A year ago, Michael Howard, a prospering London barrister, was chosen from a field of 248 applicants to be the local Conservative Party's parliamentary candidate for this picturesque seaside district made up largely of farmers, pensioners and commuters.
Win or lose--the odds are heavily on victory--Howard's campaign offers a case in point of how a parliamentary candidacy in Britain works. Given all the hurly-burly of modern electioneering in the United States, there is something reassuringly old fashioned about the simple way things still operate here. From beginning to end, Howard is permitted to spend only about $7,000 of party money and $150 or so of his own.
He has one professional staff member, supplemented by a corps of good-natured volunteers. There are no polls, no radio and television interviews and little press coverage in the two weekly newspapers.
The party's national program and the personalities of its leaders, as conveyed in intensive London-based media coverage pretty much along American lines, must certainly influence the way people vote. But the grass roots are important, too, because the only ballots actually cast in Britain are for local parliamentary candidates. And at this level, the main ingredient appears to be shoe leather.
Howard, 41, had twice before run for Parliament as the Conservative candidate in districts where the Labor Party was unbeatable. So he was delighted, to put it mildly, to contest a seat in what is considered a Tory stronghold. The retiring Conservative member of Parliament had served for 24 years and had a majority of 16,000 at the last election, drawing more votes than all his opponents put together. Howard is not a person to take triumph for granted, however.
The opposition Labor Party hereabouts is not much of a challenge, but Howard is concerned about the candidate of the smaller, well-organized Liberal Party, John MacDonald. Also a barrister, he had attracted some attention in the national press as an activist in support of human rights groups in totalitarian countries--a cause, however, that seemed far removed from the concerns of the old villages of England's southeast coast.
As soon as Howard was chosen the candidate at a meeting of Tory party faithful last spring, the family gave up the London town house they had just finished renovating and moved, at their expense, into a farm house close enough to Folkestone that Howard could call himself neighbor of his prospective constituents. Then he plunged into meetings, teas, speeches and other civic functions designed to make him more of a local figure.
He started the Forum Club and invited speakers on public affairs to attend monthly sessions. His wife, Sandra, a former model, pitched in with a luncheon group aimed at drawing in some younger female supporters.
To get current with party policies, Howard attended a single weekend's preparatory course for candidates in April, during which he had his picture taken with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She did 80 candidates in 70 minutes, he later recalled. None of his three snapshots was usable so he had to catch Thatcher as she passed nearby recently for a retake. On the whole, Howard was on his own in developing campaign plans.
Finally, on May 9, Thatcher called the general election Howard was eagerly awaiting and his already busy pace of glad-handing turned frenetic. Before polling day on June 9, Howard aims to see or be seen by as many of the 68,000 electors in his district as endurance will allow.
With so little time and not much money to spend on campaign material and posters, personal encounters are his mainstay. Leaving his legal practice aside, Howard and his party "agent," George Bunting, drafted a six-day-a-week schedule based mainly on house-by-house canvassing. Conservatives, he explained, do not officially campaign on Sundays.
He also arranged 11 evening meetings at various places but almost canceled one Thursday when it turned out to conflict with a sold-out concert in the vicinity by crooner Howard Keel--who is especially popular with the 35 percent of the district that is retired--and the finals of the national soccer championship. Expecting no one to turn up at the Saltwood village hall, Howard was pleasantly surprised when more than 30 people did.
"He's wanted so much to be in Parliament," said Sandra Howard as he dashed door to door one afternoon pumping hands, distributing leaflets and, when neccessary, trying to proselytize among the undecided and the downright hostile.
"I voted for Maggie," said a bitter 57-year-old who lost his job as a civilian working for the military, "and she put me on the dole. If she or you can find me a job, you'll get my vote." Howard struggled for a good 10 minutes to explain the Conservatives' program for economic recovery. But he was getting nowhere, so he politely thanked the man and bounded on.
He did better with another former civil servant, a 55-year-old who has been out of work for l8 months. A widower with two sons, this man finally had to apply for welfare last week. "I don't know if I could vote Conservative again . . . there is the sheer indignity of not working," he told Howard as they sat in the neat, small parlor of a hillside bungalow. Howard sympathized and said things would be worse under the Labor Party.
In the end, the man sadly said he agreed.
After a long day's canvassing with Howard, it was clear that unemployment is the overriding issue here as well as across the country. But Conservatives seem able to engage listeners by saying that continued hardship is the only way to invigorate the economy.
Other questions concerned the powers of local government, capital punishment--not a party issue but favored by Howard for certain categories of murder--the future of development projects like the oft-postponed channel tunnel between the coasts of Britain and France and, in one instance, whether it would be a good thing for the country if Thatcher wins in a landslide.
"Who's going to keep her from going too far?" asked a woman. Howard told her not to worry.
Arriving late to a lunch of strategy and cold cuts with the vice chairmen and other officials of his Conservative association, Howard said his style of running scared marked a change from the casual confidence of his long-serving predecessor. "They think I'm chasing around like a hysterical maniac," he confided.
In fact, the group--including a woman whose advice for successfully rounding up volunteers to help canvas was "always start and end in a pub"--seemed impressed by Howard's indefatigable zeal. One member of the group later predicted out of earshot that Howard would roll up a margin of 3 to 1 over his opposition.