Phil and me

29th April 2005 at 01:00
Matthew Holehouse is a walking citizenship module: a teenager who's interested in parliamentary politics. So interested that he's spending his spare time canvassing support for the Lib Dems in next week's election

My first memory of politics is of watching TV at my grandparents' house when I was six. A young MP was walking outside Parliament, followed by hordes of cameras and journalists. It was the day Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour party and the reporter was saying that we were probably looking at the next prime minister.

Three years later, in May 1997, things did change. I knew from television that government, and therefore everything wrong with the country, meant Conservatives. I didn't know anything about the policies being debated, nor did I care to find out. I just knew that New Labour (how outdated that sounds now) were the good guys, that they were exciting and young and that, when they won, things really were going to get better.

Eight years on, things seem so different. People talk about the optimism and potential of 1997 as if they saw Blair as simplistically as I did.

While Tories treat him with the same bitter loathing that they always have ("Imagine five more years of smirking," taunts Michael Howard), the Labour supporters I know don't seem to feel anger or scorn so much as a hollow disappointment at having ruined a good record and lost so much with one stupid war, and long for the return of the leader they can defend. Though the polls say that the public prefers Gordon Brown to Blair, Labour campaigners are reluctant to let him go. Journalist and Labour supporter John O'Farrell said it best: like God, you really do want to believe in Blair. He just makes it hard work sometimes.

Few people in my sixth form share that faith. Blair's actions could have turned me off politics. If someone like him, a guy we thought was on our side, can manage to give us Iraq and tuition fees then what hope can we have in the Tories? It's that sort of choice - like asking Jamie Oliver to choose between McDonald's or KFC - that will keep millions of first-time voters at home on May 5. It's probably the laziest, most unthinking phrase ever, but sometimes it really does seems that "they're all the same".

But given that election Newsnight is now must-see TV, and I have signed up to all the email news bulletins, it's fair to say that I'm hooked on politics. There's no better time to watch an election than in the lower sixth. We chart the change in the polls on giant sheets of graph paper, watch the latest party broadcasts, decorate the politics classrooms in campaign propaganda (we call it the "wall of filth"). It all has a terrifyingly William Hague quality to it, a sheen of election nerdiness, but I can't help but love the competitiveness, the theatrics, the swings and the manic scrabbling for power.

Manifestos have become a part of party branding rather than actual plans for government, and so it's easy to forget how much the outcome actually matters. Michael Howard's quota policy on immigration and his solution to the "Gypsy problem" has been a real shock. We're used to the Daily Mail stoking the base fears of "bungalow Britain" with stories of tsunami-sized waves of immigrants hitting our shores bent on thieving, scrounging, and forming al-Qaeda cells. But to have a serious political party become so desperate for power that it will stoop to rallying against a formless, defenceless minority is rather seedy and pretty cowardly.

So, with Harrogate being a must-win if there is to be a Tory revival (until 1997 it was a "safe seat"), I decided I had to get involved. I would reluctantly have helped Labour if it meant keeping Howard out; Iraq, tuition fees and dodgy terror legislation feel more forgivable than barrel-scraping on asylum.

Thankfully, I didn't have to make that choice. Since 1997 Harrogate has been held by Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman and a former headteacher. He should hold quite easily; he increased his majority to almost 9,000 in 2001, and he works incredibly hard for the constituency.

He is also charming and a hit with the elderly, which matters a lot in Harrogate. And though their support has grown since 2001, the local Tory party seems to be struggling; orange posters outnumber blue by at least five to one. Their candidate, a businesswoman from the Midlands, is straight-talking, competent and hungry for power, but she is not local and certainly not a baby-kisser. Labour are nowhere to be seen.

I joined up and spend Sunday mornings leafleting the roads round my house.

Coursework permitting (it usually isn't), I spend free periods in the constituency office with retired people stuffing envelopes. Leafleting in Harrogate must take longer than anywhere else; the drives are so long and some houses so big you can't find the front door. Invariably it rains and the leaflets get too soggy to go through the letterboxes; most probably end up unread in the recycling bins.

Saturday evenings, after I've finished work at a bookshop in town, are spent canvassing. I'd thought doors would be slammed in my face, but I've discovered that as long as you don't catch people while they're trying to stuff their children into bed, they tend to respond quite well. Everyone likes being asked what they think, and it helps if you're young; it's harder to be personally blamed for the state of the country. Rounds when you get high Lib Dem returns are really encouraging. If it's a high Tory return (or, even worse, a blanket of apathy) then you just have to redouble your efforts.

It's all made me realise just how tough politics is; volunteers spend hours on every street, just persuading people to bother turning out. I see politics differently, too. We always think of it as such a top-down, personality-driven battle. While this matters (lots of people in Harrogate are voting Conservative over Lib Dem in the hope of kicking out the Prime Minister), it really is on the streets, by doorstepping and leafleting and being nice to people, that we pick up votes. It's so satisfying to think that the fate of parties, always so distant and secure, lies with people like me.

Though it was fear of Tory populism that got me working for the Liberal Democrats, I'm proud to represent them. On every issue where Labour has let us down - Iraq, tuition fees, and terror legislation at the top of a fairly long list - the Lib Dems have held firm to an unglamorous opposition.

Politics would be depressing if there were no one willing to follow the party's calm stance on immigration and to rise above sniping and confrontation. That, and Charles Kennedy's disarmingly spin-free and grounded approach seems to be drawing in sixth-form support (though, sadly, until the Lib Dems get into power we don't have the vote) in unprecedented numbers.

And yet, though I really want to see a third Lib Dem victory in Harrogate as I help steward at the count, and I think that every one of their 10 pledges is spot-on, the party has a lot to do over the coming years to be recognised as the real alternative. It sometimes feels as if we lack the passion and conviction that's needed to form a convincing government. Our policies, grounded in progressive social justice and environmentalism, have a sense of justification and rightness missing in the other parties, but would we really fight hard for them? "Freedom, fairness, trust" is entirely agreeable, but it doesn't make you want to leap any barricades. It's strange to be so cynical about party propaganda, but I still believe that if we are to break through we need to offer the kind of vision and optimism seen in 1997. We need people to think of us as a new dawn. Are we there yet? This time next week we'll know.

Matthew Holehouse is a Year 12 pupil at Harrogate grammar school. He is studying for AS-levels in history, politics, English and French

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today