In Britain, famed actress and Labor lawmaker Glenda Jackson fights to keep seat

A power-sharing deal between Cameron and Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats ended 13 years of Labor Party rule and resulted in Britain's first coalition government since the 1940s.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

LONDON -- Glenda Jackson was resplendent in red, a Labor Party rosette pinned to her long coat, as she waited on a blustery Sunday afternoon for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to arrive at the North London Tavern.

Jackson is not just a celebrated actress, winner of two Academy Awards, but also a member of Parliament. The daughter of a bricklayer was first elected in 1992, a year in which her Labor Party fell just short of winning a majority after many polls had predicted that the Conservatives would be swept from power.

Today, the tables have turned. At 73, Jackson is fighting to hold her seat as the Labor Party under Brown struggles to avoid defeat in Thursday's general election. Hers is one of many battles underway in marginal districts across the country that will determine whether Britain changes governments at the end of the week -- and whether that new government can command a majority in the House of Commons.

"It's probably been the most interesting campaign that I've fought, because the issue really out there is the economy and a great many people have yet to make up their minds," she said. "But they're not going to make up their minds as they have in the past -- this is my feeling -- exclusively on party affiliation. They're really looking at, it seems to me, which of the parties . . . are best fitted to take us through to keep this fairly delicate recovery on track."

Because of the first nationally televised debates in Britain's history, most of the attention this past month has been focused on the three party leaders: Labor's Brown, the Conservative Party's David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats' Nicholas Clegg. The debates changed the dynamics of the campaign, giving a substantial boost to Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, traditionally the smallest of the three major parties, and hurting Brown, the least telegenic of the three men.

Jackson didn't watch the debates but is well aware of the power of television. She recalled being in a play about Vietnam years ago that featured television as a news source. In the preview performances, the director put closed-circuit TV screens around the theater.

"After that first night, he took all the screens out, because he said the audience didn't once look at the stage," Jackson recalled. "They were all looking at the television screens. And I get it occasionally. People come up to me on the streets and say, 'I saw you last night on television,' and you think, well, I'm here now in flesh and blood. . . . It's style over substance."

Jackson said one man told her he had listened to the three debates on the radio. His verdict was that Brown was the hands-down winner, though instant polls of TV watchers showed him losing. "I said, 'Oh, it's Kennedy-Nixon all over again,' " she said, referring to the 1960 U.S. debates in which those who listened to the radio thought Richard M. Nixon had triumphed over John F. Kennedy. "But we're not electing a president," she added.

This being a parliamentary rather than a presidential election, Brown, Cameron and Clegg will not be on the ballot in Jackson's district or anyplace except the districts -- or constituencies, as they are known here -- that they represent in Parliament. Jackson's opponents are two younger men, Chris Philp for the Conservatives and Ed Fordham for the Liberal Democrats.

Jackson's north London district, Hampstead and Kilburn, is a newly drawn, economically and culturally diverse area. According to the latest census, 40 percent of the residents were born outside Britain. The population is 8 percent Muslim and 8 percent Jewish.

"You can do the mosques on Friday, the synagogues on Saturday, church on Sunday," Fordham said with a laugh. "And I've done most of that."

Fordham, who has worked in local government, said he has knocked on 15,000 doors in the district and is in regular contact by e-mail with former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean about strategy and use of the Internet.

Clegg's performance in the debates has given the campaign of Liberal Democrat Fordham a boost, nearly doubling the number of volunteers now helping him. More important, he said, the debates have given people a greater sense that they, rather than politicians and journalists, are in control of the election. "That's phenomenally refreshing," he said.

Fordham sees the campaign in Hampstead and Kilburn as a wide-open, three-way contest. Jackson and Philp, the Conservative candidate, disagree, describing it as a race between the two of them. "You mustn't believe the fantasies the Liberal Democrats are putting out," Jackson said.

Philp said two things work in his and the Conservatives' favor. Nationally, "people are desperate for a change in government and a change in direction," he said. "Locally, there's a very compelling case. I've lived here for 10 years. Glenda Jackson doesn't even live here." She lives elsewhere in London.

Campaigning Tuesday, Brown hinted that he would step down as leader if Labor finishes badly. "I will take full responsibility," he said in a television interview.

Jackson said she has not found voters appearing weary of Brown and Labor and does not believe there will be a hung Parliament, as opinion polls suggest. She remains confident that, in the end, voters will give Labor another majority because of their fears about the economy.

Reminded that the polls show otherwise, she smiled and said there were still several days of campaigning ahead. "I told you," she said. "I mean, the electorate is very canny."

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