Monday, May 23, 2016

Campaign Diary: Day 8 - finding your way around a village

One of the things about urban campaigning that I don't miss was that finding things was pretty easy. Streets are clearly named, houses have numbers. Villages are not always like that and, as a result, canvassing can be made rather more difficult than it might be. Barking is like that, a long, fairly linear village, where there are very few numbers - Fox Meadow and Tye Green are the only two clusters that come immediately to mind. So, how do you find them? What you need is a map. Technology will help to a certain extent, but local knowledge is far better.

Thursday saw me canvassing postal voters. There are approximately 250 postal voters in Barking and Somersham ward, and as the turnout among such voters tends to be about 75% in Mid Suffolk, as opposed to a more likely 30% among those obliged to vote in person, if you can do well with postal voters, you have a decided advantage. And, because they vote early, you have less time to canvass them. Thus, I wasn't knocking on every door - I had some particular addresses to find. 

The evening started off well, if somewhat accidentally, when I knocked on the first door, only to find that the postal voter listed had moved. However, the very friendly lady who answered the door seemed happy to tell me that I could count on her support. 

I made my way northwards, until I ran into a voter who had been helped by the outgoing Conservative Councillor. Not a natural Conservative, she was a reminder that, in rural seats, a record of hard work and attentiveness to local issues can trump political allegiance. Note that I use the word 'can', as it isn't a given, but it does help, especially in the world of rural districts, where wards are small (about 1,800 in Mid Suffolk) and issues more personal.

Into the second week, I was beginning to build some momentum...

Campaign Diary: Day 7 - a night out in Baylham

Baylham is in the south-eastern corner of Barking and Somersham ward, and I had already attended a coffee morning on day 3 of the campaign. However, the Parish Meeting was just four days later, and I had promised to attend.

The sun was shining on one of those beautiful May evenings that you could just bottle and store for a February afternoon when you've begun to despair of ever seeing blue sky again, and I was back at Old Cattle Market bus station for another ride. This time, it was the 88A, operated by First Group, which was my ride. The bus doesn't stop in the middle of Baylham, sticking as it does to the main road for Needham Market, but it does drop you at the bottom of Upper Street and, on a sunny day, I was up for the stroll into the village.

Upper Street undulates its way uphill and down, before the final rise into the village, but it is well worth the walk, as Baylham is one of Suffolk's prettier, if less well known villages. My destination was the home of Parish Meeting Chair, John Field, who is one of the four Liberal Democrat Councillors on Mid Suffolk District Council and also the County Councillor for Gipping Valley.

An outtake from the campaign - you'll be
pleased to hear that we didn't use this one...
After a restorative cup of tea, my agent, Martin Redbond, and Julia Truelove, our County Councillor for Bosmere, arrived and work commenced. Photographs were taken for leaflets, intelligence shared, before we headed for the Village Hall, looking for all the world like a group of old friends out for a stroll of an evening.

There were rather more people present at the Hall than I had expected. To be honest, in some villages, the Parish Council can be seen as less than entirely thrilling political theatre. You are, it must be admitted, unlikely to witness dramatic events, hear stirring peroration, or determine the fate of nations. And yet, quietly, decisions are taken that impact on the quality of local lives - new play equipment, the clearing of footpaths, lobbying over planning issues. Clearly, the residents of Baylham were engaged. I introduced myself to some of them, and renewed acquaintances with others from Saturday.

John opened the meeting by welcoming the two guests, Julia and myself, and said a few kind words about me, before giving the floor to the various village groups to report. Even the quietest village runs on the effort of its volunteers, and there is much more going on than meets the eye. Church groups, the Village Hall Committee, footpath groups, you name it, someone is taking care of it. John was re-elected as Chair - I got a clear sense that his neighbours are more than happy to let him continue - and the meeting ran pretty smoothly.

As the evening ended, the campaign felt more manageable, and the way ahead felt clearer. And, with a good night's sleep, I began to look forward with something akin to optimism.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Campaign Diary: Day 6 - in which the candidate draws breath

The thing about unexpected by-elections is that you have to hit the ground running. A rudimentary campaign plan is agreed, and you set to work. But, with any hastily drawn up plan, things change as events unfold, especially if you need to contend with the fact that other people might have plans of their own. That includes your opponents.

And so, if you're sensible, you stop, recalibrate, and work out how best to use your time. Good preparation means that you can avoid wasting valuable time later, especially as, in a four week campaign, you really don't have time to spare. As the candidate, you set a lead too, so you need to preserve your energy and make sure that you pace yourself properly.

Tuesday evening, therefore, was set aside for research. Issues were already known, thanks mainly to the fact that Liberal Democrats have been active in the ward over more than two decades - you tend to pick things up simply by having a visible presence and doing the hard yards of casework, attendance at parish and other meetings and active participation in community life.

Therefore, the focus was on making sure that I attended events across the ward. May is Annual Parish Meeting time across Mid Suffolk, something which is taken pretty seriously, especially in those villages which don't have a fully constituted Parish Council (Baylham, Darmsden and Nettlestead). Annual Parish Meetings offer an opportunity for local people to question their local politicians, find out what community groups are up to and make their views known. They are attended by the very people most likely to vote in local elections - engaged, community-minded.

If you're a County Councillor, you can expect to have a very full diary, and even a District Councillor can expect to have to find time to attend as many as possible. My diary was filling up...

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Campaign Diary: Day 5 - canvassing proper begins...

There may not be a lot of people who know that a surprising amount of Barking and Somersham ward is linked by a proper bus service. Ipswich Buses operate, with County Council support, route 111, which runs from Ipswich to Hitcham Causeway, and passes through Somersham, Willisham and Barking in doing so. It does also serve the Limeburners at Offton, but that's a fifteen minute walk from the village, so it isn't exactly useful if you're less than fully mobile. But, if you're a non-driver, as I am, and you need to get to Somersham to start your canvassing, it's a very useful service indeed, even if it only runs four times per day.

And so, I made sure that I was at Ipswich's Old Cattle Market bus station in time to catch the 5.40 p.m. bus. Having paid my extremely reasonable £1.80 fare, I sat back to enjoy the ride.

The timetable doesn't leave a lot of slack for rush hour traffic in Ipswich, and we were running a bit late by the time we reached my stop in Somersham. There was a hint of rain in the air too, but I set off to call on postal voters with a spring in my step.

As I've already noted, they aren't always conveniently in, and so I had prepared a small leaflet to post through the door if there wasn't anyone in. At least if they know I've called, they might appreciate that I did try to reach them and, at a time when politicians are as likely to knock on your door as once they might have been, I do think that making the effort is both worthwhile and valued.

I also called at the home of my Labour opponent, Will Marsburg, as much to introduce myself as anything. Will is young, enthusiastic about politics, and was happy to talk. It's important that young people engage in politics because, whilst pressure groups have their place in civil society, the people they seek to pressure are politicians.

I couldn't stop for long though, because there is a limited window for canvassing in the evening - you don't want to be knocking on the doors of, in particular, elderly people as darkness falls - and I had plenty of doors to knock on. The rain clouds were gathering over the Gipping Valley though, and I eventually called it a day, just as a steady rain fell from a rather gloomy sky.

I had found some Liberal Democrat supporters though - a very good evening's work indeed.

Campaign Diary: Day 4 - getting to grips with the mechanics...

It even includes a picture of me
looking warm and friendly...
I'm a rather old-fashioned sort of a political activist. Don't insult your opponents, make yourself visible, listen to people rather than tell them what they want (what you might think they want isn't always what they actually want), those are the sorts of principles I like to try and espouse in my politics.

However, modern campaigning is rather more complex than simply knocking on doors and talking to people. For one thing, people are harder to find, with their busy lives, often both parents working, and, as a full-time employee, I only have a relatively limited amount of time to get around the 1,750 or so voting residents of seven villages, some of them relatively remote, or at the end of farm tracks. In an unexpected four week campaign, it is impossible to personally meet everyone.

A leaflet is the thing, but it has to be designed, and content written. Technology helps, and the emergence of relatively easy to use publishing software makes it all a bit easier. But, it's only a bit easier, and coming up with some clear messages and laying them out so that they look attractive on the eye takes time. You also need photographs, and, luckily, Martin, my agent, has a good camera and an eye for a decent shot of your candidate. Admittedly, I don't offer much to work with - I've never been particularly keen on being photographed and much prefer to be behind a camera rather than in front of it - but Martin managed to get some usable pictures.

And so, a leaflet was produced... It's a big step forward for the campaign, and I hope that voters will find the time to read it.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Campaign Diary: Day 3 - my first campaign event

And so, Ros and I set off for Baylham yesterday morning. The sun was shining and the Gipping Valley was resplendent, with fields full of oil-seed rape in Liberal Democrat yellow (mere coincidence, I assure you), and the foliage that shade of green that you get before the summer sun starts to fade it, crisp and lush. I was reminded that May is my favourite time of year in these parts.

Baylham is a village of about two hundred and fifty people, in the south-east corner of the ward. Until 2005 or so, it was in the Gipping Valley county division but boundary changes meant that it was added to Bosmere at the time that Ros gave up that division. It is home to John Field, one of the four Liberal Democrats on Mid Suffolk District Council, and also the County Councillor for Gipping Valley, and, as I walked up the steps and into the Village Hall, there he was, waiting to introduce me to some of his neighbours.

Campaigning is not something that comes easily to a lot of people. Putting a leaflet through a door is one thing, but actually talking to people, many of whom you might not know, can be pretty daunting, especially if you haven't done it for a little while. Luckily, most people I've met in mid-Suffolk are pretty friendly, and it wasn't long before I was introducing myself to people as they stood and chatted, "Hi, I'm Mark, the Liberal Democrat candidate in the by-election in four weeks time."

Word had got around that David Card had resigned, even though they hadn't yet heard that a by-election had been called, and they seemed happy to talk.

Village halls are at the core of community life but they can be difficult to maintain, especially for smaller villages. They're often relatively elderly, hard to keep warm and need refurbishment. For example, Baylham's was built in 1927 of wooden construction and was refurbished in 1993. It costs about £1,500 per annum to cover the cost of light, heat, water and insurance, and that's before you consider maintenance costs.

Money has to be raised by holding events, hosting parties and events, and that is done by a clutch of volunteers who work tirelessly to keep everything ticking over. And, when so many couples both work, there is less time to support the fabric of their community. Many villages rely on the enthusiasm of a small hardcore of individuals to ensure that vital village facilities and institutions are there to serve the community and, if I were to be elected on 2 June, one of my key aims would be to support the village communities across the ward to keep village halls going.

I did get to eat my cake, eventually (note, I skipped breakfast so that I could have cake instead and stick to my diet), and I have to say that it was a very good Victoria sponge, nice and light, good jam filling.

Fortified, and happier for having got the campaign off to a good start, I thanked John and Kay, his wife and our stalwart Local Party Secretary, for inviting me, and Ros and I set off for a drive around the villages, as much to look at them in terms of how best to organise my visits over the coming weeks.

There are seven villages that, together, form the Barking and Somersham ward. Barking runs south-west from the edge of Needham Market, and includes the opera house at Kennels Farm, home of the Barrandov Opera, of which I have written in the past. Offton and Willisham come next, two villages sharing a parish council, and then, as you turn towards Ipswich, you reach Somersham, the largest village in the ward. Nettlestead is then slightly north of Somersham, before a drive through narrow country lanes brings you back to Baylham. Last, but certainly not least, is Darmsden. This is the smallest village in the ward although, in truth, it's more of a hamlet at the end of a narrow lane that runs of the old Ipswich to Stowmarket road.

We stopped in Somersham to visit the Community Shop. When Ros was the county councillor, she worked hard to protect the old village shop, gaining rate relief and doing whatever she could to keep it viable. Sadly, it eventually closed in 2007, but, thanks to a dedicated campaign group, the Somersham and District Community Shop opened in 2012 as a Community Interest Company, run by volunteers. We were keen to see what the District Council could do to ease the regulatory burden upon them, so we dropped in to talk and buy a soft drink each.

So, having gotten a sense of how I'm going to organise my campaign, it was time to head for home. There were leaflets to design, lists to write... for tomorrow was another day...

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Campaign Diary: Day 2 - a man with a plan

So, I was the candidate. The forms were in, and I was official. So far, so good. But you can't just go out there and 'be the candidate', you have to be organised. So, I did some research and organised my diary, so that I could dedicate the required amount of time to the campaign - there were less than four weeks until polling day, so time is of the essence.

My fellow Liberal Democrats weren't idle either, with a campaign group meeting called, whilst Ros put her vast experience to work on drawing up a strategy document.

We gathered at the home of one of our local councillors and a plan was thrashed out, what we could do, who might do it and when it might be done. The other candidates were briefly discussed and the possibilities assessed before agreement was reached and jobs assigned.

I have an agent, Martin Redbond, who has done this many times, and I have a set of instructions, which I will follow.

The campaign plan? You'll pardon me if I'm not very specific. However, I intend to play my part over the next four weeks, and I'm enthusiastic to start... 

Campaign Diary: Day 1 - a candidate is selected

There had been rumours that the sitting Conservative district councillor for Barking and Somersham was less than entirely happy. But, having been interested in politics for a long time, you learn not to get too excited. After all, David Card had only been elected last May. And then, on the Monday before the May Bank Holiday, word got out that he had indeed handed in his resignation.

The next day, the notice of election was issued, with the closing date for nominations set as yesterday.  And I decided that I should offer myself as the candidate. After all, it's important that someone who is willing to fight a by-election campaign and, equally importantly, is willing to be a district councillor if they're lucky enough to win, comes forward. And, besides, Barking and Somersham forms part of Ros's former county division, Bosmere, so there is a connection.

And so it was that, on Thursday afternoon, accompanied by the very same Cllr Wendy Marchant who recruited Ros to the Liberal Democrats in 1990, I presented myself at the offices of Mid Suffolk District Council to submit my nomination papers and have them validated. And yes, they were in order, as you would expect from a group of people who have doing this for a long time.

The Liberal Democrat candidate for Barking and Somersham was official, the first goal achieved. But not the last...

"Building a Better Walrus" - getting back on the right path, just a little more of it

So, April was not a month in which I made a lot of progress. Yes, I walked my ten thousand steps every day and yes, I kept my fluid intake nice and high, but I didn't lose any weight.

And so, I've decided to get the program back on track in May by walking 12,500 steps each day, and watching what I eat a bit more. Nothing dramatic, you understand, and only for this month because, ultimately, it has to be sustainable.

How am I going to walk those extra steps? Well, there's been a development...

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

"Building a Better Walrus" - clinging to the wreckage...

It would be fair to say that April wasn't a great month for the program - too many cooked breakfasts, meals that wouldn't normally get eaten, the usual complications of maintaining a healthy diet whilst travelling. So, the bad news first - I ended April where I began it. The good news - I ended April where I began it.

What this demonstrates is that, if I maintain my 10,000 steps regime, and eat sensibly otherwise, I can sustain the occasional holiday when I suspend the diet, which is very good news indeed.

And so, onwards and downwards, with any luck, as I have a month without travel to renew my focus. Wish me luck...

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

European Selection: starting as I mean to go on...

I am a cautious soul, something which comes with being a bureaucrat, I guess. And so, having got my head around being a Returning Officer again, my first thought was to read the rules and work out how the proposed schedule fits into the rest of my life.

My first thought was, "I really need to talk to the Regional Executive.", as they appoint a shortlisting committee which is subject to my approval (I am tasked with ensuring that it is properly reflective of the Regional Party's membership). The Regional Executive is expected to appoint the shortlisting committee in a window that opened on 6 March and closes on 30 April. Given that I was only notified of my appointment on 3 April, my first problem was apparent, in that there could already have been a nominated shortlisting committee in place.

So, being an organised sort of person, I contacted the Regional Chair to see if they had done anything about this, only to be told, in no uncertain manner, that the Regional Party had other, more pressing, concerns - I can't help but agree that the London Mayoral and Assembly elections are rather more obviously important just now.

However, this does mean that I can fulfil the obligation laid down by paragraph 5 of the not actually finalised European Selection Rules, i.e.
"The Returning Officer must brief the Regional Executive(s) on the selection process before the appointment of the shortlisting committee."
I have left a message with London's Regional Secretary, Peter Ramrayka, hoping to set something up, and I guess that I ought to collect some data on the Regional Party, in order to be able to make a proper judgement as to the representative nature (or otherwise) of any proposed shortlisting committee. I'm also going to have to read the regional constitution in order to ensure that the correct procedure is followed when proposing the shortlisting committee's membership.

What all of this means, of course, is that the London selection process is already behind schedule. It's retrievable, no doubt, but just squeezes the timetable a touch.

This could be fun, couldn't it...