A small flavour of what it has been like to campaign here amongst you.
As it was announced on a grey and grisly Friday morning that the Conservatives had enough seats to form a majority government, my 11-year-old son Fred glanced from the TV screen to watch the Heavens opening outside. “It is,” he said, “as if the world is crying.”
The results sure did drown Liberal hopes. I see no point trying to paint a false gloss. We knew this would be a tough election because we had taken some very difficult decisions in government. The smaller party in any coalition tends to be blamed for unpopular decisions and unrewarded for achievements such as the economic turn-around and improvements to our schools. What no one saw was the tsunami that overwhelmed previous safe Liberal Democrat seats, turning crisis into catastrophe.
Here in Maidstone and the Weald we were left shocked and utterly over-awed. On the night before polling, even the right-wing Spectator magazine predicted a Lib Dem victory and declared that Conservative Helen Grant was “toast”.
The BBC SE political editor had reported it was on a knife-edge here, and David Cameron was even quizzed at to why the Lib Dems were running the Tories so close in Maidstone. Anecdotally, those of different parties who had attended the postal vote openings whispered it was neck and neck. Nick Clegg had even been down the weekend before polling for his second visit of the campaign, cutting Fred his cake and wishing him happy birthday: it was a party mood.
Despite the exuberance of some of supporters, I was always wary. The Conservatives are a hugely powerful and wealthy machine. I realised it would be a monumental achievement even to run Helen Grant close. After all, my predecessor Peter Carroll had finished 12% behind and since then our national poll rating had slumped by two-thirds.
We had fought a phenomenal local campaign, knocking on 35,000 doors and more than doubling the membership of our local party, as well as delivering a quite bewildering array of leaflets (to our army of helpers: thank you, thank you, thank you). Victory was always going to be extremely tough: what I never saw coming was the near wipe out on polling day. But then nobody did. It was as if the public very nearly destroyed Britain’s most venerable political party, by accident.
It started to turn against us a few days earlier in Maidstone. Clearly, the Conservatives woke up – perhaps a little belatedly – to the fight they faced. They started to put out, seemingly daily, a fresh national leaflet by an army of paid-for deliverers (one was a young Eastern European who stopped to ask me the way; many answers came to mind, but he looked so bewildered I took pity).
The Tory message he was unwittingly delivering was cynically negative, but devastatingly effective: vote Lib Dem, get the SNP. As our party had expressly ruled out any deal whatsoever with Nicola Sturgeon, this was a lie. The Conservatives could not even argue that by voting Lib Dem in Maidstone the electorate might let Labour in by the back door, helping Ed Miliband strike a deal with SNP – the Labour candidate, an honourable man, admitted he was never in contention here and in the end Labour’s percentage share barely rose from 2010.
Election day started at 4am with my wife and I, accompanied by a brace of baronesses, delivering a “good morning” leaflet to Fant, before being among the first to vote in Laddingford at 7am.
Despite over 100 friends and colleagues coming into the constituency to help out, polling day began to resemble one long, curiously slow car crash, as we toured our local HQs. Voter after voter who had previously promised to support me said sheepishly that, much as it pained them, they would have to vote Tory to keep out Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon.
From the first few doors, I sensed the game was up – but still the quite unbelievably brilliant group of helpers buoyed me and we carried on “knocking up” until polls closed at 10pm. Finally, I had a glass of wine (Chateau Consolation, perhaps: my wife had put me on a no-alcohol diet for the last few months, knowing that as I had not had a day off since Christmas, putting booze into my system would be like filling a petrol motor with diesel).
I was left reflecting that history's judgement of Nick Clegg will be a good deal kinder than the one delivered by the BBC exit poll.
Some time before dawn, the result was declared. I didn’t take in the numbers. Formalities – and a little Tory unpleasantness - passed in a blur. I congratulated Helen Grant on a very clear victory and wished her well for the next five years representing the wonderful people of this constituency.
I also thanked our supporters, and this I would now like to place on record: "Team Maidstone", namely Sam Roach, Emily Fermor, Laura Scott, Becky Carr, Rachel Palma-Randall; all the officers of the local party including our chairperson Jane Bird and Rochelle Harris who organised enough stuffing to bring Amazon to its knees; Tommy Long for being my agent and Rob Bird for keeping us all in order; Sue Grigg, our fundraiser and the donors who fuelled our campaign; regular canvassers such as Ray Yorke, James Willis, Andrew Cockersole, Derek Mortimer, Brian Mortimer, Richard Webb and Richard Underhill to name but a very few; our data team including Hilary Yorke and Michelle Hastie; Dan Daley for dealing with so much case work and Martin Cox for the libraries of leaflets he printed; the team who kept me going on election day, namely Antony Hook, Baroness Alison Suttie, Baroness Jane Bonham-Carter and Henry Morrow; the scores of people who turned up to help, including old friends in the party stretching back years such as Neil Sherlock, Ian Wright, Julian Astle and Baroness Kate Parminter; Dorothy Weedon who got the local party going half a century ago and was still ringing supporters at 9.50pm, pleading with them to vote for the party she loves; and especially the 500 volunteers who week after week, sometimes day after day, who trudged down the same streets delivering leaflets for us for no other reason than that they wanted to see a different, better kind of representation for our area; and of course my wife Diana and children Emilia and Fred, who put up with me doing this full time without pay for the last two and a half years. The experience might have broken a lesser marriage but Brian Clark noted how she was still phoning people at 9.50pm, urging them to go out and vote – thank you all.
Above all, I would like to thank the thousands of people who did vote for me, despite the fear tactics. All I can say is I did my best. I need to rest and earn some money, but the local party remains here for you.
I have met some incredibly lovely local people knocking on doors. Yes, there was one man who got out a knife (I ran down the path, looked over my shoulder and shouted: “I’ll put you down as an undecided”), and I was stabbed by a sharp object putting a leaflet through a door. I have also met enough well-trained guard dogs to populate Battersea Dogs Home, but I can report I have survived with all digits just about in place.
For the most part people have been so amazingly warm. It has been a great pleasure along the way to do a small amount of good, whether sorting out a planning issue or getting a family re-housed or having a pensioner’s heating put back on. We have campaigned against pollution, poor bus services, dangerous crossings – the list is long. I have fought alongside some doughty campaigners in the local community and together we have saved local woodland, won funding for flood defences, rural broadband and for three local schools. These are not meagre achievements and despite the result, this makes the last three years hugely worthwhile.
I am proud that for probably the first time in living memory, the unrepresented majority who are not Conservative in this seat were given a genuinely competitive election. People DO care about politics, and they appreciate it when political parties care about their area. I am only sorry I came up short.
Thank you for letting me be part of it all – here’s hoping that election 2020 will be greeted with a little sunshine...
13th May 2015