Millbank favourite Malcolm Wicks wins with the common touch on the campaign trail, reports Ngaio Crequer
HE was walking down the high street and a canvasser handed him a leaflet. "Would you like to meet Malcolm Wicks?" "Who is Malcolm Wicks?" "He is the minister for lifelong learning" "What's that?" A brief explanation. "Well then, I have a problem. I cannot read or write."
"Right, we can help you," said Malcolm. "Come in and we will sort things out." Just one life-changing day in the life of an election campaign. Watching Malcolm Wicks garner votes is fun. You would not believe - by the amount of effort and attention he puts into his work - he had an 18,000-plus majority.
He remembers constituents' faces. "Aren't you the goldfish person? Yes you are," as he recognises someone outside Tesco. "How is your daughter getting on at university? Taking a gap year? Make sure she comes back in. Tell her the education minister said so." He is the junior minister most in demand by Millbank, and has been parachuted into other parts of the country to try to drum up support for some of his colleagues.
He does not mind being off message. A French student wants to know what the Labour Party stands for. "Well, as socialists, we want to ... yes, I said the 'S' word and you can quote me."
Hello comrade, he addresses his "favourite Trotskyist". "He's a local trader. And he is going to vote for me, not the Socialist Alliance," he beams proudly. He is keen to get the vote out. "People say vote early, vote often though, of course, that's not our official policy."
We pass a man pushing his car which has broken down and you can see the thought flit very quickly through his mind - shall I? - but no, photographers are around. "Although now I rather regret that I didn't help," he says of the missed photo opportunity.
He is asked about John Prescott. "A very proficient left jab. I boxed whenI was eight or nine. I am bound to say it has gone down very well in Thornton Heath."
And what of his future? He has been a minister for two years and is acknowledged to have done a good job. Estelle Morris, the schools minister, is being tipped for the Cabinet and Wicks could replace her.
"My key priority is to stay in the job as an MP. I do not take that for granted. As for the future, the boring answer is that it is up to the Prime Minister.
"I have loved the job. I have learned the job, I am still learning the job. If I was offered the same job again I would leap at the chance.
"We have done a lot of practical things but what you learn is that some things take a while to get established." As he says, the learning and skills councils have been up and running only since April and will take time to become established. "That is why a second term is so crucial. You can have ideas but it is the implementation that is crucial."
He says the Government has provided record levels of funding for further education and his job has been to ensure it gets "more than a fair share" of educational resources.
He is concerned about colleges that refuse to pay lecturers a nationally-agreed pay rise. "The challenge for this minority is to get their act together on college finances and pay. Any competent public service pays each and every year a pay increase to match inflation."
But he is not impressed with the strikes by the lecturers' union, NATFHE, after the Government's heavy investment in the sector.
Just before he returns to the glad-handing and the voters of Croydon North, what lifelong learning is the minister doing at present? "I am learning from you."
The photographer from the Guardian is very off-message. He thinks he has turned up in Thornton Heath to snap someone called Malcolm Taylor. "I'll point him out to you if I see him." jokes the candidate.