I had some sad news when I woke up this morning. A good friend of mine, Audrey Barker, had died at the age of 91.
I first met Audrey in 1985 when she became Conservative Party Agent in Norwich North. At the time, I had just left university and was working for the local MP, Patrick Thompson.
For those of a younger generation, in the 1980s many constituencies had a party agent. Safe constituencies invariably always did. They could afford them. In marginal seats like Norwich North money was always tight and it was rarer. But in the two Norwich constituencies - both of which had turned Conservative in 1983 - there were two redoubtable agents - Phyllis Reeve in Norwich South and Audrey in Norwich North. Phyllis was a dreadnought of an agent - chainsmoking, didn’t suffer fools (or politicians) gladly but with great political acumen. Audrey was similar, but didn’t smoke.
Being an agent was being part of a profession. Agents had to undergo rigorous training and they were a breed apart. They were all fairly contemptuous of the politicians they served, regarding political candidates as “a legal necessity”. There could be spectacular fallings out between candidate and agent, as I was later to discover in my North Norfolk campaign in 2005.
Both Audrey and Phyllis were prone to tell people exactly what they thought of them in no uncertain terms. They were of the view that there could only be one boss in a candidate-agent relationship and it certainly wasn’t the candidate. I can’t recall any big row between Audrey and Patrick, but I that wasn’t for the want of her gunning for one from time to time.
Norwich North was a marginal seat. Patrick had beaten David Ennals, the former Health Secretary in 1983, the campaign which gave me my political blooding. I took over the organisation of the campaign in the roughest and most anti Conservative ward in the constituency, the Mile Cross Estate. It was 95% council housing, with some tower blocks thrown in for good measure. We leafleted every single house four times and canvassed each house and I had a full ‘Get out the Vote’ operation on polling day. This had never been done before, but with Right to Buy, there were vote to be had in areas like that. When the Mile Cross ballot boxes were opened we couldn’t believe how many Tory votes poured out of them.
For that election Phyllis Reeve had been the agent for both seats, but each seat had a separate Tory association. Norwich North was an oddity in that half the voters were in wards within the City boundaries, while the other half came from the Broadland District Council area. After the election they decided to continue separately. I always thought it was ridiculous not to have a single Norwich Conservative Association. Even now, thirty years on, it’s the same to all intents and purposes.
Campaigning in the mid 1980s was very different. Audrey was old school agent. Organise hustings, candidate speaker meetings, write an election address and a couple of other leaflets, organise the candidate’s itinerary, canvassing teams and job done. On polling day organise ‘tellers’ (the people who ask for your polling number outside the polling station) and make sure the NCRs (No Carbon Required) were printed properly so we could tick off all the supporters who had turned out and then ‘knock up’ those who hadn’t later in the day.
Pic: My desk at the Norwich North Conservative Office, 168 Wroxham Road, Norwich.
There was no internet and no social media. As the election drew nearer I shifted from working in the House of Commons to working in Norwich. It was great to move back there, having spent four years studying German at UEA. Half my salary was paid by Conservative Central Office as I was spending half of my time cranking up political campaigning in the run-up to the election. I went on courses at CCO and was very keen to trial direct mail, which was in its infancy. During the campaign itself we delivered personally signed letters to all Conservative pledges, possible supporters and anyone identified as a Liberal Democrat. It was almost an industrial level operation using two Apricot computers and dot matrix Brother printers.
Pic: From left to right - Joan & Ernie Horth (constituency chairman), Patrick Thompson & Kathleen Thompson, Iain Dale, Audrey Barker, Margaret Clarke (front)
I’d be there until midnight each night churning out these personally addressed letters. Audrey left me to do all the ‘political stuff’ and was hugely encouraging. I had recruited a team of people to help not only with this but also the canvassing teams. It all went brilliantly and we were confident of victory when polling day eventually came around on 11 June. Patrick’s majority increased from 5,879 to 7,776 with a 1.7% swing. The election night party was quite something.
I finished working for Patrick a couple of months later and embarked on the rest of my career. But in Norwich there was no money left and Audrey, who by that time was over retirement age anyway, went down to part time hours, and then did actually retire, to be replaced by Deborah Slattery, a party volunteer who I had recruited just before the ‘87 election and who had in the meantime trained as an agent herself. Audrey was a rock for her and they became extremely good friends.
I suppose my main memories of Audrey are her arriving in her battered Renault 11 and Nell, her lovely King Charles Spaniel. I remember her screeching orders from her desk, usually with a liberal use of the word ‘bloody’. She was hilarious in her descriptions of some of the voluntary party workers. She could barely tolerate most of them, and didn’t quite manage to hide it sometimes. She was also excellent in imparting knowledge to the next generation.
One day in 1986 a young chap called Simon Moore turned up in the office. He was unemployed but a firm Tory and wondered if we had any part time work going. There was something about him which Audrey and I identified, even if we couldn’t describe what it was. So he started working a few hours with us, and when funds allowed we took him on full time. After the 1987 election he too then went on to train as an agent and ended up working for the party in Scotland. I messaged him earlier to tell him about Audrey’s death and he responded with this…
What a terrific woman, she taught me many useful lessons as a naive Tory. Sharp as a tack, acerbic, a scary driver and a good right winger. She will be missed.
She was indeed a scary driver. You took your life in your hands. Given she drove thirty miles each day from her home in West Norfolk, how she never had a serious accident in anyone’s guess. Simon describes Audrey as a ‘right winger’. Up to a point. She couldn’t stand Margaret Thatcher and was a devout pro-European, who was horrified by Brexit.
She may have been quite intimidating to some, and could be a battleaxe, but Audrey had an absolute heart of gold. She really would do anything for anyone. A fellow agent in East Anglia had two children who Audrey would look after in the school holidays each year. You always knew that if you ever hit on hard times, Audrey would be someone you could turn to and not judge you.
Patrick Thompson says…
Kathleen and I had the greatest love and respect for her. She was a professional and very thorough Agent and I was very sorry when she left Norwich North. Iain is right to say that we never had a row. This was partly because our traditional political views were almost identical and also because I recognised very early on that she was nearly always right!
Peter Golds, a senior London Tory also has a memory of Audrey…
I knew her when she worked in Harrow and I was her neighbour in Brent. We selected candidates for the 1979 Euro election in January during the height of the winter of discontent. The shortlisting, on a Sunday, fell on my birthday. The committee sat wearing coats and gloves and interviewed candidates wearing the similar. Audrey, knowing the date, provided a cake. On Monday morning we found the school that had been booked for the final meeting was not available as the caretaker was on strike. By lunchtime, Audrey had found an alternative. A wonderful Lady.
Over the years we kept in touch but contact was sporadic. I’d phone her, but she had a great habit of not answering. Deborah and I would arrange to see her for lunch, but she’d invariably cancel the day before or even on the morning. But when we did manage to see her, she was the same old Audrey. I remember we took her out to lunch at the Hoste Arms in Burnham Market in the late 1990s. Deborah continued to see her right up until she moved to Spain a few years ago, but even then they would speak on the phone quite often. Deborah adds…
Audrey inspired me to become more involved with the professional side of politics. She was as tough as old boots on the outside, but after 30 years of true friendship, I know what an incredibly soft centre she had. She remained loyal to those she cared about and in turn we all loved her.
About four years ago Audrey was involved in a bad car accident and was in Kings Lynn Hospital. I drove up to Norwich, picked up Deborah and her husband Mike and we drove along the A47 to visit her. We were directed to a particular bed on a ward, and Deborah started to talk to Audrey. After about thirty seconds I whispered to Deborah: “That’s not Audrey!” And indeed it wasn’t. Old age may change people’s appearance, but not that much! We eventually found her. We hadn’t pre-warned her we were coming because we knew she’d have tried to persuade us not to. We spent a very happy hour reliving old times and memories and it really was the same old Audrey.
I remember as I walked away from the ward I shed a bit of a tear because I though that might be the last time I saw her. It wasn’t. Not long after she came out of hospital her son Bernard arranged for her to move into sheltered accommodation in Dulwich, where John and I visited her not long afterwards. She’d never met John, but they got on famously and she’d always ask after him when I spoke to her or emailed her.
Then in May 2017 I was due to have lunch with Audrey and her son and daughter-in-law and Deborah at the House of Commons, but the election put paid to that. The occasion was to celebrate her 90th birthday. In the end Bernard entertained us to lunch as the Royal Overseas League Club on Piccadilly.
The only disappointment for Audrey was that it meant she didn’t get to meet Chuka Umunna, who she had a bit of a thing for.
It was a lovely lunch and it proved to be the last time I saw Audrey. Earlier this year her health deteriorated and she moved to a care home in Oxford, which is where she died last night.
Yesterday evening I was texting with Bernard and he told me that Audrey continued to talk a lot about Deborah and me, so I asked if I could go to see her. I’d pencilled in Tuesday to do so. I knew it would be to say goodbye. So I was devastated to learn this morning that she had died.
I had emailed Audrey yesterday to tell her how much she meant to me and what an important part of my life she had been. I suspect she never learned of its contents, but I console myself with the fact that she knew. She really did.