I first started thinking about the Swale ‘all-out‘ elections of 2011 during the general election campaign last year. The awareness brought about by the campaign, plus the effects of ‘Cleggmania’, had resulted in a number of new members and interest and I was receiving many emails from people wanting to know more about the party both locally and nationally.
I was especially pleased to get some interest from younger people in the Isle of Sheppey – both young people and Sheppey members are a rarity in our local party – which even gave me the idea of setting up a branch of Liberal Youth on the island.
Swale council is Tory dominated and, as of the start of 2010, we only had four seats. The strategy I had devised involved certain targets we could aim at and the ultimate ambition of getting about 8-10 councillors in Swale’s council chamber. That would double our numbers and give us a good presence to build on. However I had made one rather large miscalculation.
I had assumed that the Conservatives would win the election – either with a small majority or by winning a second election in October 2010. So that by May 2011 they would be at each others’ throats over Europe and that the policy of starving the area of investment would increase unemployment, stagnate the economy and cause hardship all round. The Conservative party would be unpopular and this, coupled with the fact that the local council is famed for its dithering and inactivity, meant that their council seats would be ripe for the plucking.
What I did not envisage was, of course, the coalition. The national party making a deal with the Conservatives, along with the dropping of the tuition fees policy from the coalition agreement, meant, at a stroke, we had lost virtually all of that interest I referred to earlier. Subsequent events, with VAT, child benefit and increased tuition fees, saw the rest of our local work completely undone. We were firmly back at square one - or not even back at square one but further back if possible, maybe square minus ten. From increasing the party’s profile in the constituency, the emphasis was now on the local party merely surviving.
Swale Council crosses two local parties – ourselves in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and our neighbours in Faversham. Here in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, we had two councillors to defend in the wards Milton Regis and Murston and these would be our priorities. I was, again, to run in Murston to build up on my campaign last year. But I didn’t want to just aim to sit still – I also wanted to move forward.
I drew up a new strategy with some ideas to take in the revised circumstances and put it to my colleagues at the next Executive Meeting. In order for the Tories to lose control they needed to lose ten council seats. As I thought no individual party could do this, I put forward the idea of approaching other parties with some sort of deal. This proposal went down like a lead balloon. There was a preference for going down fighting (although my preference was not to go down at all) and, as time went on and our poll ratings sank, it was clear the idea was a non-starter anyway as we were too weak to offer anything.
It soon became obvious that Labour would make our seats top of their target list and give the Tories a free ride. They correctly understood that we were weak and that, in Swale, the Tories were virtually untouchable, so the best Labour could hope for was a small gain of seats. However I noticed in council by-elections around the country that, while we were getting a thumping from Labour, we were holding our own against the Tories, even winning a few seats in surprising areas. So as well as defending our two seats I wanted to attack where possible.
There were two areas I had in mind. I wanted to campaign on the Isle of Sheppey and so looked at the triple member ward, Minster Cliffs – we had success there in the (distant) past and, with the principle that islanders will only vote for islanders, also had three good local candidates.
Unfortunately one of these candidates was a student (need I say more?) and the second decided to withdraw his help in protest at the coalition with the Tories – thus helping the Tories (doesn’t it annoy you when this happens?). So, unable to fight such a large ward with only one person, that was the end of the Isle of Sheppey campaign.
The other ward I had in mind was St Michaels. This was a double member ward where the Tories had won one seat narrowly from us while the other was a Lib Dem hold (although our councillor had defected to Labour). As Labour were unlikely to figure, and again we had two good candidates, I fancied our changes in a straight fight with the Tories.
But .. again circumstances worked against us. Our top candidate for the ward withdrew from the party in protest at the child benefit changes (which I thought a little unfair as they were a surprise to us as well) – and we had to move our second candidate. That was the end of the St Michaels campaign. Although we did find a paper candidate to run, we put no effort in and were well beaten anyway.
It felt like every time George Osborne spoke, or Nick Clegg appeared on TV alongside David Cameron, we lost members. It was ironic that our attempts to fight the Tories were being undermined by people who don’t like the Tories.
Equally, on a larger scale, my attempts to campaign against the tuition fee policy were not helped when people who agreed with me kept leaving the party so I found myself in a minority.
Eventually we dusted ourselves down, gathered who we had left, and said, right, what’s in the pot? The agreed campaign was to concentrate everything we have on Murston and Milton Regis. Of the active widespread campaign I had hoped for, it was all we could manage. And of course we are always short of funds - a problem not shared by our two main opponents.
As we prepared our schedule I heard stories around the country of people refusing to canvass – for fear of receiving a hostile reception. That wasn’t a problem with us, as we hardly had any people to go out canvassing anyway.
But on Tuesday 1 March, two months before polling day, I came home from work, and then went over to Murston at about 6.40pm to knock on my first door of 2011. The campaign had begun!