Friday, 17 August 2007

20 Years a Liberal - A Walk Down Memory Lane Part 2

Well, it seems that my blog post of two days ago generated a fair bit of interest. Perhaps some people were sweating. Some of you seem to have been champing at the bit for the second instalment, so much so that I had a phone call this afternoon demanding to know where it was!

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

A couple of days ago was the 20th Anniversary of my joining the Shepway Liberal Association. I charted part of the early part of my political career. I skirted over a few minor details including delivering leaflets out in the Elmsted and Stone Street area with John Gretton who was very unlucky one year not to get elected. He sadly lost it on the toss of a coin (or something like that). I also forgot to mention that I'd helped out a keen young candidate (I've forgotten his name) in a by-election in Selly Oak Ward back in 1989. Poor bloke got something like 6% of the vote if my memory serves me right. Happier times were to be had during a by-election in Acocks Green where Paul Schofield (wonder where he is now?) won a council by-election. This was the first time I came into contact with John Hemming, Dave Luscombe (who for years produced stickers for many of us in the Party), Bill Coyle, Neil Eustace, Paul Tilsley and Sue Anderson. The latter two had first become Councillors in the 1970s Wallace Lawlor days. I seemed to have loads of energy in those days and gained a lot of activist experience!

Sadly, I can't claim to have helped get David Bellotti elected in Eastborne but remember when David was Honorary President of the Student Liberal Democrats.

1991 had seen me stand for office for the first time. If that year had been a strong testing ground for my political stamina, 1992 was to be even greater. I had been not only selected by the Birmingham North West Liberal Democrats as the PPC for Birmingham Perry Barr, I had also been selected as Focus Team Leader for Perry Barr Ward. The stage was potentially set for me to make history as the youngest Councillor in Birmingham for about 20 years (since Paul Tilsley and Sue Anderson had first been elected).

I was incredibly lucky to campaign with some really great people. Ray Hassall was, of course, the trailblazer for the Liberal Democrats in the ward and is still going strong after all these years. We still keep in touch from time to time. Although he had to keep it under his hat as he worked as Medical Correspondent in those days for the Birmingham Post, Jonathan Hunt was my campaign manager (although his wife Marcia was expecting their first child, Andrew just before the local election campaign). Kevin McCarthy was my excellent Agent and, as a printer, he was pretty nifty in putting together Focuses. We started at about that time using a combination of desk top publishing and letrasetting to put together our Focuses. We also started to target specific areas of the ward with more localised leaflets on issues of specific concern - yellow lines, overgrown trees, parking problems, dropped kerbs, crime and other issues seem to spring back to mind. As a young candidate (22! - seems old now in the light of recent legislation) I had to try to build up my credibility amongst the electorate and the only way to do it was ALDC style. I also had a great team of dedicated deliverers. There was Tina in Montana Avenue (?) and her two lovely daughters who did a fair bit of delivery. My colleague Mark Wilson, his wife Debbie and Daughter Anna and a few other regulars who turned out on a regular basis delivered their socks off. We were a good solid team and it was a real privilege to lead them.

It was a pretty dedicated effort there and I was out most evenings campaigning away but it was a lot easier as there was a team.

The Tories under Major seemed to be on the slide. He hadn't exactly set the world on fire, he was widely mocked as the grey man (of course, we didn't know about him and Edwina Curry at that point!) and he looked on the way out. Little did we fail to factor in both the impact of the First Gulf War on his standing and also Kinnock and his Labour Party's ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

My principal opponents for the Perry Barr seat were sitting Labour MP Jeff Rooker (now Lord Rooker - who I learned a lot from on how to work a crowd) and Graham Green the Tory. I treated the election as a learning experience and wanted clearly to achieve at least the same level of vote as the Liberal Alliance Candidate for 1987, Former West Midlands Police Commander David Webb. Webb had been responsible for pioneering Community Policing in Handsworth (then part of the Perry Barr Constituency), which had reduced tensions in the area after the Handsworth Riots of the early 80s.

Funnily enough, as I write this, BBC Four are showing Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain and briefly showed the "Sheffieldberg" Rally where Kinnock and Labour cocked it up through their overconfidence.

I had a fair bit of fun during the 1992 General Election campaign and I had a good pitch since I was working as a research assistant at the former Birmingham Polytechnic, recently renamed the University of Central England in Birmingham, so although I didn't live there I did work in the constituency. Some of the highlights were speaking to the local branch of the Pensioners' Convention, an absolutely hilarious time at Matthew Bolton Technical College, a bastion of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) - splitters! The Students Union Banner was Red (of course) with a Hammer and Kalashnikov on it. Hmm.... I pitched my speech on the lines that the Liberal Democrats were the only party genuinely offering political change for the UK. I don't think it really cut much ice but I'm certainly glad that I wasn't the Tory who came to speak. They literally roasted him alive! I had to admire his guts though. Lynne Jones was also there representing Labour (they also gave her a bit of a hard time too). There was the one Joint Churches meeting in the constituency in addition to the Pensioners Convention meeting and that was that. I really cut my political teeth there.

In terms of the national campaign, I don't think that Paddy Ashdown and Des Wilson could have done much more. Unfortunately all the talk towards the end of the campaign was about hung parliaments and although the canvassing seemed to suggest that we had grounds for optimism to gain ground regrettably it wasn't to be.

Paddy Ashdown came to Birmingham Yardley during the election campaign and I had the pleasure of delivering leaflets and canvassing with him and the Yardley Crowd.
As it was patently obvious to us all on the ground that I wasn't going to win Birmingham Perry Barr and become the first Liberal MP for the area for decades, I agreed with my team that I would spend election day in Birmingham Yardley.

We were pretty optimistic that we could get John Hemming elected but alas, it wasn't to be as we were unable to convince the people of Yardley that he could win. This theme of "if people believed the Liberal Democrats could win this is how they would vote" would be one of the sub-themes of campaigns that would follow in 2001 and 2005. John was and is made of stern stuff and he stuck at it.

I'm stuggling for some odd reason to remember where we held the count. I think it was at the National Convention Centre but I honestly can't remember (I'm sure someone does out there - please remind me). It was all a bit of a blur. I recall making a short speech hoping that that would be the last election held under the present electoral system. Rooker thought that there might be a chance of a Labour Goverment. We were both wrong.

As the results came in it became clear that the Tories were holding on against the odds pretty much. The election was also a personal disappointment for Paddy Ashdown as we failed to make the hoped for breakthrough (it's hard to believe that we only had only 20 seats in those days). The only real highlight of the night was when Don Foster took Bath from Chris Patten - ironically pushing him onto an international diplomatic career which would make him the last Governor of Hong Kong and a democratic radical. Chris Patten would also do a pretty good job of developing EU relations with China increasing the emphasis on human rights issues. It's not often I praise a Tory but Patten had and has some diplomatic strengths.

[If only he had been in the post 10 years earlier then potentially Hong Kong would be more democratic today than it is under the joke that is One Country - Two Systems. C'mon, you know how hard it is for me to go for a day without a dig at the beloved Chinese Communist Party.]

So, the final result was:

Rooker (Lab) 27507 (53.2%)
Green (Con) 18917 (36.6%)
Philpott (L Dem) 5261 (10.2%)

I suffered a tiny swing against of about 2% which I was a bit disappointed about but it was about average for the national result.

It had been my true baptism of fire and I was really grateful for the opportunity to stand. Once again Tony Slavin came to the rescue and put up the £500 deposit which I'm really pleased that I managed to defend.

But, the General Election wasn't the end of it. I had a day off and then it was full tilt into the local elections in May. No rest for the wicked.

The Tories had been pretty much murdered in Perry Barr the year before, but rejuvinated after the General Election and with voters demotivated it was an uphill battle that year. Despite working our socks off unfortunately it wasn't to be and the Tories managed to hold the seat. I went down by 700 votes in a strong second place. Unfortunately we had failed to squeeze the Labour vote hard (Rooker also intervened and went out canvassing to hold up the Labour vote) and that was that. My record breaking dream went up in smoke.

On the night it was said by the commentator on Radio WM (Ed Doolan?) that I had done well for a 22 year old (I think I was the youngest candidate in the City of the major three parties) but Dave Luscombe, the Lib Dem Council Group Leader rightly stated that I would be very disappointed which I was.

I got to bed about 5 a.m. and frankly found it hard to get up the next day.

I've always been very resilient though and never let things get me down for long. It's a characteristic that has stood me in good stead down the years (and one I have had to draw upon again in recent times).

The analysis of my team and myself was that we'd failed to pick up the Labour vote and squeeze it hard. Our canvass returns had suggested that I would be on target to win. We had also worked to the bitter end to get the voters out. I even dragged a young voter out of his house and down the road at about 8.56 p.m.! Poor bloke.

The Labour candidate was a bloke called Mike Leddy, who Private Eye famously later described as "More wooden than Benny from Crossroads". Oooooooooooohhhhhhh!!! I have to say that there was no love lost between the Lib Dems and Labour in Perry Barr which made Ashdown's flirtation with Blair all the more irritating when it was revealed in his diaries.

I learned a hard lesson about proper voter ID and turnout which I would apply ruthlessly later in 2001 as a campaign manager.

So, it was a couple of days off, then pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. That's what being a Lib Dem was all about then and is still even now at times. It has got easier though.

I want to put on public record my thanks to all the people who helped me with those two campaigns and particularly Jon Hunt, Kevin McCarthy and Ray Hassall who all gave me lots of encouragement, support and a kick up the backside when I needed to keep motivated to go out in the pouring rain. It was a dreadfully wet winter and spring. I also want to thank Tony for putting up the deposit and helping to fund the campaign. As you can see, it might have been a few years ago now guys but you've not been forgotten.

That's 1992. I've written enough for now. More will follow perhaps over the weekend.


Dominic said...

They literally roasted him alive! I had to admire his guts though
You're clearly a lot less squeamish than me! ;o)

The Wilted Rose said...

Fantastic article, Toby, and things in UCE are similar in many ways to when you left -- by the way, Javed says hello!

Toby Philpott said...

Hello to Javed too! It's been a while. :-) Good to hear from you and thanks for the link on your blog.

I'll reciprocate the favour. Give me a nudge if I haven't done it in the next couple of days.

The Wilted Rose said...

Thanks for reciprocating the link. I'll pass on details of your blog to Javed (a good friend of mine) as he'll be very interested. I forgot to mention I used to work at Durham too :-)

Birmingham is changing politically, with the composition of the Council; the result in Yardley in 2005, and the strong chances of Hall Green being a LibDem gain at the next election. But it's fascinating to read your reminiscences of when you were in the area.

Good luck.