Election focus: Hampshire answering

In the second part of a special two-part feature, Ian Dunt continues his journey in Hampshire, where certain seats might just decide the general election.

By Ian Dunt

To read the first part of this special two-part feature click here

I still don’t miss London. The days seem longer down here, and brighter. As I wake up I can hear birds tweeting outside the window, rather than sirens and garbage trucks.

Hampshire is basically lovely. But Eastleigh – not so much. Its characterless cul-de-sacs typify the more anaemic side of the county, less quiet than morose. A railway town at heart, with some pretty depressing areas around it, I never liked it as a kid and I still don’t like it now.

It’s down here that Chris Huhne, Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, is fighting Maria Hutchings, who I spoke to last time. Huhne has a slim majority, and Hutchings assures me his high media profile is actually a handicap down here. Perhaps, but his defeat would still be unthinkable to the Lib Dem high command.

“I don’t think that’s unthinkable at all,” he says. “The history of British politics is littered with high-profile figures who lost their seats Shirley William, for instance, or Chris Patten.

“I am not a nervous person. In fact, I’m pretty laid back generally, but I’m one of those people who tends to think one shouldn’t worry about things, because if you can do something about then do it, and if you can’t then don’t. I tend to take these things in a fairly philosophical manner.”

I tell him I always found the Lib Dems’ support down here somewhat surprising, that looking around at Hampshire you would assume it’s solid Tory. Huhne responds with an answer which implies Eastleigh and Hampshire are not exactly equivalent.

“The constituency was, for many years up until Thatcher’s promise of council house sales, a marginal Tory – Labour constituency,” he explains. “It was only Thatcher’s working class Tory vote that turned it into a safe Tory seat. We’ve got a lot of skilled working class voters and small business, self employed voters and they don’t much like David Cameron. They’re not convinced he’s one of them. These are not people who universally had their application to join the Bullingdon Club accepted.”

Huhne’s 568 majority may seem slim, but over in nearby Romsey and Southampton North, Sandra Gidley, the Lib Dem incumbent, would probably kill for it. Her majority, the slimmest for any Lib Dem, is an eye-watering 125. I meet her Tory challenger, Caroline Nokes, in a lovely pub garden in the heart of the constituency. I sip my beer and imagine my colleagues in Westminster and I still don’t miss London.

Nokes is pretty, much prettier than her pictures, but unmistakeably posh and rural. The ring tone on her personal phone has been set by her children, so our conversation is interrupted by strange child-like sound effects. It’s hugely endearing. We’ll see how long that ring tone lasts if she gets to Westminster. There’s very little about parliament that’s endearing.

Nokes is ambitious, but cautious about looking too far ahead. She’s lost this seat before, and by a tiny, spirit-crushing margin. I ask her if she could see herself in a frontbench role in the future, and she evades the question while basically answering in the affirmative. “First and foremost I have to win this seat back, and that will be my focus right up until 10pm on the sixth of May,” she insists. “Beyond that I’m not a chicken counter. Those eggs have to be hatched before I know what I’m doing. Just winning has been an enormous focus for eight years of my life. But I never make any bones about the fact I am quite a determined person.”

She admits David Cameron’s performance in the first leaders’ debate was “flat” but insists the mood is against a hung parliament, and that seems to be playing well for her.

“Those people who have raised the issue of a hung parliament are very scared of six to eight months prevarication. No-one has any appetite for a hung parliament.”

Things get interesting when I ask her what she thinks of her opponent, where she expresses the same accusations of negative campaigning as her fellow Tory candidates across Hampshire. “I don’t like it when it gets personal,” she says. “I really don’t like it. We try to rise above it very hard but that’s what I have to deal with.”

“So you feel it has become personal down here?” I ask.

“It’s always been personal here. I think it’s important not to denigrate the debate to that. What I’m focusing on exclusively in this campaign is a change of government.”

“How did it become personal?”

“I’m not even going to discuss it. I’m not going to go there.”

For the second time the accusation is made but I’m not told what prompted it. I want to give Gidley the chance to respond so I visit her as she canvasses in another part of the constituency. I tell her that her opponent thinks it has become personal. She seems genuinely shocked.

“What?” she exclaims. “I don’t think she [Nokes] understands politics to be quite honest. Yeah, we occasionally make a comment, but it’s politics.”

I ask if she agrees that it’s personal. There’s a long pause. “Well that depends on what you mean by personal. You are electing an individual, you’re not electing a party, so inevitably in any campaign there will be a blend of individual and party stuff. People want to know about their candidate and what he or she is doing. But if she’s saying it’s personal I do think it’s a bit strange. When you’re an MP every single thing you do is scrutinised. If you’re going for a job in public life your personal life is no longer personal.”

We pass by a house with a big Ukip poster in the window and Gidley hesitates, then decides not to visit. The man at the next door wants to show her his done-up 1960s motorbike. The fact I just used the word motorbike, instead of the actual model, reveals my utter lack of interest. Gidley’s eyes light up. “How many CCs is it?” she asks, and they spend the next 20 minutes merrily chatting away about all the girls her cousin used to bring home on the back of his bike when she was a teenager.

Later, I ask Gidley how she feels its going. “It’s so difficult to tell,” she replies. “You get a different feeling everywhere you go and it’s very hard to get a complete figure. At the beginning of the campaign, and prior to it, people were saying ‘I think you’re great MP but I might have to vote Tory this time to get Labour out’. The leaders’ debate changed that dynamic. We’ve got a lot more people now that seem to have made up their mind as a result of that debate. It feels as though things are coming our way slightly, but it’s so hard to call.”

Her experience of the hung parliament debate is altogether different to that of her opponent. “The fascinating thing I’m picking up is that people are talking about a hung parliament but it’s by no means something that’s an unpopular thought. It’s unpopular among committed Conservatives, obviously, because they want their party in power. But people are saying ‘you lot are always bickering, why can’t you work together?'”

The next door is answered by an elderly woman who wants to complain about suspended bus services over the Christmas break. It’s exactly the kind of local politics that makes Westminster journalists want to tear out their own spine, but I end up being quite affected. “It’s like being in prison,” she says. She’s very sweet and good natured, and lives on her own, and I get a sinking image of her at Christmas, stuck in the house with no-one to talk to. I make a mental note not to be so dismissive, but with reservations – it’ll take more than that to make me care about potholes. “I’m acutely aware of the problem,” Gidley tells her, “but I have limited power to deal with it. It’s not really a parliamentary thing.” If I had to take a guess I’d say Gidley does actually care about this old woman’s bus.

I leave her to it. In the fields across the road there’s a beautiful horse grazing just by the fence. I walk over to it and try to stroke it but it reciprocates by trying to bite both my arms. It drools all over my suit and then walks away dismissively. As I try to wipe its spit off my sleeves, the old lady’s bus drives by, and a couple of old people look at me through the window like I’m completely out of my element.

And then it hits me: I miss London. I retreat to Winchester train station for the journey home, past Churchill’s newsagent, which used to sell penny sweets in old plastic containers, as if nothing had changed since Victorian times, past the Railway Inn, where we used to try to buy drinks when we were underage, past the old house of a school friend where I used to spend most of the summer. I feel nostalgic, but I miss the sounds of sirens and garbage trucks, and I miss the strange, liberating indifference of the capital.

On the train home I get to thinking that Hampshire is just like all of Britain: confounding, contradictory and ultimately sensible, but only when pushed to it. Britons always find a way to surprise you. There are plenty of little-Englanders in Hampshire, but there’s plenty of kindness and tolerance too. Nearly everyone you ask here would value tradition as a concept, but the people are not tied to any particular party. Economically, the area is Tory, but my hunch is that there’s something in its character, in its attitude, which gives the Lib Dems a foothold here.

The Golden Triangle might be broken come next Thursday, but I would be surprised if it is shattered altogether. Tory HQ’s recent decision to target extra Labour seats suggests they might have given up on this area and want to capitalise on the disintegration of the governing party. They’ll need a total breakdown in the Labour vote in the north to be able to counter a firm Lib Dem defence in the south.

For all its faults, you can’t help but love Hampshire’s modest bloody-mindedness. It’s not a mistress to anyone. You can leave Hampshire, and you can not look back. But if you’re lucky, a little bit of Hampshire’s attitude stays with you.