Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 27 February 2010

My experiences as a first time council election candidate

So the Owlsmoor by-elections were on Thursday and I didn't win as I blogged about briefly on Friday morning. I did however come second in both the Borough and Town elections behind the Tories who retained both seats.

To be honest, this is the sort of result that we have come to expect in Sandhurst and the Bracknell constituency more generally. The Conservatives hold 39 out of the 42 Bracknell Forest Borough Council seats (the other three are held by Labour) and the entirety of Sandhurst Town Council. They have a big constituency presence with many more members than we do and from what I can tell they mobilised their machine very well for the by-elections. I am sure they had more people on the ground than we did and hence would have been able to do more canvassing and get their vote out more effectively. I am not complaining however. They won fair and square.

I wanted to talk a little bit about some of my experiences as the candidate in the last few weeks from the perspective of someone who has been very interested in politics for around 20 years but until a few weeks ago had never stood for elected political office. I have certainly learnt a lot, much of which will hopefully stand me in good stead next time. And I fully intend there to be a next time!

The first thing that struck me after having been selected by the local party to fight the seats was that once I was knocking on doors it was no longer "Hello, I'm calling on behalf of X". I was X! There was nobody to hide behind. It was me that had to provide all the answers and to try to persuade people to vote for me. As someone said to me the other day, it's the sort of situation that really highlights your sales skills trying to sell yourself! It's probably invidious to try and judge how well I did on this front and of course there is no control experiment where I didn't bother knocking on any doors to see what the difference in the vote would have been had I not bothered but I am pretty sure I persuaded some of those I spoke to. That was certainly the impression I was left with. And some of them were tough cookies too! I was grilled about all sorts of stuff such as the rate of increase of council tax over the years (one chap wanted to know the exact figures year on year) and various questions about exactly what we would do about things like gritting the roads, bin collections etc. I even ended up with some casework for example discussing housing issues with someone.

I spent as much time as I reasonably could going around the ward knocking on doors and speaking to people. I personally knocked on several hundred doors and spoke to lots of voters. Some of my colleagues also did canvassing so in the end we covered a fair bit of the ward (although not all of it) but we only did one pass so if people were out (which about half of them were) that was our only shot. I have done this sort of thing before both locally and also in other constituencies but this was the most intense it has been with me going out several times each week and as much as I could at the weekends. It is quite tiring to knock on door after door and speak to people in this way but also I found it very rewarding. Late last Sunday afternoon, I arrived home still buzzing from some of the positive reaction I had had on the doorstep and decided I wanted to go out again straight after dinner to do some more. I think I had started to contract candidateitis if such a thing exists!

My main campaign message was that the Conservatives are very dominant and we are best placed to take the seat from them. We wanted to get some more opposition on the council and hold them to account a little bit more. I also asked many people I spoke to when the last time they had had their councillors knocking on their door outside of election time and the answer from everyone was never. I found that quite odd as the Lib Dem councillors I know from other constituencies never seem to stop and are out on their patches regularly canvassing and talking to people. I could only conclude that the dynamics are very different here because the seats are perceived as so safe that the councillors do not feel the need to do this. However I did feel that this message was resonating. Obviously given the result it was not enough and it is hard to know as I write if it's just because we didn't manage to speak to enough people and then get our vote out or if the message was wrong. I think analysis of the voting returns might provide some answers to this which we are going to do at some point.

I was particularly struck by a discussion with one chap on the doorstep who instantly told me he was going to vote for me and explained that the reason was because he had met my Conservative opponent and he had not been at all impressed. He had got the impression from the candidate that everything was fine and nothing needed to change which did not chime with his experiences at all. There are some problems in the ward and I found it odd that my opponent's message to this chap was to just ignore it.

Probably the best moment of the campaign for me was after I was walking back to my car following my delivery of my share of the "good morning" leaflets on the election day itself I bumped into a chap who had given me a fair grilling a couple of nights before on the doorstep on his way back from the polling station. He told me that he had voted Conservative in the past and was thinking of doing it again (the Conservatives had been the only other party to knock on his door). However after quite a bit of discussion he had told me that I had left him with some thinking to do. Anyway on the morning of the election he told me that he had "given me my chance". It was very encouraging to hear that my arguments had convinced someone like this.

At other times during the day I spent some time telling at the polling station. For anyone who doesn't know, this is where you try to get as many of the polling card numbers from those voting as possible so you can cross-reference this with those who said they would vote for you and then use that data to "knock-up" later on if they haven't yet voted. It was another new experience for me and whilst most people were happy to give their numbers, a few weren't.

The most enjoyable part of the telling though was to be able to speak at length to activists and candidates from the opposing sides. I got the opportunity to meet one of the Conservative candidates and the Labour and UKIP candidates too as well as various other members of all of those parties. We had some good debates in the 3 or so hours I spent doing this during the day punctuated by asking for people's numbers. For a local party like ours which has no council representation this is probably the most chance that we get to meet and interact with our political opponents. For someone who enjoys good political discussion it was great fun and there was quite a bit of common ground on a number of issues. There was also some banter and winding each other up!

I would particularly like to mention the Labour Party candidate Guy Gillbe. He is a 19 year old student who was standing for his first time and he was very impressive. He has a good knowledge and understanding of politics, certainly more than I did at his age and although I didn't agree with everything he had to say he was very good at arguing his case on all the issues we discussed. He is already the head of some sort of EU youth federalist group within his party (which went down well with the UKIP activists!) and I would suggest he is one to watch in the future. It was quite touching to see his proud father at the count later on and everyone from all parties were in agreement that it was great to see someone so young standing.

The count was held shortly after the polls closed in an office in Bracknell. I was there with several party colleagues and the small room was very full with representatives of all the parties standing (except the Greens) in attendance. I had already attended a count for the Euro elections last year but this was very different. Firstly it was a much smaller number of votes, but much more importantly it was my name on the ballot paper! That was quite surreal to see.

They started off by sorting out the ballot papers into Town (yellow) and Borough (white) as we observed. Within about 5 minutes it was clear to me that I had not won in either election. The typical sequence from both colours was: Tory, Tory, Tory, Lib Dem, Tory, Tory, Labour, Tory, Tory, Lib Dem, UKIP, Tory etc. It was obvious that around half the ballots had been cast for the incumbents and it was extremely unlikely that this pattern was not going to be repeated throughout all the ballots as indeed it proved. The only question then was who was going to come second.

It was however quite satisfying to see at they started to sort the ballots into the different trays that the one with my name on it was getting a decent share which made it clear I was coming second in both elections by quite some distance.

Once the results were announced there was the standard congratulations to the winners and commiserations to the rest.

So my conclusions from the entire roller-coaster experience of the last few weeks are as follows. Firstly, being a candidate is a pretty tiring experience! I have been trying to relax a fair bit over this weekend so far and I really need to to re-charge my batteries. Knocking on so many doors whilst still doing my full time job helping to run a company as well as all my other commitments such as blogging and podcasting etc. takes it out of you! However it was immensely enjoyable. The feeling of being the person asking for people's trust and actually seeing them won over through my arguments is something that I found very rewarding. There were of course a few bad experiences on the doorstep but they were far outweighed by the positive ones and I found lots of people willing to talk and grateful for someone asking them for their opinions on local issues.

I also have some ideas of how we can do better the next time I stand. I am convinced that even though we are in a strong Tory area we have a strong message and the potential to help people with their problems locally. Even one Conservative activist I spoke to on election day said that he hoped I would win! He said that we needed some fresh blood and fresh ideas on the council. If even some Conservatives themselves recognise this then it is a message that I am sure will resonate more widely within this constituency. To be honest I was not that surprised - one party dominance can become very stultifying after a time. I also intend to follow up on the little bits of casework I picked up even if it is just to follow up with the council and pass onto the winning candidates.

I would also like to thank all my party colleagues here for their help in the last few weeks. I won't embarrass any of them by singling them out by name but they have been great with help, advice and support throughout the campaign and well as getting my leaflets out to every house in the ward and helping with canvassing.

My next opportunity will likely be in 2011 in the main council elections here. At least on that occasion we know well in advance what the election date is so instead of a 5 week run-in we have much longer. I was always intending to start knocking on doors for next year's elections well ahead of that date. These by-elections have given me some great practise for this and hopefully I can get an even better result next time.


Adam said...

Stand in Wokingham somewhere! You'd have a far better chance ;)

@jasonjhunter said...

Hiya Mark, as a first time prospective candidate myself, I found your insight fascinating - I'll be forwarding the link onto colleagues :-)

Keep up the good work.

Richard Peat said...

In Wokingham? That has been steadily sliding more and more Tory for years. A LibDem maybe has a chance over towards Woodley or Winnersh, but the borough council as a whole is Tory and has been for years.

With regards to seeing our local councillor, out in Arborfield we have one seat, so we actually only get a chance to vote every few years, which surprise surprise is the only time I usually see him.

Mark Pack said...

Great that you've enjoyed and are already thinking about next time. Have fun!

ceedee said...

Good work, Mark.
It's a lot of work but I'll bet it'll be a lot closer next election.

dazmando said...

Mark I wish I could of helped more, but it was fun to knock on door with you. Your a great candidate and Im sure if we put more effort in (ie over more time) we can make a break through in 2011.

Tanya Jones said...

Well done Mark! It's great to see committed and enthusiastic people getting involved like this. Did any of the public express disillusionment with the leadership of the main parties whilst supporting them locally? This is the sort of situation I'm finding myself in: whilst voting Tory would be a massive stretch for me, I do think they're doing a great job in my area.

oldbiddy said...

Your appraisal of the election process and your experiences in it were so interesting. You articulated some of the things I have noticed over the years (having been at this a lot longer than you!) Your enthusiasm was and is invigorating. Go Mark Go.

oldbiddy said...

Just a second comment in response to Tanya. There was a real disillusionment with all Westminster MPs whatever party and whether or not they have been involved in recent scandals. My own impression whilst canvassing was that whereas in the past some voters have considered national elections more important than local (something I personally do not agree with)this time many had no patience with either.

Kalvis Jansons said...

Better luck next time! I just wish you were in my area.