King Arthur vs. the Tory Cybersquatter

Live entertainment, Winchester-style

Winchester is the kind of polite place where the local disaffected youths relinquish their customary perch on the steps of the ancient Buttercross monument so that a man in a frayed band uniform can entertain passers-by with a musical saw.

With its prosperous, property-owning population, Winchester is also the sort of place that should be Tory territory, but it’s not. Oddly, it is a safe-ish Lib Dem seat, thanks largely to Tory incompetence. In May 1997, two general elections ago, Mark Oaten, a young Liberal Democrat with little political experience, edged Conservative incumbent Gerry Malone by just two votes. After a series of recounts and legal challenges, Malone, who had moved out of Winchester and rarely visited the constituency, forced a revote six months later, at which point Oaten trounced him with a majority of 21,556. Since then, he has held on to the seat by earning a reputation as an MP who takes great care of his constituents: endlessly communicating with residents, publishing an annual report—an idea since taken up by several other MPs—and involving himself in the minutiae of community life. In a district with very few Labor supporters (in 2001, Winchester registered the lowest Labor vote in the entire country), it comes down to a choice between the Conservative and Lib Dem candidates, or, for some residents, the Tory or the anti-Tory.

Liberal Democrat Mark Oaten has represented Winchester since 1997

For Oaten, canvassing in Winchester’s High Street Saturday morning seemed a bit of an empty ritual. Although Oaten’s enthusiastic volunteers pleased mothers by offering balloons to tots in strollers, the candidate himself seemed distracted by the task of keeping his two young daughters in check. Still, it’s an essential stroll. In a city where most people patronize local shops rather than suburban megastores, the high street is a great place to meet voters, especially women. More crucially it’s a cheap form of campaigning.

Parliamentary campaigning looks very different than American congressional campaigning partly because the British Electoral Commission tightly controls campaign spending. Locally, this means that each candidate’s expenditures are capped at £13,500—a little less than $26,000—for the four weeks of the official election campaign. This has to cover leaflets, office expenses, venue rental, the candidate’s agent (the British equivalent of a campaign director, more or less)—the whole shebang. Winchester has 85,000 registered voters, which means British candidates spend one-fourth or less per voter than American congressional candidates. George Hollingbery, Winchester’s high-energy Conservative candidate, told me he would like to be able to spend enough to run a professional campaign, though he recognizes that the British system will always have limits preventing rich candidates from taking an unfair advantage. (Click here for more info on national limits.)

Financial restrictions may be behind some of Hollingbery’s goofy stunts: When you can’t buy attention, you have to grab it any way you can. On April 23, St. George’s Day, he marched through Winchester accompanied by a volunteer in a dragon suit. More controversially, he gained national attention early in the campaign by cybersquatting. Hollingbery set up a redirect from the URL www.markoaten.co.uk, taking visitors to www.georgehollingbery.com (his Lib Dem rival’s real site is markoaten.com). Hollingbery soon handed the .co.uk domain name to Oaten, but only after the Lib Dem had called the prank “pretty pathetic.” Hollingbery apparently felt the wrath of the Tory establishment—in his campaign blog, he maintained that it was intended to be a “cheeky” stunt rather than a “dirty” trick, but he apologized to “people who have helped me a lot over the last two or three years … who feel let down.”

Lib Dem volunteers hand-address envelopes to each of Winchester’s 85,000 constituents

Before he headed off for more campaigning in a neighboring town Saturday, Hollingbery told me that he didn’t think it was essential for MPs to live in the constituency they represented; in fact, he said, it might even be better not to, to avoid geographic favoritism. (Another stark difference between American and British politicians: Can you imagine an American politician saying several days before the election that it would be better not to live in his district?) Since Hollingbery lives in a particularly beautiful part of the Winchester constituency, I took that to be an early indication that he’s hoping to run in a safer Tory seat somewhere else next election. I hope his attention-seeking ploys in this campaign don’t hurt his chances next election. Fast-talking and sharp, Hollingbery is the kind of candidate the Tories need more of. He also enjoys the most valuable asset of any male politician: a charming and intelligent spouse.

Janette Hollingbery is a Floridian who met her future husband at a Latin-American dance class at Wharton business school, where both were students. After 14 years in the United Kingdom, she’s now used to the British style of campaigning and knows that although people may scowl rather than smile when she asks, “Would you like a leaflet on Conservative policies?” they’ll generally take one, and that while Brits are even more cynical than Americans about politics and politicians, more of them go out and vote. She also knows firsthand the political impact of a major third party. As Janette sees it, the Lib Dems can be all things to all people, making promises they won’t have to keep knowing they won’t be in government.

Independent candidate Arthur Pendragon’s campaign rosette came from a horse show

Arthur Uther Pendragon, who’s standing as an independent in Winchester, has no complaints about campaign spending limits. His biggest problem is finding £850 ($1,600) to print up his election leaflets and the £500 ($950) deposit required of all candidates (the deposit is returned to contenders who take 5 percent or more of the vote). A full-time Druid and environmental campaigner when he’s not fighting elections, Arthur Pendragon has a virtuous manner that makes it all but impossible to laugh at his ambition. He told me that he’s running for Parliament rather than a more modest position because as a senior Druid, he’s sworn to fight corruption in high places, no matter what the cost, at the highest level possible. For a man who fought and won a 14-year battle for the right to attend solstice celebrations at Stonehenge, he seemed a little nervous and sweaty, but perhaps he would’ve been more comfortable robed and bearing a sword.

In a race where all the major candidates encourage tactical voting—Oaten’s literature reminds voters that with Labor’s pathetic showing in Winchester he’s the only one who “can beat the Conservative,” and Hollingbery’s claims “Only a Conservative vote can get rid of Mr Blair and Labour”—Pendragon has the look of a knight in shining armor.