GENERAL ELECTION FEATURE: Will it be One Step Beyond or Westminster’s House of Fun for Labour’s Hitchin and Harpenden parliamentary candidate John Hayes
PUBLISHED: 07:48 26 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:50 08 June 2017
A cooling wind blows as an antidote to the unexpected heat of the afternoon.
A pleasant mauve sunset is set to usher in a still evening where the lure of a beer garden entices many.
A large group of people has gathered outside a Hitchin pub on Monday evening, a matter of unknowing hours before the dreadful terror attack in Manchester plunged the country into mourning – with all parties agreeing to suspend campaigning out of respect for the victims.
Monday’s early evening group is made up of young and old, male and female – different races, nationalities and creeds.
The tone is relaxed, jovial even. But they are there to work. To put in a shift knocking on doors and wearing out shoe leather.
For they are there to support the official Labour candidate for Hitchin and Harpenden, John Hayes.
Plans are firmed up as pockets of activists head to door-knock various streets in the centre of this town – which despite the poor county council results at the start of the month for the party, locally and nationally, still returned that rare thing – a Labour politician, in Judi Billing.
John, a headmaster in London who lives locally, is ready for action. He strides purposely from door to door, canvassing opinion and spreading the word through leaflets,
A man with a lilting north-east accent comes to the door. Before John has even had time to ask him to consider voting for Labour, the man replies he has always voted for the party.
He says: “I suppose it comes from my working class roots. The north-east built ships, it had coal. Things have changed but I’d never consider voting Conservative.
“I’ve done OK for myself. I’ve got a nice house, we live in a middle-class area – but many people are only ever one or two monthly pay checks from being in big trouble.”
The C word rears its head. The man reflects the recent surge in support for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that has seen him pull to within 11 points of Theresa May.
This comeback has had social campaigner and legendary film maker Ken Loach – who made Corbyn’s election video – suggest that the reason for the boost is that people are seeing Corbyn for what he is, a decent guy with fair policies.
The man from the north-east agrees. He says: “I don’t understand the criticism Corbyn gets. He is a good guy with a social conscience who cares about social justice.
“I don’t think Theresa May is necessarily that bad. Not compared to people like Boris Johnson – and what a sad state of affairs this country is in when you consider he could have been Prime Minister had things turned out differently.
“Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society. But there is. There is a deep sense of community in many places in this country, including Hitchin. And I think that is one of the reasons why people are actively supporting Labour under Corbyn in the town.”
But what does John think of Corbyn?
I note his body language. It is not defensive but relaxed. He would have known the question was coming, but his answer seems to indicate he genuinely believes in his leader.
He says: “He’s got ideas that fit – they’re ideas the country needs. And he sticks with them, and he’s fantastically resilient, and he sticks to his values. He was given a mandate twice by the membership.
“I think he has vision he shares with people. I think he’s got the right idea. I think he puts them across with passion and determination – and that’s what I’m looking for in a leader.”
So why on earth is he 11 points behind in the polls?
“Perhaps he hasn’t yet found resonance with the general public. But it is improving. Why? I don’t know. But I do think there are people who are very quick to dismiss him on things they have read rather than judge him for themselves.
“I think generally what people want to see from a politician is an ease in front of the camera and a particular way of putting themselves across that they’ve been used to over the years.
“I’m not old enough to remember the old-stager Labour politicians before everyone was filmed and videoed – but I don’t know if they would come across as glossy, and shiny and word-perfect. I doubt it.”
Yet with Theresa May attracting opprobrium and derision on Monday in equal measure for her unprecedented and hasty U-turn on a core component of her manifesto – social care – only four days after it was launched, the political spotlight for the first time turned onto her leadership rather than Corbyn’s.
With every passing argument about May now considering imposing a cap on social care for the elderly – after insisting only days earlier that was not to be the case – the PM has looked increasingly uncertain and exasperated, as a central plank of her policy has shifted substantially.
The change of heart has been a gift to Labour. The irony has not been lost on many that Labour leader Corbyn has been swift to strike – calling it a ‘dementia tax’ and accusing the government of being in chaos and confusion.
The decision has seen her leadership style come into focus for perhaps the first time – not just during the election, but since she took over as premier last summer. And she has looked rattled, leaving her ‘strong and stable’ leadership mantra – repeated ad nasuem recently – sounding rather hollow, not to mention ‘weak and wobbly’.
What does John think of her?
“I’ve only seen her on the TV,” he says.
“It’s difficult to be completely objective as she’s leader of the Tory party. But I would find it difficult to warm to her. She doesn’t come across as someone you’d want to have a dinner party with.
“I don’t want negative campaigning – I want to explain why people should vote for the Labour Party, for our good policies that are costed. I don’t want to say ‘you’re awful’, but it’s difficult because some of the stuff they say is so awful that you feel you have to comment on it. But I don’t want this to be a personality campaign. I want this to be a campaign that will find the best MP for this constituency.”
As John carries on door-knocking, I ask: What the main issues people in Hitchin are concerned with?
“Schools, Brexit, Labour Party leadership – but also health,” he replies emphatically.
In terms of Brexit, how did he vote?
“I voted Remain. I felt we would be far better off staying inside the EU than leaving it. And I have to say I think on both sides the clarity of information provided was difficult to understand for most people. But it seemed to me on the balance of probabilities we were going to struggle outside the EU, compared to how we are doing inside it. I was very much of the view that there were certain things we had to reform.”
Does he believe in a second referendum?
“I don’t. Because we’ve been through this, we’ve done this. We lost – and we didn’t lose by much – but we did lose.
“I’m a democrat. No matter how watertight the arguments, the fact is it was put to the country and the country made a decision. If the vote had gone the other way and the Leavers had lost, would they be coming back a few years later to say ‘we’re in a worse mess – we need to do this again’? The Remainers would criticise them.
“I think you just have to say: ‘We lost, let’s move on and get the best possible deal we can’.”
But can the fact Theresa May’s leadership has come under fire translate into a boost for Corbyn and by association his party’s electoral chances? She didn’t look particularly strong on Monday night. And what did he think of the fact she campaigned for Remain before – an earlier U-turn?
“She did,” he replies. “It does seem to have been a little bit overlooked, that fact. There’s not an awful lot made of that – the fact an unelected leader voted Remain, but since then she has become a very keen Brexiteer. That’s an issue I feel hasn’t been properly exploited.
“With David Cameron stepping down after saying ‘that’s my policy – but you voted against it so I’m leaving’, she then stepped in having had the same view, and is prepared to lead the party through that. I think you’ve got be, shall we say, pretty ‘resilient’ to do that.
“But there’s not a huge amount of people pointing that out, or asking that question. I think it’s the same misinformation we saw throughout the EU campaign.
“Changing your mind is one thing, but vociferously campaigning for a direction for the country and then saying ‘OK, I’ll now vociferously campaign in the other direction...’? That just doesn’t impress me.”
John’s down-to-earth engaging manner makes you think he must be one of the nicest headteachers – and certainly one of the most committed and passionate – in the land. But why waste a good career by jumping into politics?
He takes the question in his stride, answering simply: “I don’t think it’s a waste.”
Of course the findings are random and unscientific, as they don’t measure anything other than the people who happened to answer their front door to John. But then with pollsters calling recent elections catastrophically incorrectly, why shouldn’t a straw poll act as a rough indication of how people will vote?
And the fact is that the majority of the large number of doors John knocked on during the time the Comet was with him told him they were Labour supporters.
He had barely time to finish introducing himself to some before they told him he would have their backing – along with other inhabitants in their home.
There were exceptions to rule. After John leafleted one door, a man practically barged past him holding the leaflet before slamming it into his bin in front of the 51-year-old.
John took it in his stride, thanking the man graciously for his time, before withdrawing. With an empathy and serenity borne from long years of teaching, he explained: “I think about if a Tory candidate knocked on my door, and how I’d feel – I’d want then to leave pretty quickly once I’d made it clear I wasn’t voting for them.”
Other practical hazards on the campaign trail include a large number of dogs barking loudly while John is on the doorstep. It doesn’t phase him as he says with a smile: “I haven’t been bitten yet, but I have worn away the skin on my knuckles posting leaflets through letterboxes.”
With 40,000 printed, he and his supporters have been busy.
A young man opens the door to John and says he is undecided as to which way he will vote. “Can I give you a leaflet?”, asks the Labour candidate.
The man takes it willingly and mentions he already has one from the Tories – a generic letter from Theresa May.
The voter appears far more impressed with John’s personal touch. He answers honestly: “I really don’t know who I’ll vote for. I need to learn more about the parties. But one thing is certain. I will vote.”
It is to floating and undecided voters like him John must appeal to.
“Even though he wasn’t sure about which way to vote, I like the fact he has thought about it,” considers John. As he knocks on more doors where the smell of cooking indicates someone is home but the door remains firmly shut, he makes a good point which says more about the psychology of the way we interact as human beings in the 21st century.
“How many times do people open the door expecting friends these days? We communicate by phone, laptop or tablet, by texting, or calling, or other social media platforms. A knock at the door is never seen as a good thing. No-one calls round for people socially anymore.”
It is an instructive point as unexpected knocks at the door invariably put the householder on edge these days – a fact which can make things harder on the campaign trail, for all parties.
But John carries on regardless through the undecided and the apathetic – ‘Is there anything that could make you vote?’, he asks one man in his 20s who answers the door with his dinner on the table behind him.
“No,” he replies firmly, shutting the door.
But for every unashamed apostate, there are thousands more who are voting.
The electoral commission says people have been registering at faster rates than before the Brexit referendum – with a staggering 2.3 million people successfully applying since the election was called on April 18.
With more than 90,000 young people registering in a single 24-hour period before the deadline closed earlier this week, what is the secret to encouraging more youngsters than ever to vote?
John says: “You have to engage with them. You have to go out and talk to them.”
And say what?
“Talk to them about what matters to their lives. The feedback is when you talk to them they’re interested.”
I ask him: he’s been out in Hitchin, he’s been out in Harpenden, have you noticed any particular areas favouring one party or the other?
He replies: “I couldn’t say I’ve got enough of a poll to tell you even anecdotally whether there are distinctly Tory or Labour areas.
“In fact some of the things that have most surprised me is you knock on doors and you start to think whether that person will vote one way or another. Some of the messages I’ve been picking up have quite surprised me. People you’d look at and think ‘I bet you’re a Tory’.
“Then they say: ‘No, don’t spend any time with me, I’m Labour – you go and spend time with someone you need to convince’. And vice versa.
“Twenty years ago you could pretty much look at someone and guess who’d they vote for and probably be right. Now it’s much harder to guess.
“People are much more nuanced in their approach. They’re looking at policies.
“If I thought the area was totally entrenched, then you’re right – I don’t think we’d have a case. But it’s not.”
What about the Lib Dems – they seem to have given up in Hitchin and Harpenden. Is that true?
“I don’t know,” says John “I haven’t seen an awful lot of them. I don’t know much about the candidate. I think he lives in Welywn and works out of the country in Brussels.”
John has so engaged people that he has a conversation on the pavement for 10 minutes with one man. He listens, he considers, he respects the person’s opinion, and he discusses. The man shakes his hand with warmth. Another Labour voter in the bag for John.
Two years ago the former Labour candidate Rachel Burgin improved the party’s share of the vote, and John is looking to build on the sterling hard yards Mrs Burgin put in during 2015. For if anyone can build on that work, it is John.
Honest, reasonable, John – quietly impressive in an typically British, understated way – is winning people over.
Whether it’s enough to win the seat is another matter entirely.
For music lover John – who lists Madness as his favourite band – the results on June 8 will tell if his dreams are One Step Beyond or whether he will be welcomed into Westminster’s House of Fun.
But it won’t be through lack of effort, or debate, or for that matter leadership, for his dignified leadership clearly inspires people – his team, and many on the doorstep.
As I leave this good-natured Labour supporter and aspiring parliamentarian, who also lists the Half Moon in Queen Street as his favourite pub in Hitchin, if he has a message for the voters of Hitchin and Harpenden.
He considers his answer, not through fear of tripping up – far from is – but because, as I have seen, he wants to best articulate what he wants to say to get he reasoned points across.
He says: “I think the Labour Party manifesto will strengthen this country and will bring a better and fairer society for the vast number of people who live here.
“People should consider voting for me because of me – and not simply put a tick in a box marked Labour. This vote is for this constituency’s representative in Parliament – to find the best person to do the job the best they can for all the right reasons.”
As the campaign trail hots up with Labour closing the lead on the Tories – both locally and anecdotally in this constituency – this correspondent, for one, simply can’t wait for what could be a crucial hustings night in Hitchin next week.
For based on the evidence of his personality and quality of his arguments, John Hayes is a man with a big chance to create his own political earthquake in unassuming North Herts.