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Twenty years of candidacy

May 7, 2012

Twenty years ago today I was a candidate, nervously awaiting the outcome of my first electoral contest.  I was fighting the Redland ward of Bristol City Council, where the Liberal Democrats had put in a derisory performance since the party’s formation four years previously.  The seat was held by the Tories but Labour had come within 12 votes of winning in 1990, at the height of the poll tax protests.  But this election was being held just a month after John Major’s triumph in the 1992 general election.  At about 1o.30pm (local election polls closed at 9pm in those days) I learned my fate.  I’d doubled the Lib Dem vote to a mathematically pleasing 1,111 votes but had come third.  The new Conservative councillor, Mark Casewell, won with a comfortable majority over Labour.

Looking back, it’s remarkable how much has changed.  Redland has had LibDem councillors since 1999.  The Tories haven’t won a general election since that remarkable result in 1992.  Bristol West was Tory for 112 years until Waldegrave lost to Labour’s Valerie Davey in 1997, who I beat in 2005.

But campaigning has changed hugely too.  My campaign in 1992 would have been recognisable to candidates from previous decades.  Our volunteers delivered two leaflets and knocked on every door in the ward.  The leaflet text was composed on a typewriter and the black and white photographs were turned into dots for printing by a photo bureau.  The canvass cards for door knocking were made by me and my agent (Sean Emmett, cllr for Lockleaze since 2000) spending two evenings cutting up the election register and pritt-sticking each street onto card. The results of the canvassing were written up by hand onto triplicate carbon paper, to be used when “knocking up” supporters on polling day.  All of this now belongs in the museum of electioneering.

Just a year later computers started to make a difference.  This time I was fighting the Cabot ward of Avon County Council.  I was hoping to succeed a retiring Lib Dem councillor.  But victory was certainly not guaranteed as Labour had come within 25 votes of winning the city council seat in 1990.  Now the text (but not the photos) of leaflets was produced on a word processor.  My campaign was a trial for some new software (pleasingly called POLLY, and I can’t work out the acronym!) that enabled us to record canvass results.  This made it easier to produce target letters to supporters and swing voters.  It also automated polling day, though we ran a manual parallel operation.

In the intervening 19 years the use of IT has mushroomed in a way I couldn’t have foreseen.  I’ve used a public email address since 1997 and had a web site since 2000.  Now, virtually every politician uses social media.  I’ve been on Facebook for six years, started blogging after the 2010 general election and finally succumbed to Twitter a couple of months ago.

We can now communicate in so many ways.  But I think there is still no better way to feel the pulse of the electorate than to meet them on their own doorstep or on a street stall.  Whatever cleverdickery the geeks throw our way, politics should be primarily about people talking to each other.  MPs and councillors shouldn’t allow their lap tops and smart phones to become a barrier to face to face meetings between politicians and citizens.

I’ve fought eight elections in the last twenty years, winning five of them.  I was only really sure I was going to win one of them, when I defended my council seat for the last time in 1998.  My next scheduled encounter with the electorate is in 2015.  I’m sure there will be further campaign wizardry but speaking to people will be all the more vital in order to defend a ten year incumbency.  The Coalition Government has changed the tectonic plates of British politics more than any innovation in campaign techniques.  The last twenty years have been an amazing experience and I’m sure the coming years will be full of exciting twists and turns.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2012 10:52 pm

    For the record, the 8 elections so far have been:

    May 1992 – Bristol City Council (District Council) – Redland ward – third
    May 1993 – Avon County Council – Cabot ward – won (held)
    May 1995 – Bristol City Council (District and shadow unitary) – Cabot ward – won
    May 1997 – General Election – Bristol South – third
    May 1998 – Bristol City Council (unitary) – Cabot ward – won
    June 2001 – General Election – Bristol West – second
    May 2005 – General Election – Bristol West – won (gained)
    May 2010 – General Election – Bristol West – won

  2. John Rippon permalink
    May 8, 2012 12:31 am

    I was one of the “EARS” operators in the good old days, sometimes running two or more Wards from the same Committee Room. I ran our first Parallel dummy run alongside the traditional paper method at Barbara Janke’s successful campaign to win her first seat as BCC Councillor, I can proudly claim that of the 14 election candidates up for election or re-election they all won when I was the EARS operator.

    Now I intend to destroy this cosy system which resulted in the CONDEM coalition which brought so much misery now and in the future.

    I am urging ALL elderly and disabled people to get a postal vote and refuse to talk to any canvassers and thus completely remove themselves from the system. Then the TRUE force of the “Grey” and disabled vote will be able to smash the system for ALL Parties and allow us to vote for the Party who offer us the best deal: nobody at the polling station with a postal vote and no knocking-up lists.

  3. Mike Drew permalink
    May 8, 2012 10:01 am

    The cosy system is the FPtP electoral system which only the Lib Dems have been fighting against. If we had STV the outcome of the last election would have given far more options. Ufortunately the voters keep voting for Labour and the Tories so we are stuck with FPtP. and the present coalition.
    The Party Leadership has made mistakes but they have succeeded in removing the power of the PM to call an election when he likes. This means we do not now have a majority Tory government which would have happened if we allowed the only other option of a minority Tory government.

    • rosemary permalink
      May 8, 2012 12:02 pm

      Remind me which system Greece has?

    • robertjessetelford permalink
      May 8, 2012 6:11 pm

      Sorry, Mike, the Greens have been fighting against the electoral system for longer than the Lib Dems have, because we’ve existed for longer.

      Also, it was clear in 2010 that Clegg needed to hold out in the coalition negotiations for PR. Even after that, a lot of Greens campaigned for AV, only for Clegg’s huge unpopularity and Cameron’s wading in to be its downfall.

      I fail to see why anyone needs to know that Stephen has been a candidate for 20 years. Is this something to do with your mayoral run, Stephen?

      • May 9, 2012 5:13 am

        We’d have lost the referendum on PR too, though it was incredibly unlikely to be offered by Cameron. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy and needed a govt quickly.

      • robertjessetelford permalink
        May 9, 2012 6:34 am

        Clegg didn’t ask, so we’ll never know. Compromise from the outset is a hollow philosophy.

      • May 9, 2012 6:42 am

        Rob, how do you know what Clegg asked?

        The Tories knew that AV and PR would bury them in the polls. Few have a Tory as second preference…

        I wonder if Clegg had put up more of a fight on tuition fees, it might have been possible to actually win the referendum.

        I’m afraid that compromise is the name of the game in non-dictatorships, especially PR.

      • robertjessetelford permalink
        May 9, 2012 7:37 am

        His red lines were all wrong. We could argue about this til the cows come home, but it doesn’t change the reality that Clegg was dumb and the UK suffers as a result.

      • May 9, 2012 9:21 am

        I don’t see that Clegg made any mistakes other than
        1) putting Lord Sharkey in charge of the Yes! campaign
        2) having non-existent media relations team.
        3) not battling harder over tuition fees.
        4) not pushing for co-ops instead of corporations in NHS outsourcing.

        His problem is that most decision he made aren’t easy to explain. That and #2.

      • May 9, 2012 12:38 pm

        Rob – 1) The Liberals have been at the vanguard of electoral reform since 1832. PR was first debated in 1885. It has been Liberal policy since 1922. It was SDP policy from 1981. And by the way, we were arguing for green policies before the Green Party cam along too!
        2) On the coalition negotiations – Labour offered us nothing more than a Commons vote on a Bill for an AV referendum. They would not guarantee Labour MPs voting for it. As we know, a huge number of Labour MPs opposed any reform. So to get a Tory whipped vote for an AV referendum was a good result. If you think we could have “held out ” for PR you are living in cloud cuckoo land.
        3) I write about all sort of things on my blog. This article was about how campaign techniques have changed over 20 years. If you don’t need to know, then don’t read it and don’t comment!

      • robertjessetelford permalink
        May 9, 2012 1:31 pm

        Stephen – 1) The Liberal Democrats were formed on 2nd March 1988 (, so we have been talking about it longer than you have. 2) You’re right. I don’t think you should have “held out” for PR – that was the wrong phrase. I think you should have made PR conditional on the whole coalition, as I think I said to you in your first surgery after the election. Why play into the Tories’ hands? What’s the point of that? 3) My question was more to do with your motives for why you have posted this now. Clearly you aren’t going to answer my original question, which I suppose makes sense…

  4. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    May 8, 2012 1:46 pm

    rosemary. My guess is abit like ours. You go to the “right” university. You know the “right” people. You become a lawyer, work in the office of a politician, or perhaps the media. If you are one of the “right” candidates you stand for a safe seat. You make promises you cannot, or perhaps never intend to keep. You run the country for your own ends, the power, or just plain ego. You get rumbled, kicked out, and leave the mess for the next lot, and it all starts again. And off you go making speeches to those with far more money than sense, and making youself even richer. Is that too cynical?

    • rosemary permalink
      May 8, 2012 3:47 pm

      But on top of all that you have PR in Greece, so when the chaos becomes visible even to the politicians and media, a strong government can’t be elected to deal with it. No government there at all as I type this, but plenty of extremists in the wings waiting to take over, who have been allowed to gain a footing by the PR system. Hitler got in democratically that way too.

      • May 8, 2012 4:24 pm

        Rosemary – Germany has a PR system yet has strong government. The CDU/FDP coalition is very similar to our own Con-Lib coalition. The Swedes, Danes and Dutch also have fared well over many decades under PR and coalitions.

        Re that old canard about Hitler – if first past the post had existed in 1933 the Nazis would probably have won an outright majority in the Reichstag. But the PR system STOPPED the Nazis from winning a majority.

      • May 8, 2012 6:02 pm

        Situations like that happen every 80 years or so.

        Incidentally, this about the same time gap between those rare opportunities when Labour and the Consevatives don’t alternate having absolute power.

      • rosemary permalink
        May 8, 2012 7:18 pm

        My point Stephen was that Hitler didn’t have to get a majority under PR. He got enough seats to start the Third Reich with the help of small allied parties who would not have existed but for PR. PR helps fringe parties to come to power.

      • rosemary permalink
        May 8, 2012 7:31 pm

        On your modern German point, Stephen, this is a system whereby the party which attracts 5% of the voters decides who forms the government. Dr Genscher, for example, regularly toppled the government and formed a new one, while always holding his favourite post of Foreign Minister. He carried on doing that for about twenty years. Here, it is called the tail wagging the dog.

  5. Peter Heaney permalink
    May 8, 2012 3:08 pm

    I’m getting on (76), and unfortunately am only a watered down campaigner.

  6. May 9, 2012 5:19 am

    Hitler wrote the Enabling Act, a law which granted him absolute power in the event of a national emergency. The Nazis then burnt down the Reichstag…

    Nu Labour copied this Enabling Act pretty much word for word and made it part of the Civil Contingencies Act. I don’t think it’s smaller parties we have to worry about (under PR).

  7. icampion permalink
    May 10, 2012 7:17 am

    Aahh! Those were the days! As I recall POLLY was simply a contraction of Polling Day. It helped make the break through in Henleaze in 1994.
    20 years on and still one of your local geeks.

  8. May 10, 2012 7:21 am


    Who should decide in the event of a minority if not the smaller parties?

    • rosemary permalink
      May 10, 2012 12:30 pm

      I am only pointing out what can and does happen in practice, lest people think there is some ideal form of representative democracy which we haven’t tried yet. We also need to be aware of Lord Hailsham’s description of the present system, as you yourself seem to be.

      When there is a hung parliament the monarch has a part to play too, which the recent run of cabinet secretaries seem to have been obscuring from us.

      • rosemary permalink
        May 15, 2012 9:11 pm

        32 parties to choose from, and still no government in Greece, despite the whole continent, and indeed the world, desperately needing one to be formed. PR didn’t do Italy any good either.

        I still think the Germans have prospered despite PR, not because of it. They have prospered because of their national character, formed in part through the trauma of what they went through in 1922-3, and the two wars. The Japanese have reacted positively to their past in a similar way, and despite their electoral system – which has been thought to cause corruption through prolonging the Liberal Democrat monopoly.

  9. May 16, 2012 10:05 am

    The British FPTP system for the House of Commons and local councillors in England and Wales is now hardly used in any democracy. PR is an umbrella term and there are other systems like AV (rejected last year) and SV (which will be used for our mayoral election) which lie somewhere between FPTP and PR. But there are so many systems of PR that it is not really rational to argue against the concept. I like the German system but would not want the pure system used in Israel. Greece has a really weird 50 bonus seats for the party/ies in govt, to give them a secure majority. FPTP is a system that cushioned Labour that cushioned a discredited and unpopular party in 2010 (Labour got 29% of the vote, which should have given them about 184 seats, not the 257 they “won”) and also gave the world George W Bush, who got half a million fewer votes than Al Gore.

  10. rosemary permalink
    May 16, 2012 11:03 am

    Good summary, Stephen!

    I just want good administration with no corruption, and as little bureaucracy as possible. I’m not too bothered about whether the administration is elected, so long as it delivers peace and prosperity in the fullest sense. Democracy as we know it may yet turn out to be a passing phase, not the end of history.

    • rosemary permalink
      May 21, 2012 2:00 pm

      PS corruption in my book includes bribing the electorate.

  11. May 22, 2012 11:37 am

    Occasionally, it’s worth taking a risk with an all-powerful govt such as during times of war or economic crisis. These happen maybe once every 50 years.
    Even then it would be much better to have a Greek-style winner’s bonus (the Italians also have it) rather than the unbelievably undemocratic FPTP system. This system has kept the Tories in power forever and Labour since the 1930s, which breeds a duopolistic type of corruption -> power corrupts and power attracts the corrupt.

    But 9 parliaments out of 10, a coalition is better.

    STV has another nice feature. It encourages parties to put up multiple candidates so that the public can often oust bad MPs.

  12. Roger Roberts/Wales permalink
    May 1, 2013 6:38 pm

    My Conwy candidature – 5 times,( lost by 995 votes).A day might start at 8 am ,Put double edged tape or gum on window and car stickers, cut stencil for hand operated Gestetner duplicator, Print foolscap leaflets (two to a page), cut in half ! Leave H.Q. at 9, Loudspeaker on roof of car, pocketful of coppers( had to stop at Public Telephone Kiosks to keep in touch with H.Q.) Full door knocking /visiting day. three or four evening meetings etc, etc.You are right Stephen, campaigning has changed ! but we met people !


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