On Tuesday this week it’s 15 years since one of the iconic moments of the 2001 election, which also happened to coincide with my first appearance on television.
In the 2001 General Election, I was a candidate for the Green Party in the Cardiff Central constituency. At 24 I was convinced I knew the solution to all of the world’s problems and that the utopia I had in mind would create paradise on earth, whether you liked it or not.
I worked in an administration role for a government agency and nearly bankrupted myself taking a leave of absence to stand. But even though I came close to running out of lentils and soya milk, it was worth it. I got to speak on issues I cared about, I saw the political process up close, and while I expected to dislike my opposition, I came to like them all.
Jon Owen Jones was the sitting Labour MP, a decent man who passed on the advice that ginger-haired men should be careful about wearing white shirts (a warning I still struggle to adhere to). Jenny Willott was the young Liberal Democrat candidate in her first serious fight for a seat (and who would win Cardiff Central at the second attempt four years later).
Then there were the also-rans; the political odd-balls who by legal necessity were permitted air time to present their preposterous ideas for the future of Britain.
There was a candidate from UKIP, and also the Welsh Socialist Alliance, which was a coalition of such joyless political entities as the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Not to be outdone there was also the Socialist Labour Party, who for God knows what reason couldn’t find common ground with Welsh Socialist Alliance. Both claimed that proper Marxism simply hadn’t been tried, which explained why it had been an abject and at times murderous failure throughout the last century. It was bizarre to watch socialists attack other socialists for not being socialist enough, in a country that at the time had rejected socialism for about 25 years. All of which made the Greens seem quite normal.
So BBC Wales invited us onto the Dragon’s Eye politics programme, a half hour midweek slot to present our message as succinctly as possible. I studied, I practiced. I would deliver my message in concise blow, leaving a lasting impression on the electorate.
Funnily enough, John Prescott was about to do the exact same thing.
The Deputy Prime Minister had arrived in North Wales that morning for a day on the stump. The small seaside town of Rhyl, familiar to me for day trips from Chester as a kid, was about to host a Rumble, on the same day the Labour leadership wanted iron discipline for the launch of its election manifesto.
Then it happened.
Prescott was walking past slightly hostile crowds when local farmer Craig Evans threw an egg at him from close range, scoring a direct hit. Prescott, acting instinctively, and with incredibly dexterity for a man of his size, shuffled sideways, wound up his jack-hammer right fist, but then jabbed with the left, smacking Evans clean in the face.
Finding they now had some proper news to talk about, the Dragon’s Eye producers leapt into action. Time allocated to hear the priorities of the Greens, UKIP, the Socialists, the other Socialists, the other other socialists, and the Communists, would be halved. What was going to be a brief slot would now be even briefer – the show now focusing its attention not on hard left ideology, but on Prescott’s hard left.Incredible. It was supposed to be a day that Labour ideas made the headlines, a day to calm the growing discontent some voters felt over government policy. It was also a day when I was supposed to deliver my message to the voters of Cardiff Central. All that now changed.
But things turned out okay.
The presenter David Williams, a kind of Welsh Jeremy Paxman, was incredibly helpful to us all before the show. Quite rightly he wanted to host the best programme he could, and while I had make-up applied in the seat next to him he told me what line to take – not in a bias way, simply to ensure my message was clear, and not likely to prompt viewers to switch off.
The only point I remember making was our plan to abolish car tax, which would be paid for by increasing fuel duty – the logic being that you were taxed for using your car, not owning one. I suppose it made sense at the time. The enormous price paid by others didn’t occur to me.
A few weeks later the voters of Cardiff Central banded together to reject my plans for them. I went on to register 661 votes, while Jon Owen Jones won re-election, beating Jenny Willott by, um, 659. She was a bit upset about that.
The people of Cardiff Central made their thoughts very clear to me.
Prescott’s popularity among male voters went through the roof.
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