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In the long run

The Liberal Democrat headquarters in St Albans - a handsome if rundown Victorian pile on the Hatfield road - was donated to the Liberals at the turn of the century by the Althorp family, which still owns large amounts of land in the area. The Lib Dem office upstairs seems to belong to an earlier, gentler time, with antiquated printing machinery churning out bright yellow leaflets in one room, and polite people with conviction politics eating fairy cakes in the other.

Their man - Anthony Rowlands is running late - possibly literally, as campaign material advertises that he has run several marathons, including one from St Albans to Westminster. Now he's gearing up for that journey again, propelled, he hopes, by the St Albans voters, who last time returned social security minister Peter Lilley with a majority of 16,000. He arrives, bounding up the stairs, his teenage daughter in tow and briefcase in hand.

Anthony Rowlands, a 44-year-old history teacher, has been a Liberal since his student days, when he went on a scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford,to study modern history. His first campaign was in the 1974 election, on the Tory-dominated Isle of Wight, supporting Liberal Stephen Ross against a sitting MP mired in corruption. Then, the Conservative majority of 17,000 was transformed into a Liberal one of 7, 000.

Anthony Rowlands hopes to turn water into wine once again, and overturn the substantial Tory majority in St Albans.

It may be less improbable than it sounds. Following recent boundary changes, incumbent MP Peter Lilley has departed for a neighbouring constituency. He leaves a legacy of widespread bad feeling, notably over the casualty department of the City Hospital, which he promised to keep open before the last election, but which was promptly closed after he was elected.

The Lib Dems control the city council, where the Conservatives no longer hold a single seat. Now they are campaigning hard to translate their local support into a national vote on May 1.

Labour has come third here in the past four general elections and Anthony Rowlands says the seat is "profoundly winnable". The re-drawn constituency is compact, measuring no more than six miles across at any point. Anthony Rowlands offers a lightning tour, in his dented Rover, and the old city centre quickly gives way to Victorian terraces, then Edwardian villas, then 1930s semis, beyond which lie undulating green fields.

Verulamium, as Roman St Albans was known, is only 20 miles from London. Good secondary schools and rapid rail links make it a popular and pricey place to live, with a high proportion of incomers. Teachers struggle to afford the mortgages.

Anthony Rowlands, neat in his pinstripe suit but with a showmanlike Lib Dem rosette on his lapel, appears to know every last avenue. He has sat on the city and county councils, and was deputy leader of the city council until last year. He points out poster boards in this garden and that, and a council house with mullioned windows on a corner site - excellent for poster visibility.

"This is the leafier part of St Albans," he says, letting through one of the legions of learner drivers who crawl around the quiet roads. "We get a gratifyingly large amount of support here." Then he jams on the brakes and leaps out of the car, yellow ribbons a-flutter, to have a word with an activist, Lily, who joined the Liberals in 1945.

Mr Rowlands' day job - teaching GCSE and A-level students at Dr Challoner's Grammar School in nearby Amersham, over the border in Buckinghamshire - remains open by arrangement. He has been on 0.8 of a timetable for the past year, and the plan to enter politics full-time is long held. "I've been talking to the school for two years, " he says. "Preparations have been made."

He finished the syllabus with his GCSE exam class the day he left the school, he says, and purposely has no A-level class sitting exams this year. "I hope soon to be an ex-teacher, " he says. But why does he want to be an MP? "I can do a good job," he says. "Eleven years in local government has given me an understanding of how things work. It's important that the MP has a proven local record." What about personal ambition? "To be an effective local MP is a perfectly respectable ambition," he says, sharply.

But isn't it demoralising, to put your all into a party which has no chance of gaining national power? "Liberal Democrat MPs have made a contribution completely out of proportion to their numbers, not least in education, " he says. "We've been drawing attention to it for 10 years. "

His recent teaching experience lends credence to Anthony Rowlands' pronouncements. "If you haven't got enough books for every child to have one, you can't set homework. Tony Blair says he wants to see more homework,but you can't do it out of thin air."

The Lib Dems have promised instant, lottery-style cash prizes for schools in the unlikely event of their taking power, and have promised to double spending on books and equipment. To underline this point, Anthony Rowlands has commissioned a mock-up of a giant cheque for #163;110,000, made out to a local secondary school. He is undoubtedly keen on the photo opportunity.

The Conservative Party leaflet promises that the Tory candidate, David Rutley, will "fight tirelessly" for the constituents. He will have to, to compete with Anthony Rowlands' relentless pursuit of local credibility. The spring edition of the St Albans Lib Dem newspaper pictures him variously with Paddy Ashdown, saving the trains, welcoming a new Lib Dem councillor, visiting a film studio, campaigning against the privatisation of a building research centre, grinning over the heads of children in a nursery, receiving a trophy from Liberal convert Emma Nicholson for successful membership recruitment, and running to Westminster for charity. Indefatigable? Or hyperactive?

He admits to sleeping only five hours a night, and says he has taken note of the advice on health and wellbeing given to candidates at the party conference. Which parts? "Trying to be organised, appreciating volunteers, not driving too much, because you're distracted, eating regularly. "

After lunch at Safeway - with supportive wife Harriet, also a teacher - Anthony Rowlands has arranged to canvass at a sheltered block for old people. Half a dozen people are sitting in a day room when he arrives, breathless and smiling. He shakes everybody's hand. "Sorry to be a few minutes late." As he sits down, his phone rings. "Would you excuse me? One of these awful mobile phones. I think I'll chuck it in the dustbin, " he says, darting out of the room to make further arrangements for Emma Nicholson's visit later in the week.

Fellow Lib Dem Diana Penton makes laboured conversation with the ladies. The warden brings cups of tea. AR isn't back.

Phyllis Evans, 82, complains about the focus on education in this election. "All they can think about is children," she says. "We had to bring up ours." The warden hands round buns, and Anthony Rowlands reappears. Giles, 89, remarks that Lloyd George was PM when he was born. AR's not sure. He thinks it was Asquith, with Lloyd George as Chancellor. "When was the last Liberal government?" asks Giles, tactlessly. "Long while ago, wasn't it?"

Bored with politics, the ladies wish to watch the Grand National. "When you think of it, how they used to die about 50, " says Mrs Evans, apropos of nothing in particular, "and all of us over 80."

Leaving a warm feelgood glow behind him, Anthony Rowlands departs for the doorsteps of a nearby close. He has a tentative canvassing manner, putting his head on one side, saying he's "obviously calling for the general election" and wondering if there are any issues the constituent would like to raise. He is deaf in one ear, which may contribute to the impression he gives of listening closely to people's concerns.

Number 16, who answers the door on her walking stick, has dislocated her hip three times since the local casualty department closed. She spent four weeks in hospital in Hemel Hempstead, seven miles away, and says the health service - in which she used to work as an administrator - has gone to pot. "It's the general muckiness of things. The nurses don't have time to do anything about it."

"How are you feeling now?" says Anthony Rowlands.

At the next house, the bell jams on. "Oh God. That's the quickest way to lose somebody's support, " he says, unjamming it. Number 21 says he "wants education sorted out. It's been changed so often I'd like to think something was permanent and settled." Anthony Rowlands gets two votes from a man whose disabled wife had to be taken to Hemel Hempstead at midnight, and returned by ambulance at 4. 30am. The elderly people in this close have distressing, first-hand experience of the struggling NHS. He listens,shakes their hands if they're supporters, and offers the infirm a lift to the polling station on the big day.

Many of the people behind the neat front doors recognise Anthony Rowlands,and quite a few say they will support him. "One of the great things about being a Liberal Democrat is that people don't dislike you that much," he says.

He makes himself partly available to people, and inspires devotion in the small army of doughty, white-haired women who are working for him in front rooms around the constituency. They give an impression of uncynical commitment which seems pleasantly out of tune with the party politics of the Nineties. And they adore their curly-haired, puckish candidate, with his pockets full of keys, his car full of papers and his head full of ideals.

One takes me aside to whisper that "he's very kind, and so intelligent it's wonderful. He has a terrific grasp of all the issues and his historical background is marvellous. He's bright as a button really and he's never tired. And he's lived life. He's a teacher, working with children, knows what he's talking about." Back in the car, Verulamium's favourite son stops for a KitKat ("eat regularly") and after making rapid stops at a few more supporters' houses - for election cards, posters, leaflets - heads off for more canvassing. His eyes may be on the road ahead but his sights are firmly set on a more distant horizon.

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