There is a story about Tony Blair on the eve of the 1997 election result that has acquired legendary status in some circles, even if the details of the anecdote seem to vary in each retelling.
Blair was flying to London from his constituency home, or was being driven in the capital, or was in bed next to his wife, when the results for the seat of Hove flashed on screen, or came on the radio, or were relayed to him by aides. “Hove! We’ve won Hove!” Blair is said to have said to colleagues, or to a slumbering Cherie. “Now I know I can win!”
Nobody takes Hove for granted any more, and for one very particular reason. Since that dramatic night in May 1997, the constituency – the more grown-up sibling to noisily adolescent Brighton to the east – has become one of the most accurate bellwether seats in predicting the national winner, with Labour taking the seat in 2001 and 2005, and the Tories securing a slim majority five years later; in 2010, the vote share in Hove was closer than anywhere else in the country to the national result, and local polls continue to show a distribution that echoes the countrywide picture.
If you can win in Hove, on the evidence of every election since 1979, Downing Street is very likely to be yours.
And so, on a bright but blustery afternoon, a group of eight or so energetic volunteers marshalled by a clipboard-wielding co-ordinator are knocking on doors in the working-class area of Portslade to press the case for Labour. Every few doors, where residents seemed willing to chat, the party’s candidate, Peter Kyle, steps forward to introduce himself.
Is she a Labour voter, he asks one woman rushing out to collect her children from school. “I used to be, years ago.” And now? “I don’t feel I’m represented, to be honest.” This is an extremely marginal seat, says Kyle, and if he doesn’t get enough votes she will end up with a Conservative MP. “Yes, well, I have to vote for what I believe in,” says the woman.
It is voters like her, and the man at the top of the street who says he’s not interested in politics but why does this area never get any decent road maintenance, whom activists across the country will be trying to persuade to turn out to vote for representatives of all parties in 38 days’ time. With parliament now suspended, the election campaign has at last officially started – though as any candidate will tell you, they have been at full tilt for months now.
In Labour’s case, these are the people to whom Ed Miliband was speaking when he urged candidates and campaigners to conduct “four million doorstep conversations” to help inch the party, vote by vote, back to power. To Kyle, an almost impossibly charismatic charity chief executive and former aid worker (and special adviser), that is “a very modest ambition – I feel that we’ve done that many in Hove!”
Kyle acknowledges that he has received “tremendous support” from the central party, alongside significant donations from, among others, Lord Oakeshott (the former Liberal Democrat, now independent peer), a local property developer and Tony Blair (“So the bodies and the wars didn’t mean anything to you?” one angry local demands on the doorstep). It shows in his campaign, which boasts a large, bustling office – complete with meeting area, admin office and wine chiller – in the heart of Hove’s main strip, and which can muster up to 70 volunteers every Saturday for door-knocking and leafleting duties.
It’s a markedly quieter story a short distance away, on a less glamorous street, at the office of the Conservative candidate Graham Cox, where the leaflets are piled almost to the door and a single young volunteer is stuffing a bundle of 300 into a backpack, while one or two staff busy themselves with administration. Cox is far from a political lifer – Hove born and bred, he was a senior officer in Sussex police, retiring as head of CID at the force, after which he stood as a councillor in his home ward.
He sees this, needless to say, as a huge advantage, and thinks if elected he would be the first MP ever to have served 30 years in the police. A quietly spoken and instantly likeable character, he was persuaded to stand as the parliamentary candidate for the Tories after his friend Mike Weatherley, the current MP, stood down after being treated for cancer.
It means, to his credit, that he occasionally says the sort of thing one doesn’t often hear from political candidates. He insists he won’t get into “horrible dog-whistle stuff” about immigration, for instance, and describes himself as “pro-development” to meet the housing shortage. “If that means you’re not going to vote for me, well I’ve had my career, but I want to do what I think is the right thing, and if that means it costs me votes, it costs me votes.”
Three decades in the police has had the added advantage of making him “phlegmatic” about his posters being repeatedly vandalised, he adds cheerfully. “It’s very difficult for them to say something that’s worse than what I’ve heard in my professional life.”
Of course, appealing as it is to focus on one constituency in the hope of gaining insights into the most unpredictable general election in recent times, the predictive ability of any one seat is decidedly limited.
Realistically, Hove will either turn red or blue, but if general elections ever came down to a clear two- or three-party split, that is certainly not the case in the patchwork election of 2015, with the two biggest national parties contesting marginals against the Lib Dems, SNP, Ukip, Greens and Plaid Cymru on issues that vary widely across the country. “One of the things that makes this election so devilishly hard to call,” says YouGov’s Peter Kellner, “is because one is trying to pin down four or five different swing phenomena in order to add totals up and get to the right result.”
Bellwether seats, he says, “are indicative in the sense that the typical marginal has a Labour bit and a Conservative bit, if one is talking about Lab-Con marginals, and so they are, in microcosm, a reasonably broad representation, at least of England.” But local issues often make this instantly problematic, he says – the fact that Weatherley is standing down, for instance, means Hove Tories can’t count on a small but significant “incumbency bonus” that may be a factor elsewhere.
And certainly it is the local issues in Hove – the shortage of school places, the tatty leisure centre on the main beachside strip, the high cost of housing, parking charges – that voters mention again and again when asked how they will be making up their mind on 7 May. The Green party has a presence here it could only dream of nationally, although the Green-led council in Brighton and Hove is a divisive subject after a notorious strike by refuse workers in the summer of 2013 led to rubbish piled high in the streets.
“There’s no hiding that there’s been tension between the national campaign and the reality of being in government locally,” says Ollie Sykes, a Hove Green councillor who has been campaigning with the party’s parliamentary candidate, Christopher Hawtree. He insists, however, that the reason behind the dispute – the council belatedly complying with fair-pay legislation – was both unavoidable and, long-term, a success.
An Ashcroft poll had the party at 12% in Hove last October (the Green candidate got 5.2% in 2010) with Ukip at 11%. The Lib Dems’ vote share had collapsed from 23% in the last election to a poll rating of 6%, and indeed, in a full day talking to residents, that party’s name was barely mentioned.
“I’ll make my mind up based on a lot of issues,” says John Hewitt, a semi-retired counsellor walking from the wind-battered beach-front to Hove’s main shopping strip. Hewitt was brought up Labour but says he is considering voting Conservative for the first time in his life – “a very strange feeling”. When he listens to the radio commentators, he says, “[the two main parties] seem to be six of one and half a dozen of the other. I suppose my wife and I are both floaty voters.”
“The people who decide the election, I do think the local stuff is important to them and that’s how they will make up their minds,” says Cox. He feels clear that whoever wins in Hove will win overall – “though I suppose the Scotland thing might mess that up”. Is he confident? “I think it’s going to be very close.”
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