Political pit-stop: Robert Halfon and volunteer Hannah Ellis campaigning by the roadside in Harlow, Essex (photo: Oliver Wiseman)
In election season, politicians can crop up in all sorts of unlikely places. One such place is outside a petrol station on the A414, where Robert Halfon is hard at work. As part of his bid for re-election, the Conservative candidate for Harlow, the Essex marginal constituency he first contested in 2001 and which he finally won in 2010, is sitting on a stool propping up a sign with his name and the name of his party on it. Standing next to him is Hannah Ellis, a student volunteering on his campaign. “Cutting fuel duty” reads the sign she is holding. Lying in the grass is another placard: “Championing jobs and apprenticeships” it boasts. A white van hurtles past, blasting a series of short beeps Halfon’s way. Two men in the van show him a thumbs up; a third is asleep.
Despite the way television, the internet and social media have changed politics, the mainstay of most candidates’ campaigns remains knocking on doors. Folding leaflets, stuffing envelopes, avoiding angry dogs, remembering to shut the gate — these are the nuts and bolts of the fight for a seat in the House of Commons, and this is what most candidates have been doing every day for months. A disability means Halfon must rely on crutches to get around, making meeting voters door-by-door difficult. So he sits by the road instead.
He will sit there most mornings and evenings, sometimes for as long as three hours, waving at the rush-hour traffic, acknowledging friendly drivers and diplomatically ignoring those whose response is less positive. Halfon brushes aside my suggestion that just sitting there for up to six hours a day might not be the best use of his time. “This is the most effective form of campaigning I’ve ever done,” he tells me. “Think how many cars go past this spot.”
“Tosser” — the verdict of a cyclist who trundled past — is the most hostile response I witness, while many cars, from Minis to Mercedes, regularly beep in approval.
Halfon’s roadside vigil is a fitting campaign tactic for a man who last year said he thought the Conservative Party should rename itself the Workers’ Party and that the party’s tree logo — a product of Cameron’s modernisation — should be replaced with a ladder, representing hard work and social mobility. In an article for the Fabian Society he wrote: “Who is ready to stand up and say to working people on average earnings of £27,000 that the £1,200 a year you pay every year out of your taxes to pay the wages of benefit claimants (not even including the state pension) is high enough and should be reduced? Who is really going to speak up for those families across Britain where one partner goes out to work at 6am in their vans, and comes back home at 7pm? When their partner or spouse goes out to work at night?”
Therein lies the logic behind his campaign tactic. The message it sends is clear: “You are up early, working hard. I am on your side.” As Halfon puts it, “The customers love it because they love to see you working hard.” It is an act of solidarity with the little man and woman.
The issues Harlow residents say they are worried about are typical of the country: the NHS, immigration, welfare, the economy. Halfon’s campaign literature is, however, notably free of the Cameron-versus-Miliband “don’t let Labour and the SNP wreck things” rhetoric that has defined the party’s national campaign. “I very rarely mention Labour,” he tells me as he waves at a Vauxhall driver. “I just campaign on my own record.”
On one leaflet, in “a message to the residents of Harlow”, Halfon writes: “The many residents who are backing me at this election are from every walk of life, including supporters of Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP. This is because whatever people’s own views, they know that I am an MP that loves Harlow, stands up for Harlow and works hard for Harlow.”
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