My morning train rolls into Ipswich station at around half past ten, filled with passengers commuting to London Liverpool Street. After reaching my destination I rifle through newspapers in the station shop, selecting the Daily Telegraph for its latest poll review. The station is thriving with people as I patrol its floors, eager to spot the red rose insignia of the Labour party.
I’m sitting on a bench, immersed in the headlines when a man passes me, looking in a rush. The sight of a bespectacled, bearded face I remembered from party pictures encourages me to interrupt him. Chris Mole, Labour’s candidate for thirteen of the sixteen wards forming the Ipswich constituency, turns his attention to me.
A hasty introduction leads on to more, as we walk to the station’s entrance and convene with a merry group of Labour councillors and supporters. The sky is clearing above and the people I speak to are very receptive, giggling and chatting as friends. They are excited because a special visitor is soon to arrive.
Chris, former-MP for Ipswich borough since 2001, dashes to greet the approaching celebrity, comedian Eddie Izzard. Shorter and more unkempt than his growing entourage, Mr Izzard beckons his fellow party supporters to stand beside him for a brief photo shoot. Candidate and comedian pose together; Mr Izzard spares a few moments more to sign for his fans. Chris is glad to garner Eddie’s backing as the comedian signs a campaign poster with “I support” above the candidate’s name and his signature.
Spontaneously I offer him my copy of the Telegraph to sign. He hesitates, “I can’t sign the Telegraph”. Of course he can’t. Instead he writes his signature in my notebook. A man working by the clock, he’s compelled to his car, ready to send him off to Lowestoft. The Labour crowd is relieved of its momentary ebullience.
Soon we’re off for a constituency visit. Down by Griffins Wharf in Bridge ward there is a burning odour in the air as sausages and burgers cook on an open barbeque in the courtyard. Local residents have organised a fun day with the help of volunteer organisations. Children play football on the dusty green, not intended for sports practice. Parents pass the time with other parents, forgetting their lively children.
Chris and councillor Bryony Rudkin make their presence known amid the sausage scent and pop music resonating from a nearby yellow tent. Phillip Smart, a borough councillor, launches himself into discussion about development problems with this ward. A typical site of abandonment, Griffins Wharf lies unfinished; the foundations for a flat block protrude coldly beside the courtyard.
This community is in desperate need of development; soon there won’t be a green space left. We speak to a youth organisation that traverses the area hoping to help idle youngsters. The team leader’s afro hair erupts from his head like an untamed shrub. In a corner of the estate a family is perched on the curb, guarded by their bulky rottweiler. Candidate and councillor decide to postpone this estate’s canvassing.
Back in the Labour office the desks are stacked with campaign leaflets and left stained by spillage from numerous cups of coffee. Loyal Labour allies, young and old, type fervently at their keyboards. A white-haired man with his shirt half-tucked in and glasses hanging off his nose speaks to me, pausing as a colleague shout across the room at him. His name is Bill Knowles. He gives me some street names and a satchel full of leaflets to deliver.
The buildings around Silent Street, office headquarters, are mostly shops and no residential – it’s practically in the town centre. I scour the selected streets and poke leaflets through what letter boxes I can locate. Behind one dilapidated door a man with a gruff accent curses. I neglect to offer him a leaflet. Traditionally Ipswich is a Labour constituency; for the most part it has the appearance of a working class town.
Later in the day we drive to Britannia Road, further into the residential estates. It is time for a spot of voter identification; Chris tells me it used to be called canvassing. We linger for a while in Mr Knowles’ car as it turns out other participants believed the start time to be six o’clock, not five. Chris also tells me this is a common issue within the party.
Strolling calmly around the estate, more volunteers gather to the cause. An avid councillor called Neil carries with him a clipboard with the electoral register attached. Neil greets me with a handshake that bursts the blister on my thumb. Some voters in the area are solid Labour, others are undecided; any pro-Tory voters were axed from the list in previous years. The crowd follows Neil.
Occasionally an empty Coke can will be trodden on as we walk along the streets, and behind a few doors lurk snappy terriers, which I’m told are a bad omen when doing doorstep canvassing. Several streets along we realise Chris has been stuck at the same door for half an hour, trapped in discussion with the untameable tongue of the same voter. At the same time a young man from the Labour office named Adam has a chance meeting with a dinner lady from his old school after knocking on her door.
Gradually the canvassing crowd grows. Later it is divided to cover more ground. An endearing trio of older local councillors make their move elsewhere. Somewhere near an outwardly exploded Spar corner shop we encounter a man who says he’ll vote BNP nationally and Lib Dem locally; he says his wife is undecided. The house opposite this man’s displays the rather dubious name Skankey Villas – unsurprisingly we don’t knock on their door.
After an hour or so my feet are beginning to ache and my neck is ill-treated by the chilling wind. Councillor Sandy Martin kindly presents me with his thick scarf to abate the chill. We continue canvassing till we reach the last voter on the list. On the way back to Chris’ car Ben Gummer, Conservative candidate for Ipswich, scoots on past in his campaign mobile.
Sometime afterwards I’m back on the train to Woodbridge. The day’s experience was engaging and the atmosphere inviting; I learnt more than I expected. As I sit, watching the countryside pass by at high velocity, I spark conversation with a commuter couple who, as it turns out, met Eddie Izzard earlier in the day – they too are puzzled by my choice of newspaper, which I’m still yet to read.