Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My General Election - Part Two - The Strategy

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.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My General Election - Part One

In October 2009 I got the welcome and surprising news that, following a tough evaluation day, my application to join the approved list of parliamentary candidates was successful. I could now apply to represent the Liberal Democrats in any UK parliamentary seat.

There was only one seat I wanted to have a shot at – my local seat of Sittingbourne and Sheppey – and I knew our local party were looking for a candidate. I immediately completed the application form, put together my manifesto, and submitted it to the executive committee. (I also got details of the almost-next-door Chatham and Aylesford seat in case I was not successful).

I was the only applicant! The local Labour party criticised me for this point but I am not sure what I could have done about that. The party had advertised in Liberal Democrat circles and press etc but only I had come forward. There was another possible candidate from the local party but he had by now defected to Labour.

Of course it was not a foregone conclusion. The approval of the committee and the local party members was still required. If not successful, central office would have sent a candidate and I would have applied elsewhere. After an interview with questions coming from all places, the committee approved me to go to hustings. The first hurdle was crossed.

By now both Labour and UKIP had selected their candidates, the Conservative candidate had long been in place, David Cameron posters were appearing all over London, and there were rumours of a March 2010 election. So I was keen to get on with things.

The Hustings were confirmed for 12 January 2010. A room was booked, invitations sent out to the 95 local party members, my speech was drafted and re-drafted (my wife was the audience), I put on my smartest suit, prepared for the questions I might get, marched to the hustings with confidence to face all-comers – and seven people turned up!!

This tiny turnout was a bitter disappointment. Admittedly it was in the middle of all the snow we had in January and the roads and pavements were in a bad condition, but two of the seven were over 80 years old – if they could make it why could so few else? The Labour party criticised me for this as well and here they may have had a point.

But anyway we went through the whole process which went well and I got a unanimous 9-0 approval (two were postal votes). The paperwork was all signed and witnessed etc and I gave my first interview as a parliamentary candidate to a group of students from London.

I was eager to get going and get myself known to the people of Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

First idea: let’s print and deliver a leaflet to everyone in the constituency to introduce myself. Sorry, no money to do that.

Second: write to all the non-active local party members to introduce myself, set out my plans and ideas, and ask for their help in the campaign. Only two replies.

Third: send press releases to both local newspapers announcing my candidacy. They both ignored it.

I knew this campaign would be a hard task but already I could see it was going to be much harder than I had imagined.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Now get to work!

Things look promising. I’ve studied the coalition document and have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of Liberal Democrat policies that are in there. There has been a good attempt to capture areas of common ground – which is presumably why the negotiations took so long.

David Cameron has surprised us all. He could easily have refused to talk to anyone, bulldozed ahead with a minority government, and waited for a favourable moment to call another election. Instead he has shown great flexibility and compromise and putting national interests ahead of his party to secure a government for the country, and deserves praise for doing so.

This is so unlike the Conservative party that we have known all these years. Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher allowing Liberal Democrats in her cabinet? Norman Tebbit’s anger means we must be right.

Some grumbles: in the document there is reference to education funding, but not specifically tuition fees. There is no mention of whether the all-party talks on elderly care funding will be resumed. And the referendum remains on alternative vote rather than a PR system. But we’re getting there.

Five Cabinet ministers and 20 ministers in all is a good achievement and more than expected, although I am not sure what Nick Clegg would be doing. I am pleased that Vince Cable has a good job as, at the age of 67, I had feared his talents would be lost to the nation. Instead he must now be a contender for Chancellor of the Exchequer in two or three years once George is moved sideways.

So now we wait for the Queen’s speech and the budget. No more can people pompously say ‘Lib Dems can promise what they like because they will never be in a position to govern.’ It will be strange to defend the government after opposing it for 25 years but we must deliver – we must ensure that good liberal democrat policies are put in place and that the coalition government is a success.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It must be with the Tories or without

The general election result seems a long time ago now and we are still waiting for the result. No doubt everyone has made studious notes of the last few days for their forthcoming memoirs but in the meantime we are still in the dark.

My own view is rather straight forward.

1. Nick Clegg was right to start negotiations with the Conservative party. With 36%, they got more votes and more seats than Labour and together we can form a stable government if we concentrate on common ground.

2. Voting reform MUST be one of the results of any negotiations. The party have fought for that for years – we simply cannot keep up a discredited unrepresentative unfair system.

3. Alternative vote is NOT proportional representation. We will only have one chance to change the system – let’s get it right first time.

4. We must NOT enter a deal with Labour. The election was clearly a rejection of Labour’s record and policies and to put together a Lab-Lib Dem government would be ridiculous, especially with Gordon Brown STILL running things.

5. If we cannot make a deal with the Conservatives then at least we can say we have tried. David Cameron can then run a minority government and our MPs can vote with him on an issue by issue basis, such as abolishing ID cards, education investment and the low carbon economy.

6. We will thus be sticking to our principles and if we are facing the electorate again in a few months, we can say that we tried to provide stable government but it was not possible.

Gordon Brown’s departure is welcome – and I am sure we all wish him well – but he should have gone on Friday morning not in a few months time.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Election results - the day after

Election day, 6 May, was, as expected, the most busiest day of all, from getting up at 4am to delivering the election day leaflets, through to the last knock-ups at 9pm, and on to waiting for the result at 5am – a 25 hour day, then four hours sleep, before up again for the council results. I might sleep for two days before going back to work on Monday.

But there’s no denying it – the Liberal Democrat results nationally and locally were very disappointing. It seems many people lost their nerve and went back to the devils they knew. We discovered this quite a lot in the last few days of canvassing.

To my own results:

Sittingbourne and Sheppey:
Gordon Henderson (Conservative) – 24,313 (50.0% - up 8.3%)
Angela Harrison (Labour) – 11,390 (24.6% - down 17.1%)
Keith Nevols (Liberal Democrats) – 7,943 (16.4% - up 3.6%)
Ian Davison (UKIP) – 2,610 (5.4% - up 3.1%)
Lawrence Tames (BNP) – 1,305 (2.7%)
Mad Mike Young (Loony) – 319 (0.7% - down 0.5%)
David Cassidy (Independent) – 158 (0.3%)

I enjoyed the campaign very much. It has been very tiring but also invigorating and already I am thinking about what I can do differently next time. But I have to admit that given all the work I and we put into the campaign over four months, an increase of only 3.6% is a bit disappointing – although larger than the national average Lib Dem increase.

Obviously national factors played the major part. We expected the Tories to win the seat but we certainly didn’t expect such a surge to result in a majority of 12,383. Although I have commented on the collapse of the Labour vote, I didn’t expect such a large collapse and nor that most of it would swing to the Tories.

Some bright spots – as I said, I enjoyed the campaign. I was pleased that UKIP kept their deposit, as Ian and the UKIP guys are likeable chaps, and my earlier fears of a sizeable BNP vote were not realised. Maybe they will go and look elsewhere.

The biggest disappointment was to come the following day.

Swale Borough Council
Murston ward
Ed Gent (Conservative) 845
Keith Nevols (Liberal Democrat) 695
Shelley Cheesman (Labour) 618

There were 16 of Swale’s wards up for election (13 with us in Sittingbourne and Sheppey and the other three in Faversham). Because of our limited resources we decided to throw everything at our defence of Murston. The whole ward was canvassed, leafleted three times, and chased up on election day. We could not have worked harder.

Yet the higher turnout, due to the general election and the Tory increase, saw us lose this seat and reduce our number of councillors to three. The only consolation is that the whole council is up for election next year – so if I had won, I may have been a councillor for only a year.

For now a break – it will seem strange not to go knocking on doors for a while – but very soon we, and I, will think about our future strategy and where we go from here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Use your vote - and vote for genuine change

Another very busy time in the final two days – I have visited Rodmersham Primary School and Westlands School to answer questions and provide material for their mock elections, spent many hours delivering leaflets, handed out leaflets at Sittingbourne and Newington stations, much more canvassing and more leafleting, co-organise the final arrangements for the campaign headquarters and the team – and devoured an eve of poll fish and chips.

Early to bed tonight and up early tomorrow to get going. It will be a long day – lots to do.

The BBC and Meridian will both be attending the count and our result is expected at about 1.30am so make sure you keep an eye out for me and you can admire my big new rosette.

But to everyone who reads this – get out and vote! Vote, vote, vote! Let’s get a good turnout and ensure that as many people as possible have their say!

And if you want to see:

Fairness in the tax burden with more money in your pocket;
Fairness in our schools with smaller class sizes and no tuition fees;
Fairness in jobs by developing the long-term sustainable industries and employment we need in energy efficiency and public transport;
And fairness in our politics, so that parliament and its MPs can be completely transparent and accountable to you, the voter.

If you want to sweep away the old red-blue pass-the-parcel parties that have let us all down again and again.

If you want GENUINE change.

Then there is only one choice – and that is to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Going For Gold - a clarification

Word has reached me that some of our supporters and helpers have received contacts allegedly from the Labour party as to my supposedly limited ambitions. If true, you have to hand it to Labour, they are a crafty bunch, and I guess all is fair in love and elections. But maybe I did not make myself clear, so please let me clarify.

I want to win this election and become the MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. I do not want to be second, third, fourth or seventh, I want to be first. I have worked very hard these last four months with the intention of going for gold.

I have spoken to thousands of people, knocked on thousands of doors, delivered thousands of leaflets, held high street stalls, taken part in debates, replied to hundreds of emails, visited schools and societies, travelled all over the constituency, and accepted as many invites to meet people as I could. I’ve also got a job when I have time to go to work. I have not talked to as many people as I would like – but I have not done too bad!

But I wouldn’t have done all this if I had no intention of winning.

It is true that in an earlier blog and a newspaper interview I referred to us being second – this is because some Conservative supporters and many Labour supporters were coming our way, both because they did not like the actions of their own party and because they were attracted by what we had to offer. The first leader’s debate accelerated this process. And I did say that second would be a good result considering our tiny resources compared to the masses available to the old big two.

However I also said we would not rest there. We would be working until 10pm on 6 May to get as much support and as many votes as possible. As I said, someone has to challenge Gordon Henderson and the Conservatives.

If the polls are correct, Labour’s support compared to 2005 has declined by about a third, the Conservatives is about the same, and ours has increased by about a third! This plus boundary changes means that Labour simply will not defend a majority of only 79. It is obvious that only the Liberal Democrats can stop a Conservative victory in this constituency.

If the good people in Sittingbourne and Sheppey agree that the government has let us all down and want genuine change, but not the devastating changes that the Conservative party will bring to the constituency, then they should vote Liberal Democrat.

And I want to win!!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Some thoughts

It’s been pointed out to me that I have only talked about this constituency. I suppose it is natural for a candidate to concentrate on what’s going on in his own patch but here are some thoughts.

If the polls are correct, then Labour’s time in government is coming to an end and David Cameron will become Prime Minister of a majority or minority administration.

Gordon Brown will be leaving Number 10 almost exactly three years after he got the job. You may recall he got praise at first for how he handled the floods and terrorist attacks leading to early election speculation – but since then it has been one long disaster zone as the government tried to wrestle with the recession, the expenses and other scandals, and consistent leadership coup attempts. Bailing out the banks could be argued as a good move but then not using this newly acquired muscle to force changes was a mistake.

Where will Labour go now? There’s no shortage of leadership candidates but who will manage to catch the public imagination in 2014 or 2015? Alan Johnson and David Miliband appear to be the favourites with Ed Balls, Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband also talked about. But in which direction will they take the party? Old Labour has gone. New Labour has now run its time. What’s next? Second hand Labour?

No such problems with the Conservatives, they have always been consistent. They are sponsored by the rich, backed by the rich, and will always look after the rich. The working classes will be kept in their place. Margaret Thatcher and John Major both came from humble backgrounds – by the time they had finished even more people were coming from humble backgrounds.

In 1979, the last time the Conservatives came to power in a recession, the first budget cut taxes for the very top earners, increased VAT for the rest of us, and slashed public spending. As a result, unemployment rocketed and for most of the 1980s was at a far higher level than is now. Industries nationwide were wiped out, a generation of young people were wasted, and massive social problems hit the country.

It really concerns me that the Conservative party plan to do all that again – and the social unrest we all saw will be repeated. One difference this time is the rise of the BNP. People will feel that politicians have let them down again and may well turn to extremist options.

The only hope is if the Liberal Democrats can make enough progress to deny the Conservatives a majority or at least a working majority and to somehow get in the reforms we really need. However I think the Conservatives will rule with a minority if they have to, and make deals with others on a case-by-case basis. There will be over 30 MPs from other parties, the Speaker and Deputies don’t vote and Sinn Fein won’t turn up so they could muddle through.

One of the biggest disappointments in this campaign has been the Daily Telegraph. Last year they did very well in exposing the expenses scandal, produced an excellent book on the topic, and did their reputation a power of good. You would hope they would go to the next step to promote methods to ensure this sort of thing won’t happen again.

But instead the Telegraph have declined rapidly to pathetic attempts to smear Nick Clegg, scare everyone about hung parliaments, and are now aiming to deny us the necessary parliamentary reforms. Nothing will change. A shame.

That’s my thoughts so far. After the election, once we see the results, I will tell you what I think about the Liberal Democrat campaign, those of the smaller parties, and about how we developed our own strategy here in Sittingbourne and Sheppey.