by Pete Doubleday
I managed one campaign speech in the Oxford Union (to an audience of twenty-five). This was after Finals, a tired and emotional time, and I’m afraid I can’t remember a damned thing I said – matters were not helped by my drinking a bottle of wine in one at the beginning of my fifty minute diatribe (especially extended in a fit of drunken rage to teach the late-corners a lesson). I think I was relatively coherent, although the only memories I have are of dragging half of the audience around the hall in order to prove some violent and entirely irrelevant points to do with education. Ah me; I confess to a failure of nerve. I was supposed to bring the empty bottle crashing down onto the table, yelling “SMASH THE SYSTEM”, but well… the bloke who’d have been left with the task of clearing it up seemed such a nice chap. I also failed to turn up at the Count in shorts and boxing gloves, where I intended to walk over to Patten on his inevitable victory and punch him in the face. I even failed to roam the streets of Oxford with a billboard stating “Repent The end of the world is nigh: So why not cap a wasted day by voting Aardvark?” I had had problems enough summoning up the courage to do this for the JCR Presidential Election. Indeed, I did no street canvassing at all, feeling in a singularly depressed mood for several days after Finals. I sat in my room listening to Schmidt’s Fourth and thinking “what’s he got to worry about? A dead daughter – so what?” This is not the ideal state in which to force oneself to do something both embarrassing and pointless. I am therefore left with a thousand campaign leaflets I printed, but had no need for. Any suggestions?
So, finally, I found myself at the Count, having not been able to vote for myself because I wasn’t even registered, where I learn that I am left with four hours of mind-boggling tedium because no alcohol is allowed within fifty yards of the building… so I am not in a good mood when I wander down and chat to the Ecology Party candidate, a balding redheaded woman with the sexual charm of a condemned Rhesus monkey. Well, no harm in being polite, I supposed – I told you I was feeling off-form – so I wished her luck. “What, with all you stupid bastards standing in my way?”, she whined. I felt a little nonplussed. “I just thought I should wish you well; I was thinking of standing on a Greenpeace ticket myself”. “That’s the trouble with you maniacs, the only thought you have is to nick other people’s platforms”, she opined. This seemed a bit steep – when I registered as a candidate, I had no idea that any minor party other than the Monster Raving Loony was standing. “Er, that is, I hope you can build support for the cause”, I mumbled, beating a hasty retreat as she yelled something about irresponsible idiots who had no idea why they were standing. Remind me never to consider voting Ecology again.
Suitably off-balance, I proceeded to my interview over the radio. What a nice man this fellow was. Smiling all over his face, he asked me about my policies and how many votes I expected to get. I was beginning to feel a lot more comfortable – until he sprang the rather nasty comment on me that £150 could be construed as a lot of money down the drain at a time when three million unemployed would jump at that sort of sum… the mind boggles at this inane non-sequitur, but unfortunately, at the time, my mind was boggling through lack of sleep, and I failed to reply in suitably below-the-belt fashion. I forget what I said. Memo to self for future – always expect the worst in interviews – be on your guard. Next time he’ll be lucky to escape with his life, let alone his integrity.
And so I settled down to watch the Count itself, which proved surprisingly entertaining. This was largely due to the scrutineers. Most seemed to be there for the free sandwiches and coffee provided by their Party. One or two seemed to be more interested in scrutinising each other, and each other’s spouses – I’ll warrant there were a few sins against God’s law committed that night by the law-abiding Conservatives. At least one stout lady was too stout for her own good, and keeled over backwards off her chair, necessitating six of her fellows leaving the room dragging her carcass. I even got my chance to get one back on the Ecology woman, during the fascinating check-up of putative disqualified ballots. These are an interesting topic in themselves, and I’m exposing myself to a three month prison sentence by talking about them to you. They ranged from the “proportional representation” ballots, allowed on the grounds that the voter might be an Irish immigrant – but what if he were a loony who regarded “8” as an intrinsically higher mark than “1”? – to very shaky crosses indeed, sometimes almost indecipherable, which were allowed because they were probably some old dear doing “her best” through the blear of myopia, arthritis, and incipient massive systemic failure. Having duly noted on these that Ms Ecology seemed most concerned that “every citizen should have the right to express a democratic vote” – which didn’t seem to apply to those who indicated their choice by a sketched penis – I proceeded to extend the debate by about half an hour through arguing against every line she took. What gave me most pleasure was the batch of initialled ballots which she wanted disqualified under the rule that no voter should be identifiable. I argued, successfully, that there were probably a hundred of more voters with the initials “PMD” in the constituency, and that since the voter was ultimately traceable by the counterfoil on the ballot in any case, the question was meaningless.
Most spoilt ballots of any complex nature were those where the voter had scribbled some such comment as “Whales are a sacred trust”, “These swine are all selling the natural world down the river”, “don’t vote it only encourages them to rape the world”… you get the typical drift. Not surprisingly, the Ecology party was for these ballots, and I was thus faute de mieux agin. I lost, without much regret. Mind you, I fail to see why anyone should see much point in these pitiably unpublicised statements. Other little gems were the twits who voted for two candidates – I argued against these, despite having three shared with Patten and one with Jacottet (Labour), which I thought was most upstanding of me. Even more unintelligible was the man who neatly marked up for Luard (SDP) and proceeded to write the word ‘Bastard’ by Patten’s name – but why SDP? Perhaps he was privy to information about Patten’s blood group that was hitherto unknown, and chose this, non-libellous, method to publicise his findings. It was duly allowed, over Tory protests. The Tories proved sticklers for the letter of the rules in every case, while the Labour men only concerned themselves with those cases where one of their own votes was about to be disqualified, or a Tory vote allowed through. The Aardvark treated spoilt ballots, just like every other part of the election, as a silly game with ill-defined rules.
And finally… 86 votes. Only 86?? This was but a fifth of the Ecology vote, which clearly was not based on the charisma of the candidate, although I have a horrible feeling there are far too many righteous prigs of her ilk hidden away in the trendy-ghettos of Oxford. Still one more chance to get my own back, though: the final speeches, transmitted over the radio, enabled each candidate in turn to sum up his campaign. Patten droned on about the ‘historic traditions’ of the two halves of the constituency. Luard (SDP) produced a dazzling array of statistics, mingling nation-wide with local without any clear boundary, to prove that the election both as a whole and in particular here had been a moral, theoretical and emotional victory for the SDP (no matter that even most of their leadership had been blown away), while Jacottet (Lab) screamed “Comrades” at every opportunity, ignoring everyone in the hall but his own tight band of support. “Comrades”, he said, “We have built a formidable organisation in this new ward (presumably not referring to his habit of pub brawling, which has got him ejected from five in Abingdon. Curious how Labour picks ‘em in hopeless wards, eh?) to build on in the future (i.e. we lost this one good and proper)”; or how about this one? – “Comrades, I told you this would happen. The f…..SDP have only succeeded in splitting the anti-Thatcher vote. Free choice indeed!” (Let’s recap on the figures: Con 24,000, SDP 17,000 Lab 7,000. Well, Jules, you appear to have hit the nail right on the head there). Clearly the absence of alcohol was affecting him adversely. I can’t remember what the Ecology woman said, but I woke up for the unemployment candidate, who was a very pleasant bloke who’d “just wanted to draw attention to the plight of the unemployed” – poor fellow; I can’t see what use a General Election is for that. Cerebus thanked all who had aided his pathetic, feeble campaign and acknowledged the last speaker, since (as a Finalist) he was due to join the unemployed in four weeks. He noted that Mr Patten had said nothing of the traditions of the old University seat, abolished by Attlee in 1947, but hoped both that the new incumbent would follow in the footsteps of such weirdies as AP Herbert and that the new, traditionalist government would restore the seat, thus giving the Aardvark Party a chance to rerun the campaign with most of the current candidates missing and, hopefully, even win. Finally, he noted that, if the two main opposition parties had sacrificed their candidates, he would have cleaned up the anti- Thatcher vote as the only credible alternative. The meeting was then adjourned so that these present could scrutinise their living rooms, bedrooms and any other nooks and crannies that might become apparent.
“I heard the result on Radio Oxford yesterday – congratulations”, said my cricket captain. “Oh yes”, I said, “what did you think of my speech?” “What speech?”, he said, “They cut to music after the Labour fellow”.
And what did I get out of it? Well, it kept me sane during Finals and things in general. I got to be hailed by people I’d never even seen before as “Cerebus”. I don’t know. Just count it as the nearest to the pointlessly aesthetic that I’ll ever manage.
SA By one of those curious coincidences which fate occasionally throws at you, I happen to know the Ecology Party candidate referred to quite well! I was attending a MCR (Middle Common Room) dinner in late 83 with someone else’s girlfriend (Stewart Cross’s girlfriend actually… it’s a long story) and got chatting to this rather drunk redhead next to me in a leather dress called Suzette, who was indeed the Ecology Party candidate. When we retired for port etc. I spent quite a while talking to her husband, Tom, and over the following months got to know them quite well. Tom had done a couple of years at Ruskin College on a Trades Union scholarship and was now at my college (Wadham) doing a English degree. I haven’t seen Tom and Suzette for about three years now – though we did go on holiday with them back in 1995. Odd to think that I was in Oxford at the time of Pete’s candidture for Parliament and I wasn’t even aware of it – shows how much the General Election failed to penetrate my student consciousness.
Reprinted from Thing No.18 – July 1983