The sun is shining on Conservative canvassers in Hemel Hempstead. They are well-organised and can afford to be cheerful – but frustrations about the coalition are threatening to dent their whopping majority in Hertfordshire this Thursday.
The Conservatives know how to win elections in this part of the world. At the last local elections they increased their grip on Hertfordshire county council to hold 55 of its 77 seats. That was in 2009, when David Cameron was hoping to win an overall majority in the looming general election. We're in a very different political climate now, and the local Tories are on the defensive. There is a strong chance Labour could take back the area of Hemel Hempstead being canvassed on Monday night, just three days before polling day.
A small group of well-organised Conservatives have been dispatched to the area to try and work out who is planning on voting which way. The technique is simple: knock on doors, enquire about political sympathies, and either retreat quickly or, if the voter is willing, engage in a bit of chit-chat.
It's usually the former. There are so many excuses: "I've just got home from work." Or, "I've got to bathe the kids." Or even: "I don't speak Eeenglish!"
But not always. Occasionally the opportunity to chit-chat develops and is instantly seized on by the Tory veterans. John, a delightful old 'character' who told me he spent his youth breeding white mice and surrounded by Staffordshire bull terriers, gets the voters talking by displaying a single-minded determination to pet every dog that barked at him. Colin, the local party chairman, even tries a little Afrikaans on a South African visitor. Anthony, the candidate, is treated by an old lady to a lengthy lecture on the history of the street, just down the road, where she had grown up. She looked very much more like she would vote for him at the end of their conversation than at the start.
Sometimes, standing just inside their front door and looking thoughtful, the voters of Hemel Hempstead are even forthcoming enough to get their frustrations off their chest. "I normally vote for you, but…" seems to crop up an awful lot. One old gent in a well-to-do sort of property gives off deeply equivocal messages. He gives "three cheers" for David Cameron every so often, he explains, but feels "they're all the same these days" and reveals obliquely that "my wife votes the other way". It takes several minutes, talking over his comments with Anthony, to work out what his actual voting intention was. In the old days, he would have been Conservative through and through. Now he is soft, or undecided, or something. His support was getting foggier and foggier.
The problem, in a word, is coalition. "It's all a big cock-up," as one grumpy old man puts it. Nick Clegg crops up again and again as a figure of contempt, the "biggest waste of space" of all, who is ruining the country and preventing a decent Tory government from doing all the decent things a decent Tory government should. One voter, a doctor, says he's been turned off the Conservatives because of gay marriage and is now going to vote Ukip instead. Another pines for the days of Thatcher. "The Conservative party has fallen down," he declares. The problem is that the Tories inherited a very tricky situation, this particular canvasser, Gbola, explained. That seems to do the trick. "True," the voter muses. "New Labour ballsed it up!"
With the exception of potholes and salt bins, all the talk on the doorstep is of national politics. Analysts always warn against making too many inferences of the national state of play from the hotch-potch of local contests taking place across England. But on the doorstep here all the talk is of the situation in Whitehall, not down the road. This seems to work well for the Conservative candidate, Anthony McKay, who tells me he very rarely gets challenged on potholes – despite the fact it is his party who are in power locally and aren't doing enough about it. The incumbency strategy for the Tories is simple: you've got to vote for us, because otherwise we might get stuck with the liberals again.
"What a beautiful sunset," John says, distracted from the candidate explaining the merits of a new neighbourhood action scheme to an apparently genuinely interested voter. "I've travelled around a bit, and there's nowhere as good as here." I look around over Hemel Hempstead. The roads are in atrocious condition, the housing stock is distinctly mixed, and the temperature is getting chilly. But the people only very rarely slam the door in your face, are willing to show you their dogs and tend to vote Conservative. Back at the local party HQ, with portraits of Thatcher and Churchill and a doe-eyed Cameron gazing on, Colin and Anthony explain to me how the local community has coalesced around the Conservative party and made it the dominant force it is today. This is, without question, not a bad place to be a Tory.