The Council’s Local Engagement Forums are usually dull affairs and the one held in January 2010 was no exception. However in the presence of councillors and local media it gave me the opportunity to ask a question and introduce myself as the 'Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate'. I was of course deleted from the minutes but the damage had been done. At last the news was out and some media interviews resulted.
My first decision was one of my best. It was to ask Elvie Lowe to be my campaign manager. Elvie is a local legend, a councillor for 22 years, former county councillor and parliamentary candidate, and for the last few years, the leader of the Liberal Democrat council group. An experienced campaigner, Elvie organised everything very well with energy and efficiency. Although, of course, the campaign choices (and mistakes) were my responsibility.
In 2005, the Labour MP Derek Wyatt held the seat of Sittingbourne and Sheppey from the Conservative Gordon Henderson by 79 votes. We were a long way behind in third place. As Derek was not re-running, Labour had chosen local council leader Angela Harrison.
Several things were clear. Firstly, given the majority and the national trend, the Conservatives would win the seat. This was confirmed in our early canvassing where Tory votes were holding solid while Labour’s were drifting – although we didn’t yet know who to.
Secondly, there was a danger of us getting squeezed should a lot of people vote negatively. We did find some people who were our supporters but were voting Labour because they were more concerned with keeping Gordon out. (Even a member did this!!)
Thirdly, as we were not a target seat, or remotely winnable, there would be no money nor ‘faces’ coming from central office. We were on our own.
Fourthly, we had discovered from experience that people on the Isle of Sheppey will generally vote for people from the Isle of Sheppey. Both the other two candidates were very Sheppey-based so we would be at a disadvantage there.
Finally we guessed, correctly, that the general election would be the same day as the local council elections where we would be defending one of our few seats. This would have to be factored into our strategy.
Given all this, it would be quite easy to not bother with a campaign and travel to Eastbourne or Maidstone to help out with the local target campaigns there. But I didn’t want to abandon Sittingbourne and Sheppey so easily without a fight, especially my first shot at parliament. Labour dismissed this as ‘a vanity campaign’ – well, maybe but what is wrong with ambition? (You will see that Labour spent a lot of time criticising us – more on that in future episodes!).
One of our Council seats were up for re-election in May 2010. As we only had four, we were rather keen to hold on to it. Unfortunately our defending Councillor was unable to run again due to work pressures and we also had a shortage of candidates. Our best available candidate was, to be honest, me! But should I run for parliament and for council at the same time? (The Labour candidate had the same issue – but she was defending her own council seat).
After, shall we say, an open debate and a frank exchange of views, it was decided that I would do so. Thus our council campaign would be centred on Murston ward, an area to the east of Sittingbourne, and also on Roman, a Labour held ward which was next door to Murston.
We held two team strategy meetings in late January which did not go well and so I decided to reduce the strategy discussions to a meeting of two – me and Elvie. This made decision making much easier.
So with canvass leaflets ready, clipboards prepared and everyone primed for action, we were hitting the streets of Murston and knocked on the first doors.