Throughout February and March the pre-campaign campaign continued. I was out most evenings doorstep canvassing around Murston, telephone canvassing at the weekends, attended a couple of functions in London, a meeting at Fulston Manor school, some debates with the other candidates, much deliveries of leaflets, more media interviews, and various email correspondence. I also wrote a series of local policy documents.
On 6 April the election was called - we were under way. I booked my leave from work, we accelerated the pace, we completed our planned timetable up to the election date, and things were going along nicely.
All changed on Thursday 15 April.
I had told the local press that I thought Nick Clegg would do well in the first leader’s debate, that I thought he would put our case across well, and that it was a good opportunity for the party. Watching the debate I was pleased he did exactly that, and was surprised at David Cameron’s poor performance. But none of us saw the aftershock coming when Cleggmania erupted.
Our poll ratings climbed to our highest since the early days of the Alliance, Nick Clegg was being compared to Churchill, the media were horrified and desperate to find some smears, and the public interest dramatically increased.
How did this affect us? This affected us by the fact that the expectations on us had now gained enormously. I received dozens of emails from constituents criticising us. Why haven’t we seen you? Why haven’t you called? Why haven’t we received any leaflets? Why haven’t you got big posters up like the Tories? Why are you invisible? Why are you missing this opportunity? Etc etc.
My main thought was – where were all these people three months ago? We would certainly have appreciated the help.
The obvious answers to the questions were that we did not have the resources. When there are only three or four us out canvassing each night, we can only reach a small part of the constituency. And with leaflets, not only do you need the money to print them, you also need the people to deliver them.
With posters neither us nor Labour could compete with the huge Lord Ashcroft sponsored posters that we saw. And the Conservatives had, wisely, arranged for farmers to display their election boards along the main roads.
Many of these queries came from the Isle of Sheppey. I would have liked to have done more there but we had to give it a low priority – mainly because we could not compete with the island candidates of the other parties and also we were concentrating on the defence of our council seat. (We could not even find candidates for some of the council seats on the island).
I explained all this and attached some briefing notes in my responses. I am not sure everyone bought this. The impression given was that we were simply not doing enough to make the most of Cleggmania – despite the fact that I have never worked harder.
The delay of the Freepost leaflet annoyed me. Every candidate is allowed one leaflet delivered free by post (although you have to pay the printing costs). Labour’s leaflet went out in the first few days with the Conservatives closely behind. I would have liked ours to go out early as well to at least say hello, here I am, and yes we’ve started. Unfortunately, to save costs, the printing had to be co-ordinated with other local parties and so we had to wait for all of them to be ready. Hence most people never got anything from us until the third week of the campaign.
So we had to up the tempo further as Cleggmania hit. Fortunately we did get some helpers and volunteers and were able to get some leaflets printed and delivered on the Isle of Sheppey and other parts of the constituency, but we all now had to work even harder at breakneck pace. We even found some people pleased to find us knocking on their door.
And when we added up all the stats and feedback we realised that the Labour collapse had continued and our boost had put us in second place – which would have been an astonishing result. But alas it was not to be.
Final episode soon – when I’ll tell you about the hectic last week.