Well-suited to the task

25th April 1997 at 01:00
David Lepper has been fighting them on the beaches in his attempt to wrest a key marginal from the Tories. In the last of her series on teacher-candidates, Wendy Wallace meets the Labour hopeful weighed down by little more than a mobile phone.

David Lepper, Labour candidate for the key marginal of Brighton Pavilion, stands at the top of a flight of steps handing out invites to a Tony Blair question-and-answer session. He's on the campus at Sussex University and the students are willing, for the most part, to shake his hand and wonder what the flying visit from the Labour leader will be like. "Thanks very much and good luck with your campaign," they say, politely. They're dressed in jeans and fleeces, burdened by rucksacks full of books. He's in a grey suit and sober tie, burdened only by a mobile phone and the weight of the country's expectations of a Labour government.

Tania Jeffery "just wants to know" how he stands on animal exports and hunting. She's wearing non-leather shoes. "I'll send you a policy document, " he offers.

"I know, but I want to make sure you stick to what you say."

He reels off his personal animal rights record; he's a long-standing member of the Labour Animal Welfare Society and, as a councillor, successfully lobbied for the banning of hunting on land owned by Brighton Council.

"Are you going to let the well-to-do lot, the farmers, pressurise you?" demands Tania. "Because you're banking on their votes."

"We're banking on everyone's vote," he says smoothly, turning to snare the next young person coming up the steps. "Hello! I'm David Lepper, Labour party candidate."

"Oh hi," say the students, cool as cucumbers. "Cheers."

Brighton, and Sussex University in particular, is Mr Lepper's old stamping ground. He was a student here 30 years ago, training to be a teacher after studying English literature at Kent. It was 1968, but he wasn't a hippie, he says. He wasn't into student politics either, although he recalls being part of a group which called for the chancellorship (of the university) to become an elected post. He started the drama society and was a member of the folk club and, like lots of Sussex students, never left the seaside town.

Until he took voluntary redundancy last summer, he taught for 27 years in a local comprehensive - Falmer School - and built a dual career as a local councillor, including a spell as Labour leader of Brighton Borough Council. In this general election he is one of 108 teacher candidates standing for Labour. Last time round, in 1992, he reduced the majority of the sitting Tory MP, Sir Derek Spencer, to under 4,000; now boundary changes have worked slightly in Labour's favour and the party's statisticians estimate he needs only a 2.2 per cent swing to take the seat.

At the Labour campaign office in Brighton, they're going for it, all out. The phone doesn't stop ringing for tickets for the Tony Blair session; the computer printers churn out miles of briefings and the faithful organise canvassing sessions and postal votes - and ferry David Lepper where he wants to go. The campaign has rented office space from UNISON, the public sector union.

The union is upstairs and the party downstairs, in a modern block opposite the clean, green sweep of Preston Park. Isn't that a bit Old Labour? David Lepper laughs heartily and says, without humour, that they have separate bells.

He has a campaign tan. The weather has been good in Brighton, and he doesn't drive. His Doc Martens are worn down at the heels, but he puffs slightly as he walks around campus. It belies what he says on his CV about being a keen cyclist. "I'm a fan of cycling," he clarifies. "I brought the Tour de France to Brighton in 1994."

He has met Tony Blair once, at party conference. Does he feel he knows him? "It depends in what sense you mean know," laughing his unfunny laugh. It transpires that, like the rest of us, he knows his leader mainly through his television appearances and pronouncements in the press. But as a media studies teacher, he must be better placed than most to decode Bambi. Does he like him? "I think, well I know, he's impressed a lot of people. What a lot of people admire is that we're going in saying we're not promising the earth."

Does David Lepper call himself a socialist? "If what you mean by socialism is that we achieve more by working co-operatively than individually, yes," he says paraphrasing the rewritten clause four of the party's constitution, which states that the party believes "that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone . . ."

In the afternoon, David Lepper canvasses in the narrow streets of Hanover ward. Once, it was occupied by fishermen. Now a mix of students, pensioners and young families live in the tall houses whose front doors open directly on to the steep street. The bijou ones are painted in the colours of Neapolitan ice-cream, and have Lepper posters in their gleaming front windows. Others look shabby, with ragged nets and peeling paint.

There's nobody in at Number 2, although they've a Lepper poster in the window. A bicycle is chained to the railings and a book called Sex, Death and Punishment is visible through the window. The man in Number 12 is wearing a Top Gear T-shirt and has time to idle on the doorstep. He "sort of has a problem" voting against Andrew Bowden. Luckily Bowden's not the incumbent Conservative MP, but represents a neighbouring constituency. When he hears who his MP is, Number 12 says: "He voted for capital punishment. He's a tosser. He deserves to be shot."

David Lepper shifts slightly on the doorstep and the wallflowers in front of the house tremble. "What do you do?" Number 12 wants to know. "I was a teacher." That seems to clinch it. He congratulates him, shakes his hand and wishes him good luck in Westminster.

A Mr Psycho Delic appears on the electoral role. Three lads are bobbing down the middle of the road, as if on springs. "Hello Sir!" they call to the Labour candidate. "Out doing your little rounds are you?" adds one, without malice. David Lepper steps neatly round the contents of a spilled binbag in Islingword Street.

For the most part, the doorbells ring hollow in the halls. It's Monday afternoon and there are few people at home.

Mr McCracken, a few doors down, says he's voting Labour. He's a Liverpudlian, and has been burning joss sticks. "Ta-raa," he says cheerily. But a lot of the names on the electoral register don't tally with the individuals who open the doors. "Zey 'ave moved," says the young man at Number 43. David Lepper gives every impression of enjoying canvassing, standing in the biting breeze with his clipboard, painstakingly recording the movements of people up and down this street while the gulls wheel and cry overhead.

His main political interest, he says, is cultural industries - the arts and multimedia. "This is where I see economic hope for the future." He is proud of having helped set up the successful Brighton Media Centre to bring together film-makers, designers, scriptwriters and people in related fields. The centre has spawned enough interest to set up a second building and has earned a visit from Tony Blair.

The party's constituency profile notes antiseptically that it has "a bohemian reputation and a large gay population". Evening canvassing starts from the house of Mike and Sue Middleton, who run a scaffolding business. Volunteers gather in the kitchen to fan out over the Seven Dials ward - once Liberal but now with three Labour councillors.

Here too David Lepper gets an easy ride. "I tell you what. I've still got a suspicion they're going to get back in again," confides a woman with a dog on a lead. Mr Lepper has canvassed these roads before, and is now targeting households where he got no response.

Mr Humphries, at 37a, has two motorbikes spread in pieces over the oily pavement. He says he didn't vote last time and has trouble differentiating between the parties. Number 64 has a "women are wonderful" sign in the window, but she takes a David Lepper poster as well.

These are Edwardian terraces with wooden Venetian blinds and lace curtains at the windows, and tulips in terracotta pots on the sills. The streets are clean, empty and quiet at 7pm. Number 29 answers the door but her name's not on the register because she arrived "four weeks ago". It's hard, even for an assiduous wooer of the local vote, to build up loyalty in such a transient area - party workers say that more than one-third of the population has moved since the last election.

Number 16 says he's "swaying between Labour and the Liberal Democrats", and David Lepper gets into his stride. "Can I just point out to you this is one of the most marginal seats and the only way to get the Conservatives out is to vote Labour?" "We're foreseeing a coalition, actually."

Two men are on the doorstep now. They have short, bleached hair, steel-rimmed glasses, and stand in front of a pretty lilac-painted hall with white moulding. They want to know David Lepper's position on gay rights. "Something quite close to our hearts is equality for lesbians and gay men."

David Lepper assures them: "I spoke at the Stonewall meeting last week. ..I would certainly support an equal age of consent and, as a party, we want to see the law treating couples equally."

The swayer asks him if he is a socialist. "If what you mean by socialism is that we achieve more by working co-operatively..." David Lepper is fighting on the beaches, scenting victory, his lines word perfect.

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