I am spending a few days bringing some of my “Titbits” blog posts to the fore, as my more recent followers may not have dived into that section. Here’s the fifth…
Local elections: The confessions of a virgin candidate
On the 25th of February 2003, I was having another quiet night in. There hadn’t been much variation in my way of spending an evening since being made redundant during the previous April. The phone rang. Val Menzies, of the Andover Liberal Democrats, wanted to know if I would be willing to stand as a “paper candidate” in the forthcoming local elections. I had previously refused but, this time, I reluctantly agreed.
Half an hour later I had mulled over my decision and realised that I had made a mistake. I knew that Val would still be in the meeting, so I emailed her to tell her that, “if I do something, I do it with full commitment or not at all.” I would stand and I would conduct a campaign, even if it had to be “a one-man, single-leaflet campaign.”
And that was the way it turned out to be.
My first job was to put together my promotion leaflet. I’d already gained a lot of experience at this in my last job and whilst trying to promote the two companies that I’d founded when I’d been made redundant. The inside of my tri-fold leaflet was easily filled with the Liberal Democrats’ local government manifesto, so I was left with three columns to fill.
Initially, I decided on the top three issues that would appear on the cover of my leaflet but I soon narrowed that down to two: Affordable Housing and the remedying of Flood Damage. Maybe I was just lucky, or maybe my judgement is better than I’d thought, but I later discovered, on the doorsteps, that these were the two hottest local issues in the Penton Bellinger ward.
Having finalised my design, I passed it out to fellow activists for comment. It was at that point that I was made aware of my first possible infringement of the rules. One must include the imprint, “Produced, printed and promoted by …” on all promotional material. I was pleased that this had been brought to my attention before I had distributed any leaflets.
Before the time had come to start distributing, I had been for my first interview in almost a year and had been successful. The new job was to start immediately, in Northampton, ninety-two miles from my home. Whilst a feeling of relief at securing a regular income swept over me, I realised that the new job was going to consume a large chunk of the time available for my campaign. I was right. Election day came far too soon and I had only managed to reach two-thirds of the households in my ward. It was hard work!
At one of the regular, monthly meetings of the local branch of the Liberal Democrats we had been given Party posters of all shapes and sizes. I’d also produced a personal poster on gold paper encouraging folks to put an ‘X’ next to my name on 1st May 2003. My own house and car became smothered in them, as did those of my friends and neighbours.
Enthusiastically, I set off around my village of Weyhill, decorating telegraph poles and the backs of road-signs with my posters. Imagine how furious I was to find that, within twenty-four hours, they had all been ripped down! I dashed off an angry email about this “disgraceful behaviour” to my local paper, the Andover Advertiser, with copies to some of my fellow activists. Within minutes I had a reply from one of the experienced Councillors on the team advising me that what I had done was fly posting and was illegal. The anger that I had felt towards the person who had torn down my posters quickly turned to gratitude as I realised that they had saved me the effort of removing them myself. I took the precaution of emailing the Andover Advertiser to withdraw my previous missive. We must all learn by our mistakes.
Speaking to people in their gardens and on their doorsteps was the most interesting part of the whole campaigning experience. I was pleasantly surprised that there were only three electors who were openly hostile to the point of being downright rude to me. Mostly I was treated with respect and enjoyed some very lively discussions.
The most prevalent of the issues that were raised were affordable housing, flooding, education, diversion of funding to other regions and, occasionally, immigration and asylum-seekers.
Of the three electors who were rude to me, two told me that they thought the Liberal Democrat policies were “jolly awful” or words to that effect! When I asked which particular Lib Dem policies upset them, the first said, “All of them.” The other two told me that our “approach to Yerp” could only lead to trouble for all of us. Unfortunately, even I can’t change all our policies and I’m still not sure what “Yerp” is.
The day of the election arrived. I rose at five and set off for work, arriving not long after seven. This enabled me to leave early, giving me time to pick up my wife from work in the centre of Andover, to go to the polling station in Clanville to vote, then to tour all seven polling stations in my ward to get some feel for the state of play.
When I met my wife, Joy, outside the shop that employs her, an incident occurred that reminded me of the importance of voting. As we crossed the street, somebody who was obviously trying to emulate Michael Schumacher, raced past, narrowly missing us.
“I hope that whoever makes it onto the new Council continues to support the improvement of the High Street,” said Joy. “At least it will be safer.”
“Vote for me, darling, and I promise that I’ll push to complete that development,” I vowed.
Whether I was elected or not, it showed me that there are issues that are really important to local people and that they should challenge the candidates to represent them on those issues, then vote for the person who builds their confidence the most.
When we arrived at Clanville Village Hall, the officers told us that it looked as if the turnout was heading for around 25%.
Having dropped Joy off at home, I set off to visit the remaining six polling stations. Penton Mewsey, homeland of our MP, Sir George Young, reported a similar turnout to Clanville. At the next station, Appleshaw, I ran into my two Conservative opponents. It was the first time that I had met them and we had a very cordial discussion. The three of us then proceeded, in convoy, to Fyfield. The turnout here had been stronger. This was where we parted. My new friends had completed their visits.
I moved on to Kimpton, where I met my other opponent, representing the UKIP. He was also most civil with me. After a fascinating conversation with him, I only just managed to take in the remaining stations at Shipton Bellinger and Thruxton before the polls closed at nine o’clock.
With time only for a swift supper at home, I was off to the count in the Sports Hall in Andover. I had no idea what to expect. I have, of course, seen electoral declarations on television, but I had never attended a count. Counting ballot papers, when there is only one vote on each paper, is a fairly simple process. Watching the skilled and diligent counters examine hundreds of ballot papers with two or three legitimate votes on each was very intriguing. It also reinforced my view that the sooner that modern technology is employed in the electoral process, the better.
Eventually, results started to be declared. The excitement mounted. Some of my supporters gathered, with me, around the tables where my votes were being counted. I was thrilled to see how many people had voted for me. I hoped that they had all voted for me because they really believed that I would work hard for them and for their issues.
By half-past-eleven the votes for the Penton Bellinger ward had been amassed and the Returning Officer called for the candidates and their agents to converge on him. The result was a little disappointing for me. I had come third in a ward where only two would be elected. I shook hands with all my opponents, the winners and the loser and was pleased that the friendly atmosphere prevailed.
In fact, the whole evening was conducted in a most genial manner. Most of the candidates and their supporters chatted about how their campaigns had gone and what they thought the future would hold. It was good to see the Member of Parliament and the candidates for the next general election there too.
As the evening drew to a close, things turned nasty! In the St Mary’s ward, where three candidates were to be elected, the first two places clearly went to two of the Liberal Democrats. The third appeared to have been won, by a single vote, by a Conservative candidate from the third Lib Dem. There was one doubtful ballot paper, which, in the event of a tie, looked like being counted for the Conservative. A recount was inevitable.
It soon became apparent that, in the St Mary’s ward, a bundle (20 papers) of Liberal Democrat votes had, mistakenly, been added to the Conservative pile. The transference of this bundle to the correct pile took the Lib Dem candidate to a 38-vote victory. Of course, the Conservatives demanded another recount. This was questioned, with such a margin, by some of the experienced Lib Dems. The Returning Officer was immaculate. “It is quite within their rights to ask for another recount,” he said.
Again, the result was a 38-vote Lib Dem victory. The counters were sent home.
The agent of the defeated candidate turned red, then blue. “Count again!” he demanded.
The Returning Officer remained incredibly cool. “The mistake was ours,” he declared. “We admit it and apologise for it. However, the two candidates involved are both new to the process and I don’t want either of them to leave this hall tonight thinking that anything was amiss. I don’t want to be accused, at some later date, of a sleight-of-hand.”
“Nobody has accused you of any such thing!” exclaimed the Conservative agent, loudly.
“Sorry. Those were my words, not yours,” responded the officer.
“Withdraw them!” demanded the agent.
“Give me strength!” exclaimed a Lib Dem supporter.
“Beam me up, Scotty!” thought I.
So the retiring Chief Executive of Test Valley Borough Council, exercising the patience of Job, had his officers recount the votes, for a third time, in front of the candidates, at almost two in the morning.
The result, once more, was a 38-vote win for the Lib Dem.
Although the Conservatives had, long before, won overall control of the Council, they could not accept defeat in this single remaining seat. They took it very badly and stormed out of the hall without a word or a handshake for our bemused victor. I have to admit that I was extremely shocked by this discourteous and ungracious behaviour. After all the goodwill of the rest of the evening, it left me reeling.
The whole experience, however, was thoroughly worthwhile, even though it was exhausting.
Would I stand again? My answer at the end of the evening would have been the same as it was after my first marathon in 1991: “Definitely not!” However, on reflection, despite the lingering bitter taste that the shenanigans towards the end have left in my mouth, I think that I could be persuaded.
In the meantime, I shall put all of my efforts into supporting Martin Tod in his quest to replace Sir George Young as the Member of Parliament for North West Hampshire. Given the current state of the two main parties and on the back of the recent local campaigning, I am tremendously optimistic that Martin will succeed.
Martin did not get elected. But then they’d vote in a donkey around here if somebody put a blue rosette on it!