I'm just behind Matthew, on the 3rd floor of the council block. He's moved ahead because he recognises the voter at the door, stretching out his arm in greeting.
- Hello, we've met before, haven't we, it's Mr Smith, isn't it?
- Oh yes, hello, how are you, how's it all going?
Mr Smith is maybe in his late 50s, thinning black hair, large spectacles around sad dark eyes, large mouth, open wide, smiling. He spends his life smiling, I think, he's got that smiley aspect that genuinely kind people wear, a smile that makes your own mouth smile back. Old suit trousers. Slippers. Shirt. Clean and tidy front door. He doesn't need to say anything else, you know at once that: he's sad, he's open, he's generous, he's tired. I can tell what's coming. So -
So I move away to let Matthew talk to his constituent. I'm looking down from the third floor of these flats that overlook the West Reservoir, on the far edge of which people are messing about in canoes, their tinny squeals of enjoyment carrying over the still air. They're happy, I guess, at least today they're happy. But I listen to Matthew and Mr Smith.
- How are things now, how's your mother doing?
- Oh she's very unwell now, very unwell. You know she's 93?
In the 50s I guess Mr Smith would have been called a nice boy. He's a nice man. The air is sweet with his niceness. With Matthew's desire to help. It's such a strong sweetness that it nearly overcomes the tang of fear. Not quite though.
- Yes she's 93, and the thing is, I don't know what will happen to me if -
- Did the housing officer not respond to the letter I wrote?
- Oh yes, but they explained, it was in my dad's name, the tenancy, and then when he died, it was transferred to my mum's name, and -
- And that would make it a third transfer, says Matthew, with a finality and despair. He goes on - Is it a two-bed?
- No, it's a three-bed, you see.
In that you see is everything you need to know about what's gone wrong in the East End. You see a council has to have some sort of rulebook for housing, doesn't it? One transfer within family, fine; but two transfers, you see, even if it's from father to mother to son, and it's the only house the son's ever lived in - and when I say 'house' I mean a flat on a council block in an estate in Hackney, the sort of place Diane Abbott wouldn't be seen dead in - and this son might have spent his life working for a pittance and caring for his increasingly infirm parents until first his father passed away leaving him to look after his bedridden mother single-handed, but, you see, if the council didn't move him out of this flat after his mother is gone, the flat that overlooks the playground where he made his first friends, around the corner from the maternity unit he was born in - closed down now, of course - you see if they didn't force their boot right down onto Mr Smith's face, and if they don't keep up the stamping till his spirit is spent too, then they wouldn't have access to a much-needed family home, would they? See?
Families like Mr Smith's used to keep a community like Hackney alive. They're dying off now, one by one, and any stragglers left behind, like Mr Smith -
- Where will they offer you? asks Matthew
- I don't know. He shrugs, already resigned -
- any stragglers like Mr Smith can be shipped off out to somewhere where he doesn't know anyone, and left to die off. Because Hackney needs its family housing. All the East End needs family housing.
The overcrowding is a reality. My friend Andrew (Boff, our candidate for Hackney mayor) found a family of nine living in a two-bed flat just off the Broadway Market, the market (which I love) where every Saturday middle-class Labour voters take the waters and congratulate themselves for living somewhere so, like, edgy. (They should pipe Common People through the lamp-posts. "NHS? It's like their health plan, yeah? But like they don't get dental?").
We need family housing. But having lost control of our borders, poor boroughs simply cannot manage to house the families they've got. And in boroughs mismanaged as badly as this one, that means that the poorest people suffer most.
You could look at this through efficiency lenses, I guess; you could be utilitarian, if that's your thing; you could say something unpleasant about families who don't move from the estate where they've lived for decades. You could say all those things: I'd say to you that you lack basic human understanding about the requirement of dignity, that not everyone is a go-getter, and not everyone in this world is going to improve their lot, however much politicians prattle on about meritocracies. Some people just want dignity and security, and after spending his life doing work most of us would shy away from, after spending his later years caring for his ill parents, I don't care to judge Mr Smith. I just want to see him left alone, in peace, in his home.
At some point in this election, Labour will start to call us racist again; they always do. Remember the role that their immigration policy has played in leaving the poorest boroughs unable to house their poorest residents, and if you're a better person than me, and you come across Phil Woolas, resist the temptation to spit in his face, with all the contempt he deserves.