In praise of…the hardy souls that fight these by-elections

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.

I often wonder what happened to the activist who came up to one particular by-election on a coach from London.  They never made it back to the coach home despite it waiting for them for an hour.  The few short weeks of the campaign feel like months; months spent together with one simple mission – to get your candidate elected or to come second or simply to not lose our deposit.

In 1997 we fought and just lost in Uxbridge.  The highlight of the campaign for me was the eve of poll tour around some of the estates by John Prescott in his battle bus and accompanying video van.  Every time it stopped the video van played ‘Things can only get better’ and inspirational video footage urging votes for Labour to crowds of bemused residents.  Trying to navigate the bus through streets with double parked cars was certainly a challenge!  As was trying to unload the 10,000 videos from the back of a Dutch articulated lorry in the Ipswich by-election.  Speed was of the essence as we were blocking the one-way system.  It was in Ipswich that we were going to hold a ‘rally’ for a key frontbencher but it was teaming with rain.  So we held it in the carwash behind the disused petrol garage that was our campaign HQ.  The pictures looked great – it’s amazing what a few hundred balloons can do!

In Hartlepool I remember the rooms that we hired for staff at the Marina. They were cheaper than a hotel or B&B but we had to buy everyone kettles and kitchen packs.  The rooms were in a new complex that included a new bar and a Chinese restaurant run by an Elvis impersonator.

But that’s by-elections for you – it’s a little microcosm of activist heaven.  All else is forgotten and nothing else matters but the relentless drive to polling day.  The hours are long and the work can be gruelling.  It can be intense and stressful but also fun.  And the truth is that the day after polling day, win, lose or draw, is awful.  You crash physically and emotionally and say goodbye to comrades.

So to everyone in Eastleigh – I hope that you have a really restful weekend.  You all deserve it.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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3 Responses to “In praise of…the hardy souls that fight these by-elections”

  1. john Reid says:

    without sounding pretencious, After 13 years in power we burnt ourselves out,and the tories have done it in 3, but we’ve only just managed as a party to get back on our fee again, My feeling is that we’ll do well in the council elections next year, but if we lose the next election we’ll all need a while to reflect as our fighting spirit has dropped

  2. Paul J says:

    Ah yes, Uxbridge in 97. Post GE.
    There was a pro-foxhunting barrister as a candidate, and an activist volunteer who was obsessed with animal rights. She wasn’t a party member, but she was basically campaigning 12 hours a day 7 days a week for the duration of the campaign.

    I knew the organizer, and she told me whatever happens, don’t mention the candidates’ views, and tell all the other volunteers the same.
    I did actually raise the subject with her, just to see the reaction, and she practically started singing and dancing in her enthusiasm for the fox hunting ban.

    We lost though, but eh libdems were no-where, and we beat the trots,

  3. david walsh says:

    Stories about the Yellow open top double-decker bus Labour always used in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and the cockney driver who came with it should be encouraged.
    I think it came as some kind of gift from USDAW. I recall in the Langbaurgh bye-election in 1991 how it went under a low railway bridge with about a foot to spare and everyone on the top deck having to hit the floor to avoid decapitation. Some more anecdotes on that by-election can be found on

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