The Poles are dodgy, but so is the Labour vote
Certainly Greenwich has had an air of rumour, mystery, supposition about it for an unusually long time, as if the local people nearly remembered some conclusive fact about the place. There is, for instance, the unresolved question of the burial ground . . . . (Beryl Platts, A History of Greenwich, 1973)
his long-standing air of rumour, men- tioned by Miss Platts in her chapter about Roman Greenwich, has worsened since the death of Mr Guy Barnett, the sitting Labour MP, on Christmas Eve last year. Since then, and particularly since the date of the by-election was fixed as Thursday 26 February, Greenwich has been thick with rumours.
These are not dispelled by the daily press conferences given by the Labour, Con- servative and SDP candidates. One can, however, learn at the press conferences what the rumours are, because they are invariably contradicted. So on Monday, Mr Bryan Gould said at Labour's confer- ence, earliest of the day, that there is 'no evidence of any erosion' of Labour sup- port, which means other people say there is evidence. Half an hour later, the Con- servative candidate told us, `I know that I can and will be the next Member for Greenwich,' which means that others say he can't and won't be. Half an hour after that, nobody at the SDP press conference would predict that their candidate will win. Mr John Cartwright dismissed such predic- tions as `the old politics'. This means that rumours of an SDP victory are in the air.
If that happens, it will be bad luck on the Conservative candidate, for in recent years Greenwich appeared to be becoming a Tory seat. The Labour majority of nearly 10,000 at the two elections in 1974 had been reduced to little more than 1,000 in 1983. Perhaps this had something to do with changes noted by Miss Platts in the new edition of her History (Procter Press, £4.95): 'In some ways Greenwich is a more prosperous place than it was in 1972 . . . . The shopping streets have lost that air of despair and decay which characterised the post-war years, and fewer traders now go bankrupt.'
But a by-election during a Tory govern- ment is not the moment when a Tory candidate has much hope of getting another 1,000 votes. Although the SDP was 4,500 votes behind Mr Barnett in 1983, in such a contest it has more chance than the Tories of defeating Labour. On the other hand, a sound Labour candidate is best placed comfortably to defeat every- one. If he had not already won Fulham, where Labour came second at the last general election, Mr Nick Raynsford would win Greenwich for them very com- fortably indeed.
Miss Deirdre Wood is not sound. `Sound' in this context means not merely moderate but coherent. Signs of incoher- ence in Miss Wood's position were appa- rent as soon as she had been selected. She supported the formation of black sections in the Labour Party, `but I also support Labour Party policy which is not to have black sections': Last Sunday, the News of the World, under the headline 'Deirdre's Big Fat Fib!', accused her of inconsistency about her own age. The double-page spread included pictures of her birth cer- tificate, which shows that she is 44, and of Mr Hattersley cutting the cake earlier this month at her 'fortieth' birthday party. A more trivial story is hard to imagine, but it is not one a sound candidate would give the press a chance to lay their hands on.
All three candidates in the campaign talk humbug about their desire to campaign on `policies' rather than 'personalities'. They are quite happy to draw attention to such aspects of their personal lives as they expect to find favour with the voters. Impossible to spend long with Miss Wood without discovering that she is a mother, or with Mr John Antcliffe, the Tory, without learning that he has lived in the constituen- cy for a long time. But the best thing in this line came from Miss Rosie Barnes, the SDP candidate. `I'm one of those rather old-fashioned people who's been married for 20 years to the same person,' she said sweetly, sitting next to Miss Wood, who happens to be one of those rather modern, twice-married people.
There is a wider humbug in the pretence that personalities can ever be entirely divorced from policies, as if the effective- ness of a given policy did not depend on the character of the person carrying it out. To feed the electors nothing but an ab- stract programme would not only bore them, it would fail to tell them all they need to know to make a choice.
Some, of course, have already decided: 'I'll vote Labour,' a man in the Ship and Billet told me. `I think they're all the same really but you know, you vote according to habit. My family's always voted Labour, it's just the done thing.' But not all the Labour vote is so solid: `I object to my money going to gay communities,' a lady said. She had told the Alliance canvassers that she would support their candidate, but now confessed that she was not yet sure. Another Labour voter said: 'Labour will get it, knowing this area, but by a much reduced majority. The SDP are just a load of turncoats, but I don't like the leftist candidate.' The half a dozen wavering Labour voters I met all intend to go over to the SDP, if they go anywhere, but I doubt whether anyone except the SDP will think my sample large enough to be statistically valid. I myself am uncertain how to 're- apportion' the liars, lunatics and conscien- tious objectors to the practice of voting among my 27-strong sample. But lest the expert market researchers should question the underlying validity of my field work, I should point out that it is based on a random sample of people not only in the Ship and Billet, but also in Olive's Café, and the British Oak.
A curiosity of the more official opinion polls (generally derided as `dodgy Poles', as if they were an untrustworthy but highly influential group of immigrants, whenever they fail to favour the preferred candidate of the speaker), is that dodgy or not (and genuine dodginess will increase over the next few days), they tend to show a higher proportion of Labour voters at the last general election than there actually was. The people of Greenwich think themselves more wedded to the Labour Party than they are. My guess is that by the end of next week, they will find they have di- vorced it in favour of the SDP.
That this can even be considered a serious possibility shows how far Mr Kin- nock is from making Labour indisputably the main opposition to the Conservatives at the next election. In Greenwich, Labour survives as an uneasy coalition between the old working class and activists belonging to the new, local-government Left. The grea- ter the successes of the latter, the more they tend to alienate what remains of the former. In this inherent tendency towards self-destruction lies the Alliance's best hope of one day replacing Labour.