Fourteen years ago I stood as a candidate in the 2005 general election. It seems a very long time ago. It was one of those days which could have changed my life forever, and in some ways did. Ten years ago I wrote a blogpost about polling day and the election count. It got such a reaction, I thought I’d reprise it here. For the uninitiated I was the Conservative candidate in North Norfolk, fighting the incumbent LibDem MP, Norman Lamb. He’s a candidate again today and is facing a real fight to keep his seat.
If I am honest, polling day was a disaster. We had set up fifteen or so Committee rooms across the constituency and had teams of people knocking up. Time and again I kept being asked the same question: “Are you sure these knocking up slips are right? We seem to be knocking up LibDem voters”. Surely the agent hadn’t printed off the wrong codes? I kept asking myself. She and I had been at daggers drawn since the day of my selection. Let’s put it this way, she had gone out of her way to make clear that she favoured anyone but me. Half the local association wouldn’t work with her, and I seemed to spend much of my time mending fences with people whose noses she had put out of joint. After a row on day one of the campaign, she walked out, only to repeat the exercise later in the campaign. But surely, I thought, she wouldn’t have been so incompetent as to print out the wrong knocking up cards, would she? It was only six months later that I learned that she had gone round telling people she hadn’t even voted for me, that I began to wonder. Anyway, I digress.
I had known for some time that winning was highly unlikely. I remember a day in February 2005 canvassing in the coastal village of Overstrand. Every single house we went to seem to deliver the same message: “Well, we’re really Conservatives but we’re going to vote for that nice Mr Lamb.” I remember going back to my house in Swanton Abbott that night and saying to my partner, John, “That’s it, I know now I can’t win.” If people like that weren’t going to vote for me, the game was up. But I knew that I couldn’t tell that to my supporters who had sweated blood in helping my campaign. The problem was that Norman Lamb was (and is) essentially a Conservative. His and my views were almost indistinguishable on local issues. He was even vaguely Eurosceptic (for a LibDem). He had fought three elections and made it his business to be a good constituency MP.
My strategy had been to play him at his own game, and demonstrate that I too would be a good constituency representative – but one who could get things done by dint of being an MP for one of the two major parties . By the time the election campaign started I had undertaken a huge amount of constituency casework, and had got a very good reputation for taking up local campaigns and getting things done. I probably got more good local publicity in local press and radio than any other candidate in the country. We produced good literature and built up an excellent delivery network, but the fact remained – he was the MP and I was a candidate.
In retrospect I made too much of an effort at name recognition. It was a mistake to book a giant poster site (the only one in the constituency) for the few weeks before the election, and it was also a mistake to make a CD Rom and deliver it to every house. The money spent on those two things would have been far better spent on more newsletters and constituency-wide newspapers.
Two other things worked against me. The fact that I was quite often on TV, I originally thought would be a good thing – name recognition etc. But all it did was give people the impression I was in London all the time and not local. I could witter on about how I lived in the constituency – and I did – while Norman Lamb lived 20 miles away in Norwich, but a fat lot of good it did me.
So I expected to lose. It didn’t help that nationally the party wasn’t making any sort of breakthrough. Although Michael Howard had done his best, people were still in thrall to Tony Blair. Howard hadn’t been able to attract back those soft Conservative voters who had turned North Norfolk LibDem back in 2001. Nor it seemed, had I.
So as I criss-crossed the constituency on polling day, I had a fairly good idea of what was to happen later that night, although not even I could have guessed that the result would be quite so bad.
As the polls closed, I went back to my cottage to change and collect John. I felt strangely numb. I craved that feeling most other candidates in marginal seats would have been feeling at that moment – the feeling that they were hours away from their biggest ever achievement.
I’ve never understood candidates who turn up at their counts after most of the hard work has been done. I wanted to be there to support my counting agents, and to make sure that nothing went wrong. In such a massive constituency it was always going to take a long time to get the ballot boxes in. And so it proved. Just after midnight, the other candidates started to arrive and I made it my business to chat to them all and their aides, many of whom I had got to know over the previous 18 months.
The first few boxes seemed OK from our point of view. For a fleeting moment I let myself wonder if I was being unduly pessimistic. But it was only when I sat down and did some counting myself that I realised that a defeat was definitely on the cards. The counting seemed to be going very slowly. I was keeping touch with outside events on a small hand sized portable TV. I remember Justine Greening winning. I think I even let out a cheer. I was sitting on a bench cradling this small, CD sized TV in my hands. One of the fringe candidates, who was dressed as a circus clown, came over and watched with me. He put his hand on my shoulder. The EDP picture next day was of this touching scene but was captioned: “A tearful Iain Dale is comforted by a clown”. I wasn’t tearful at all, I was watching David Dimbleby!
The moment came when the returning officer asked all the candidates and agents to gather round to go through the questionable votes. He then read out the figures. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Norman Lamb understandably struggled to contain himself. His majority had increased from 500 to 10,600. My initial reaction was to laugh in disbelief. To this day I struggle to believe it. One or two of my people suggested we request a bundle check, just to check that some votes hadn’t been put in the wrong piles. But before that could be requested the Agent had accepted the result. I too was not in a mood to question anything after hearing such a devastating piece of news. To be honest, my only thought was how I was going to get through the concession speech. Some weeks after the count I kept being told by my party workers: “There was something wrong at the count. We didn’t like to say anything at the time.” To this day I don’t know what they think happened.
As we waited for the formalities to begin Norman Lamb apologised to me for some rather nasty, homophobic comments made about me by one of his councillors. I thanked him and said I appreciated that he hadn’t run that sort of campaign.
Norman was then asked to the platform and he gave a gracious speech in which he made clear he had at some points over the previous 18 months feared the worst. It was then my turn. I have inherited my mother’s tendency to have a good cry at the worst possible moment. Even an episode of Emmerdale has been known to set me off, so as I climbed up on to the stage I made sure I breathed very deeply and make sure that I didn’t catch the eye of Deborah Slattery, my campaign manager and loyal friend. I knew she would be howling her eyes out.
It remains a speech I am proud of. I got through it intact, thanked everyone who needed to be thanked and paid tribute to Norman Lamb. I was told afterwards by several LibDem and Labour supporters that they were quite moved by it. As I left the stage I have a vague recollection of Norman Lamb putting his arm around me!
As John and I left Cromer High School to make the short drive to a party worker’s house for some food and drink it all came out. I broke down completely in the car. John said nothing, but just drove. There was nothing he could say. By the time we arrived I had pulled myself together. It was meant to be a party but the atmosphere was simply awful and I couldn’t wait to go home. I made another short speech thanking everyone, but it seemed like going through the motions. It was about 6.30am before we got home. I got about two hours’ sleep.
The next morning was the count for the county council elections. I was determined to go to it. No one was going to accuse me of not being able to show my face. As I walked into the school hall, many people (including LibDems and Labour supporters) spontaneously applauded. At that moment my sister Sheena (the punk rocker) phoned. I had to tell her I couldn’t speak to her as I knew I would break down again.
And that was that. I cleared out my office and started to think about what on earth I would do in the future. If the result had been anywhere near three figures I would have stayed, but this was just one of those occasions when there was little I could have done to change things. Did my sexuality play a role? I wrote an article in the New Statesman immediately after election denying it…
I didn’t lose because North Norfolk rejected a gay candidate. I lost because the Lib Dems ran a relentless campaign to persuade Labour supporters to vote tactically. I lost because our national campaign, though highly professional and slick, did not ignite the fires of optimism among an electorate sick of personal insults and negativity. It may not be racist to talk about immigration, but it is perhaps not clever to put the words “racist” and “Conservative” on the same poster. And I lost because the Lib Dem MP had a huge personal vote, far beyond anything I’ve encountered anywhere else.
A candidate is perhaps not the ideal person to understand fully the reasons for a shattering defeat. Others can judge that, and many have offered their twopennyworth over the last fourteen years. All I know is that I can look myself in the mirror and know that I could not have done more. I almost bankrupted myself, put in far more hours than most other candidates I know and in many ways ran a textbook campaign. Of course I made mistakes, and I have alluded to some of them here, but my biggest mistake was not to listen to those who advised me not to go for this particular seat in the first place! LibDem chief executive, Chris Rennard, who knows a thing or two about these things, was one of them. He told me before I was selected that he expected Norman Lamb to get a five figure majority. I thought I knew better. I didn’t.
Other than perhaps the initial decision, I have few regrets. I thoroughly enjoyed the 18 months up to the election, even if I hated the campaign itself. I met some wonderful people and would like to think that even as a candidate I made a bit of a difference to some people’s lives. I’ve just looked up my blogposts from that period. THIS post in particular sums up why, despite some of the terrible things said about me on some websites in the immediate aftermath of the election, I did not totally lose heart.
The most important thing is to learn from what life – and the electorate – throws at you.
In the immediate afermath of this defeat perhaps I didn’t learn the lessons I should have. I was 42 and still wanted to fulfill my life’s ambition to be an MP. But what I should have realised was that after a defeat like that – no matter what the rights and wrongs were – it would be difficult to get selected in another seat. I came close, but for the 2010 election I left it too late. I took two years out of the selection processes and by the time I re-entered the selection race, most of the seats had gone. I got shortlisted for everything I applied for but in the end failed to get selected. Bracknell was the closest I came, and even on the day I was very hopeful of getting it. There were 7 people in the final, and one by one they were eliminated. I knew I had made a good speech and impressed them, but when it got down to the final three I knew I’d be the next one out. Sure enough, I was. Rory Stewart came second and Philip Lee triumphed. He was a local doctor and of the three of us the least risky choice. I was pleased for him, even though I knew it was probably the end of the road for me. There was one other seat – East Surrey, but I made a complete hash of my speech and the local candidate had ensured I would be asked a very difficult question about what happened in North Norfolk. Well, all’s fair in love and political selections!
It was then that I made the decision to end it. By the time of the 2015 election I was 52, and I am old enough and wise enough to know what politics in this country has become a young person’s game. Few constituencies select people in their fifties, so I didn’t see the point in spending five years in the vain hope that I might possibly get selected. It was time to get out. So I did. I was also slightly falling out of love with politics, and having put my partner and family through a lot over the previous seven or eight years, it didn’t seem fair to repeat the process. My mother cheered when I told her I wouldn’t be doing it again. What an indictment of our politics.
If I am honest, I thought I would come to regret the decision, but nine years on I haven’t. Not for a moment. And I mean that. Politics is indeed a drug, and you can never wean yourself off it completely, but my radio career gives me what politics used to give me, and a lot more besides. I’m often asked if I will stand again and I always reply in the same way. Never. And I really mean it. I would have loved to have been an MP, as I think in many ways I would have been good at it and been a very good constituency MP. But I now know (and probably always did) that the parliamentary side of it might well have become incredibly frustrating for me. I suspect I would have been a whips’ nightmare and would have stood no chance of being a minister … not that being a minister ever really mattered. OK, I had a slight flicker of interest when Sir Alan Haselhurst announced he wouldn’t contest Saffron Walden again in 2017 - it being my seat, but in the end I decided not to go for it. And that, as they say, was that.
Fourteen years ago I thought my life had fallen apart. It hadn’t. It just meant that it took a very different turn. And you know what? I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Probably.