The main parties are all fielding teacher-candidates at the General Election. Wendy Wallace went on the knocker with three hopefuls to find out what they are saying on the doorstep, and what response they are getting. This week she reports from Hampstead and Highgate, where a former Section 11 teacher is fighting to regain the seat for the Tories
Elizabeth Gibson looks as if she has either been crying a lot, or fallen asleep on a sunbed. The tears might have been caused by the morning's headlines: Tim Smith forced to stand down over the cash-for-questions affair; question marks over the future of Piers Merchant following his alleged dalliance with a 17-year-old club hostess; Neil Hamilton refusing to borrow Tim Smith's revolver and retire to the dining room. In fact, the red eyes are the result of an allergy to an MS face wash. Demon eyes notwithstanding, she sets off with a team of young party workers to collar her potential constituents in their homes.
Elizabeth Gibson, standing for election in the north London constituency of Hampstead and Highgate, is one of only 12 teachers who are prospective parliamentary candidates for the Conservative Party. A lifelong Tory, and until the end of last term a Section 11 teacher in an inner-London primary school, 45-year-old Ms Gibson was selected in 1995, having cut her teeth on the safe Labour seat of Birmingham Hodge Hill ("jolly hard graft"). She is standing against Glenda Jackson, Labour MP with a majority of 1,400, and the struggle ahead is likely to be equally hard work. She has given up supply teaching, stocked her freezer and is ready to go.
She lists education as the first of her special interests, alongside Europe, small businesses (she owns one herself, selling plastic bags to shops), and transport. Her experience in the early Eighties as a teacher working for the Inner London Education Authority is one of the reasons she cites for going into politics. "I'd been quite happy teaching grammar, mental arithmetic, spelling tests. Quite suddenly I was told it was wrong." Under Ken Livingstone's leadership of the Greater London Council, she says, "one always felt one had to watch one's back if not a member of a very left-wing Labour group". She has been active in the right-wing, non-striking Professional Association of Teachers, and for three years chaired the Conservatives' Greater London Area Education Committee.
Pro selection, pro national curriculum and pro opting out, Elizabeth Gibson describes herself as a wet, one-nation Tory who is to the left of where she was at the age of 21. Her experience in inner-city schools, working with Bengalis and other immigrant children, and dealing with child protection issues, qualifies her for a role in public life, she says. "As a teacher, you meet the general public. The younger the children you teach, the more you get to know their parents. One sees a lot of life in the raw."
On the NW3 doorstep this evening, though, no one wants to talk about education. In a private, modern mews, where her young minders are momentarily distracted by the sight of not one but two parked Ferraris, Elizabeth Gibson conducts a discussion about European Monetary Union through an entryphone. "The only thing I can say," she says eventually to the brick wall, "is by not voting for us you're going to let Labour in." The unseen inhabitant is a Tory waverer who could be brought back into the fold by a 100 per cent commitment to a single currency. The minders duly record it on the clipboard.
The constituency of Hampstead and Highgate, home in the popular imagination to theatrical and literary folk, is not all wealthy: 25 per cent of constituents live in local authority housing, and another 40 per cent in private rented accommodation, according to party workers. But the patch Elizabeth Gibson is working tonight is most definitely affluent. The security lights wink on in advance of the canvassing party. They tread up York stone paths, under magnolia blossom and intricate, clematis-laden pergolas, to substantial Georgian houses with video entryphones and studded doors which many inhabitants are afraid to open. Either that or they've seen the Tories coming. At number 50, Elizabeth Gibson is reduced to talking to the cat."Hello! Do you live here?" Those who are prepared to open the door are mainly what the minders call "socialist", and what other people call Labour voters. Party workers call this part of the constituency the "chandelier socialist" belt. "They can afford to vote Labour," says one, bitterly, as they tramp up the path of what looks like a miniature town hall, with municipal-type flowerbeds each side of the path and energy-saving light bulbs ablaze around the magnificent front door. "I was a supporter," says the woman who opens the door, and leaves the rest unsaid.
Her neighbour down the road, an older woman in a smaller house, stands on the threshold wringing a tea towel. "I'm not sure about the caring. My husband's disabled and my parents are having problems, and it's all so expensive. " It's the first chance Elizabeth Gibson has been given to speak since the cat. She says she knows about caring for elderly parents. (She does. Her mother died last year.) "Once the election is over it has to be looked at," she adds.
Number 11 is occupied by Janet Suzman, according to the team's register of voters. Not the Janet Suzman, says Elizabeth Gibson. But it must be, judging by the length of the gravel path. Only the BMW is at home, however. Further down the road, a middle-aged man says er, er, er . . . he's a judge and is not er, supposed to reveal his er, er, er . . . "There are quite a lot of us round here," he says, suddenly coherent. "Lord Hoffman, three doors up, he can't vote, he's a peer."
No one wanting to talk about life in the raw, then. Elizabeth Gibson pulls her beret down and skips up the other side of Keats Grove, the 20-somethings running to keep up. "A hundred and seven are Trots," announces one, catching up. Elizabeth Gibson doesn't hear. She's off down another long and winding path, politely asking another householder if they have his support, and is told bluntly "nothing in the world would make me vote Conservative". "Thankyou. Goodnight," she replies, deadpan. The spiked, head-height, iron gate falls off its hinges and nearly impales one of the minders. "We're Labour," chorus the neighbours.
Finally, at a basement flat in a mansion block, Elizabeth Gibson tracks down a friend. Edward Rodgers, retired insurance broker, opens the door and assurances of support waft out along with the smell of fish pie ."Going to be a bit of a fight, isn't it?" worries Mr Rodgers. His wife, a former teacher, is also a Tory voter.
The party retreats to the Freemason's Arms for a drink. In one and a half hours canvassing one of London's richest areas, they have garnered under a dozen pledges of votes. There is a power cut in the pub. "They're all socialists this side of the Finchley Road," the team muse, over bottled beer, under a disorienting, blinking light. Last week, canvassing a tower block, they got a lot of support, they say. Only Elizabeth Gibson seems unaffected by the doorstep hostility.
She describes herself on her brief curriculum vitae as a "hardworking, no-nonsense, loyal party activist", and it seems a modest but accurate description of this spare, disciplined figure in her sensible navy trousers and gold-trim handbag. Hampstead and Highgate was Tory for 22 years, until Glenda Jackson dislodged the late Geoffrey Finsberg in 1992. Elizabeth Gibson asserts, doggedly, that she has a chance of regaining it for the Conservatives next month. "I think the prospects are pretty good," she says, making unflinching eye contact.
She is married to the former MP Keith Best, who had an early cameo role in the long-running sleaze drama. Mr Best was found guilty in 1987 of making multiple applications for shares in the newly privatised BT and had to resign his Anglesey seat. Elizabeth Gibson met and married him after his fall. He is now chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service. She brushes off suggestions that his name could be a hindrance in a campaign dominated by questions of probity. "People have forgotten. Time has passed on. Keith paid a heavy price and he's gone on to make another life."
Her husband was her agent in the Birmingham campaign and is a big support now, as evidenced by his major role in raising their daughters, five-year-old Phoebe and three-year-old Ophelia, both of whom attend a grant-maintained primary school in the family's home borough of Lambeth. ("There's a waiting list for the waiting list," she says, unable to keep the pleasure out of her voice. ) An only child, both her parents were "lifelong members of the voluntary party". This turns out to be not an obscure special interest group but the Tory foot soldiers, the non-professionals who stuff envelopes and hold cheese and wine parties for the love of it. Perhaps because of her background, her commitment has a hereditary feel to it. "I really do believe schools need to select, " she says, before reminiscing about her own old school, which was composed half of pupils who had passed the 11-plus, and half of ones who had failed it. Selection "helps all strands'', she asserts, without explaining how it benefits those who don't make the grade.
Does being a Tory candidate make life difficult for her in inner-city primary school staffrooms? "I'm a firm believer in not discussing politics in the staffroom," she says, "I think it's important for relationships." With 17 years teaching behind her, how has she felt about successive education secretaries' attacks on her profession? "In some respects, they have deserved it," she says, citing strikes of the past. "It takes a lifetime to build up a reputation, and a second to destroy it." As the wife of Keith Best, she knows that all too well.
Elizabeth Gibson says she has no illusions about political life."It will be hard work, long hours, and I also have no illusions about the effects a single MP can have on the legislature."
If she loses, will she be back in the classroom come September? "I'll carry on, battling on, in politics," she says. "Job-wise, I'm not sure. I like teaching, but I don't know what I want to do. The answer is wait and see, until the early hours of May 2."
Elizabeth Gibson's political biography ends on what seems, on tonight's showing, a doom-laden note. She is, it states, an activist who "realises that we must win on the doorstep, and knows how to build support in the community". She has just under a month in which to do it.
Next week: the Lib-Dem teacher-candidate in St Albans