each other's vote and siphoning off a goodly number of Labour votes. I followed all of this with great interest, a smattering of understanding and no responsibility. It's the only way to enjoy politics.
During the blessedly few weeks of electioneering, canvassers come round and ring doorbells, trying to ascertain who's voting for whom, noting the diamond-shaped placards displayed in front windows. Armed with ballpoint pens and clipboards, campaign workers pause in front of houses to jot down the "William Goodhart SDP" poster or the "Ann Holmes ï¿½ Labour" taped inside the window.
The candidates themselves occasionally wander the neighborhood, accompanied by staffers who run ahead to see if likely voters are at home, ready to chat. The previous summer during the general election I had been living in the same flat when somebody rang my doorbell. I answered the intercom: "Yes?"
"I'm Brandon Rhys-Williams, a cultured voice announced, "and I'm your M.P., running for re-election."
"Sure you are, mate," I said in my best local accent.
"No, really," he said. "I am." I looked out the front window and saw a few hovering flunkies with large Tory badges on their lapels. I believed him.
"Sorry," I told him over the intercom, reverting to my native Kansan, "I'm an American, and I can't vote here."
"Oh," my M.P. answered. "Well, you might wish me good luck."
"Right," I said. "Good luck."
"Thanks," he said. "Cheerio."
So, feeling as if I had played a role in Sir Brandon's general election victory, I took some interest in the by-election, triggered by his unfortunate death. I tried not to think about what my "Good luck" had done for the late Sir Brandon. Still, he had won the election, and that's really all he was asking for. I suppose.
The SDP offices were located next to the post office near Portobello Road so I popped in one morning.
"I'd like to buy a poster of Mr. Goodhart and one of those yellow badges," I announced.
"Oh," said a campaign worker, "you don't have to pay for them."
"Well, then," I said, "I'd like to make a contribution."
The offer went over well, and a couple of Social Democrats invited me to take more than one poster.
"No," I told them. "I'm just a collector, and it won't do you much good to have your literature displayed in Kansas." I avoided the obvious: It wasn't doing them a whole lot of good in North Kensington either.
They agreed about Kansas, and we shook hands all around.
The candidates who seemed to be having the most fun were Lord David Sutch, a rock singer and perennial candidate of the Monster Raving Loony Party (61 votes put him in seventh place), and Cynthia Payne, convicted only a year earlier of running a brothel. Her "party," an ambiguous term under the circumstances, was Payne and Pleasure, and 193 voters in brown paper wrappers gave her sixth place in the outcome.
When it was over, only 51 percent of the electorate had turned out, and they gave the Conservative candidate Dudley Fishburn ï¿½ or "Deadly Fishbone" as the Free Trade Liberal called him ï¿½ a slim victory over Labour.
Outside of a stray SLD caller and a Labour forager, I was ignored. I would have relished a visit from Cyn Payne or any of her Payne and Pleasure crew. Even a Monster Raving Loony might have been welcome.
And I regret that I did not meet my new M.P. Had Deadly Fishbone rung my doorbell, I certainly would have wished him luck.
ï¿½ Joel J. Gold is professor emeritus of English at Kansas University. His book, "The Wayward Professor," is available at local bookstores. ï¿½2000 Joel J. Gold.
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