Robert Halfon’s campaign for re-election in marginal Harlow may offer solutions to some of the Conservatives’ biggest electoral problems
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.”
It was by focusing on popular causes and downplaying party-political differences that Halfon became an unlikely star of the last parliament, running campaigns on local and national issues that attracted levels of attention most backbenchers only dream of. In Downing Street they joked of a “Halfon-meter”, calculating the cost of the various commitments he forced the government into making. David Cameron called him the “most expensive MP in parliament” for successful campaigns on freezing fuel duty and cutting the bingo tax. So effective was Halfon that George Osborne gave him a foot on the bottom rung of government by making him his parliamentary private secretary. The promotion was part endorsement, part attempt to muzzle one of the party’s loudest voices.
Before this rising star’s career can go any further he must secure re-election. In 2010 he won 45 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 34 per cent. A constituency poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft and conducted three weeks before polling day put the Conservatives on 44 per cent and Labour on 34 per cent. That is an impressive margin in a seat where UKIP’s vote has soared from 4 to 16 per cent and Liberal Democrat support has slumped from 14 to 3 per cent. But, as politicians are fond of saying, there is only one poll that matters and that is the one on May 7, after this magazine goes to press.
In 1951, Harlow was the future. That was the year The Lawn was finished. It was Britain’s first residential tower block. Each of its ten floors had two one-bedroom flats and two bedsits. Protrusions on two of the block’s corners meant every flat had a south-facing balcony. This was the New Jerusalem. Along with Hemel Hempstead, Basildon and Stevenage, Harlow was a ‘Phase I’ new town, promised in the New Towns Act 1946 and planned by Sir Frederick Gibberd, architect of The Lawn, as a new home for East Enders from cramped terraced houses and streets scarred by the Blitz. Socially engineered and centrally planned, Harlow typified the post-war consensus. The country’s first pedestrian shopping precinct, a leisure centre, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a dry ski slope, Henry Moore sculptures: this was the good life once. Harlow was a staunchly Labour town, although part of the Conservative constituency of Epping until 1974 when it became a constituency in its own right, and elected a Labour MP.
In 1983, however, Harlow rejected what the Labour vision of the good life had become. The once-willing guinea pigs of the New Jerusalem elected a Conservative MP, Jerry Hayes. More than anything else, Right to Buy transformed the town. In 1979, Harlow District Council owned 21,000 dwellings, around two-thirds of the town’s housing stock. Today, it owns fewer than 10,000. That is still a lot, particularly for a Conservative-held seat.
But Right to Buy has never been a question of housing policy alone. Margaret Thatcher had places like Harlow in mind when in 1986 she said: “The great Tory reform of this century is to enable more and more people to own property. Popular capitalism is nothing less than a crusade to enfranchise the many in the economic life of the nation. We Conservatives are returning power to the people. That is the way to one nation, one people.” This Essex town, built as an orderly socialist utopia, had become home to the white van man and the kind of garish individualism that, to many, including some Tories, typified everything that was wrong with Thatcherism.
Halfon embraces that garishness. His campaign’s battle bus is a white van with his face on the side and loudspeakers on the roof through which he blasts “Eye of the Tiger”, the brash Eighties rock song from Rocky III.
Since 1983, Harlow has been a bellwether seat, only reverting to Labour in 1997, when Tony Blair presented a centre-left proposition that accepted many of the tenets of Thatcherism that had been so appealing to Middle England. It was Middle England — places like Harlow — that David Cameron would have hoped was listening when he launched the Conservative manifesto last month. “We are the party of working people,” he said, “offering you security at every stage of your life.”
If Robert Halfon managed to tear himself away from the roadside to listen to Cameron’s manifesto-launch speech, a lot of what he heard would have sounded familiar: an extension of the right to buy, a further rise in the tax-free allowance and a statutory guarantee that no one on the minimum wage should pay income tax. “For millions of workers,” Cameron said, “the Conservatives are not just the party of low income tax, but the party of no income tax.” Late in the day, he opted for an optimistic vision for Britain under the Conservatives, moving away from the party’s narrow focus on economic stewardship. It was a last-ditch attempt to persuade voters that the Tories were on their side.
A growing economy, record numbers of jobs, zero inflation, a more popular leader than Labour’s: these are the things this Conservative campaign has had going for it. Yet, as this magazine went to press, the party did not seem close to winning a majority. This is the enigma that has locked the Conservatives out of majority government for decades. What appears to be missing is a confidence among voters that the Conservatives are on their side. Proof of that was the spectacular way in which George Osborne’s early claim that “we’re all in this together” backfired.
Sometimes, the party does not help itself. Take, as a particularly flagrant earlier example, the response of Nicholas Ridley, Environment Secretary under Mrs Thatcher, son of the third Viscount Ridley and enthusiastic backer of the poll tax, to the suggestion that an elderly couple might find it difficult to pay the levy: “Well, they could always sell a picture.”
The electoral upheaval Britain is experiencing presents opportunities as well as challenges for the two largest parties. The rise of “the rest” — UKIP, the SNP and the Greens — has only been possible because voters have abandoning the tribal politics of the past. This means that Labour can no longer take for granted constituencies in northern and Scottish cities, and that the Conservatives’ southern heartlands are not as safe as they once were.
But voters thinking again about who they vote for means the electoral dividing lines between Labour and the Conservatives can also be redrawn. Political participation no longer takes the form of membership of a national political party; it means campaigning on particular issues, signing petitions and badgering people on Twitter, and it is in this context that Halfon has found such traction in parliament and in his constituency.
In Lessons From the Marginals, a 2012 Conservative Home pamphlet edited by fellow Tory MP Jesse Norman, Halfon made the point to his colleagues that “there is no such thing as ‘not Natural Tory territory’.” In local campaigning terms, this means blanket leafleting rather than the targeted approach most candidates favour. “You cannot assume a household is a ‘Conservative’ or a ‘Labour’ one, even if it has voted in one direction for 15 years . . . A ‘core vote’ strategy of targeting just individual houses can miss thousands of possible voters.” This lesson is as applicable on a national scale as it is on a local one.
Sitting by the A414, Halfon describes to me an interaction he had at the last election. The same white van would drive past him every day of the campaign. Each time the men in it would come up with some imaginative new way of insulting him. One day it was a simple V-sign, the next a water balloon hurled at him. On election day the van pulled over and stopped next to him. “I was worried they were going to beat me up,” he says. “Instead they came over, shook my hand, slapped me on the back and told me they were going to vote for me.”