by Peter Watt
Early this morning there will have been alarm clocks (or more likely alarms on mobile phones) going off in hotels and guest houses in Eastleigh and beyond. Activists will have woken from their slumbers in order to do the polling morning delivery. Ideally they’ll be delivered before the polls open at 7 but in many cases it will still be being delivered later. Committee rooms will be being set up members and supporters houses as the culmination of a few weeks frantic campaigning is reached.
The parliamentary by-election is a very special event for all dedicated political activists. It’s where you often learn your trade and hone new skills. It’s where war stories are shared from previous electoral battles and new scars are earned.
My first by-election was the south east staffordshire by-election held in April 1996. I was nursing in Dorset at the time but politics was my true love. I used up four days of annual leave and pootled on up to Tamworth. Angela Wilkins was the running the committee room that I was allocated to and Fiona Gordon was running the show. I delivered leaflets, knocked on doors and glared at the odd Tory I saw on the streets. And on my final day there I went to a local pub on my own to support Liverpool against Aston Villa in the FA cup semi. I hadn’t realised until I walked in it was Villa country!
Every by-election that I have been involved in has had a core team of staff and volunteers who become a little community. They share a space and share an experience that bonds them. The early days are the best when like pioneers you arrive and need to learn about the alien environment that you have moved into. You print the maps and find a campaign HQ. Wards are allocated and the leafleting and door knocking begins. Maybe you get the odd frontbencher turning up and perhaps even a few local members get involved. But it’s you against the Party HQ and the hours are long. And then others start arriving and you pretend to be pleased but secretly it’s irritating that others are intruding. Experts start arriving to help with press and writing copy. The campaign HQ fills up with the great and the good whilst the real work is still going on from the campaign centres dotted across the constituency.
Then there are the by-election characters, every by-election has them. There are the geeky students who turn up on day three and stay right until the end. They somehow always find somewhere to stay and people always buy them drinks. They are incredibly enthusiastic and will do whatever is asked. There is the local member (or whole groups of members) who hates the whole by-election team as outsiders who ‘don’t what it’s like around here’. They have never needed all of this fancy nonsense before and they certainly don’t need it now! They probably wanted to be the candidate but were blocked by the NEC. Then there is the local member who simply can’t do enough for the campaign. They open up their house and put people up; they share local intelligence and translate the local political spats.
There is always at least one romance, and generally more, the campaign pub and everyone’s favourite Indian restaurant. The campaign stories develop as they are retold; the dog that nearly bashed down the door when leafleting, the Tory who was persuaded to switch and the government minister that was lost in the labyrinthine estate.