Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Campaign Diary; Day 19 - the case of the disappearing poster board

Monday evening, and time for Martin, my agent, and I to get some photos taken for the final leaflet. Some typical pictures of the candidate at well-known landmarks in the villages, including one that we didn't use in the end, of me pointing at a big hole in the road (for those who don't know these things, there is a standing joke amongst Liberal Democrats that a leaflet isn't properly Liberal Democrat without a picture of the candidate pointing at something).

A poster board. Not one of mine,
but very nice all the same...
We were in Barking, taking a picture of me next to the new council housing being built, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a Green Party poster board that had been there was being taken down.

Curious, I wandered over to the man who was doing it. Apparently, he had been canvassed by a Green Party activist, but hadn't intended to grant them permission to put the sign up. He assumed that they had been confused. It does happen, especially when you're enthusiastic and you want to be liked.

It goes to show how important it is to get people's permission before you put your sign up. Posters should be given to people to put in their windows if they want to, especially as people are often wary of showing their political allegiances too visibly. The same goes for poster boards.

It also takes quite a lot of effort to find sites for poster boards, and to put them up, and is better as part of your planning in advance of a campaign, rather than having to do is during the final four weeks. To be honest, we focused on meeting people and delivering leaflets.

Only time will tell if we were right...

Campaign Diary: Day 18 - when things go wrong (fortunately, not just for me)

I've already noted that, in the heat of a campaign, when everyone is trying to do a whole bunch of things at once, there is room for error. Using an out leaflet which, whilst it has a nice picture of you on it, doesn't actually say who you are, is the sort of thing that can go wrong, which is why proof-reading is so important.

It was that moment when one of my work colleagues noted the typo in our leaflet when your heart sinks slightly, and you wonder who else noticed. Apparently, if they did, they've been kind enough not to say anything.

There but for the grace of God...
take a close look at the contact details...
My Conservative opponent, however, has not been quite so fortunate...

My guess is that the leaflet is a recycled one, in that it is based on one used previously with some personalized content dropped in. I also don't know how much campaign experience Jemma has, or how actively engaged in the leaflet design she is. In that sense, I'm lucky. As a Liberal Democrat, I don't have access to paid staff to help run my campaign, and I've had to learn all sorts of new things in order to make sure that things happen - leaflet design, database management, for example - and whilst I have help, it is best to be as self-sufficient as possible in the medium and long term.

Let's just say though that my proof-reading has become a bit more rigorous as polling day approaches...

Campaign Diary: Day 17 - a hard-working candidate and a stoat on a mission

Saturday morning found me in Barking, looking to meet more voters, when I knocked on a door. The door opened and I was told that they had received their postal ballot. This was not necessarily a welcome surprise, because the plan was to deliver letters to all postal voters the next day - we had been told by Mid Suffolk District Council's Electoral Services team that they would be going out the next day.

It would be fair to say that this candidate wasn't impressed.

There was nothing to be done but to accelerate the schedule somewhat, so I arranged for my allocation of letters to be brought to me by the ever patient Ros.

A hard working, local stoat...
As I headed to the agreed rendezvous, I noticed a movement on the footpath ahead of me. A closer examination indicated a weasel-like creature, carrying a baby rabbit in its mouth. It was a stoat, and the baby rabbit was somewhat bigger than it was. As I caught up with it, it headed into the undergrowth and, not wanting to disturb it, I kept walking, until I reached the entrance to the care home at Barking Hall.

A few moments later, the stoat appeared again, still with its prey in its mouth, crossed the B1078, and ran along the curb until it darted back across the road and into the long grass.

It wasn't long before the stoat, minus baby rabbit, darted back out and up the street. It was my first stoat, and I was surprised by how small they actually are, much smaller than a ferret, for example.

But I now had envelopes to deliver, and it was clear that I wasn't going to have any trouble hitting my 12,500 step target for the day...

Campaign Diary: Day 16 - a day of consort duty in North Walsham

I may be the candidate in a by-election, but I still have other commitments, and one of those is to accompany Ros to events. A Friday in North Walsham might not be everybody's idea of a 'day off', but I enjoy travelling with Ros when she does school visits as part if the Lord Speaker's "Peers in Schools" program.

And so, we set off mid-morning for the lengthy drive up the A140, across the A47 southern by-pass and across country past the eastern fringes of Norwich before joining the road to North Walsham, where Ros was scheduled to speak to the Year 8 students as part of their series of inspirational speakers.

Having had a healthy lunch, we arrived in good time and were introduced to the headmaster. We also had the company of Andy Newman, who does PR for a group of local schools, and was also covering the story for the local press. And, as we were having tea (and I was avoiding the flapjacks), it dawned on me that this might be an old university colleague. So, I turned to him.

"Were you at UEA in the mid-eighties?". "Yes.", he replied. "In EUR?" "Yes". And then I asked some fairly personal questions, to his increasing bemusement, before introducing myself properly. Andy and I were, indeed, at UEA together, and I had visited him whilst he was on a year abroad, teaching in a lycee in Cambrai. It was one of those coincidences that seems to happen more often than is credible.

Ros gave her presentation, before opening the floor to questions, her favourite part of the session. But don't believe me when I say how good she is at this, read the report for yourself...

All too soon, it was over, and we had to get back to Suffolk - there were postal voter letters to fold and stuff into envelopes. I'm pretty good at folding things, I have a good eye for size, and I'm content to carry out routine, repetitive tasks. I'm even quite quick (it's all those years as a civil servant that develop such a skill set). And, between the two of us, it didn't take too long to have them all ready for delivery.

A key weekend for the campaign lay ahead...

Campaign Diary: Day 15 - I get by with a lot of help from my friends...

Canvassing can be a bit grim sometimes, especially if you appear to be knocking on a lot of doors without actually meeting too many people. It is, if you like, one of the curses of modern life. We commute further than we used to. Couples both have jobs, and commitments. Their friends and families are further afield than once they might have been. And it isn't just a problem for urban campaigners, it impacts on those of us in villages too.

However, if you're lucky enough to have a group of people who are willing to come out with you, a lot more ground can be covered, and a lot more voter data gathered. And, Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats, especially members in Bosmere, have been very supportive, as always.

It has also provided an opportunity for some of our newer members to gain some campaign experience, as it can only be easier if you start by working with a more experienced fellow Liberal Democrat.

And so, a group of us met up at Needham Market and headed off into Barking and Somersham. On arrival, we split up into three groups and hit the doorsteps. And yes, there were a lot of people who weren't in, but we met enough people and heard their issues. Speeding, planning issues, people are only to happy to talk about them if you give them the opportunity to do so.

My day ended at Barking Village Hall, where I was attending the Parish Council AGM. Unlike in Baylham, there wasn't a huge crowd, but there was a group of committed Parish Councillors, working hard to serve their community, and our County Councillor, Julia Truelove, who continues to demonstrate her commitment to the myriad Parishes that she represents.

So far, I've been the only one of the four candidates to attend any of the three Parish Council events thus far - Baylham, Offton and Willisham, and Barking (I've made all three). It wasn't because I was invited, it was because I took the trouble to find out when they were taking place, and made time to get to them.

If I am lucky enough to win on 2 June, they'll be seeing a lot more of me...

Monday, May 30, 2016

Campaign Diary: Day 14 - a blow for local residents

I use the Suffolk Links demand responsive transport system a lot, as it takes me from home to the station most days, and back again in the evening. And, as of 13 June, a new contract for the service comes into effect, run on a District Council basis, so it affects Barking and Somersham ward.

Passengers have been handed a letter, explaining how the new contract will work. And the news isn't good for users of the service, of whom there are a number, mostly elderly, across the ward. The new service will be using smaller vehicles, and one of the side effects of that is that the concessionary bus pass will no longer be accepted. This will mean that the elderly, some of the most vulnerable to becoming isolated, will have to find the cost of the fare, currently £3.20 for a one-way journey from Somersham to Stowmarket.

For regular passengers in the area covering by the old Gipping North service, discounted return fares have been axed, and single fares increased by as much as 25%.

It is a blow, although from a personal perspective, I can afford it. However, whilst Willisham and Somersham, and the southern end of Barking have some regular bus service, courtesy of route 111, villages such as Offton aren't so lucky, and the demand responsive transport service enables elderly villagers to travel to Stowmarket, meet up with their friends on the bus or whilst shopping, and avoid being trapped.

The service was also originally sold as a replacement for regular bus services that have been withdrawn in recent years, being rather better value than running often quite empty regular buses along fixed routes.

The mantra from the Conservatives who run the County Council is "a better service at lower cost". What they clearly meant was that the lower cost was to the County Council, and not the council tax payers of rural Suffolk, for all that is happening is a transfer of the cost from the County Council to local residents. And, as council tax bills are hardly likely to be reduced for the service's users, it's not as though they are being given a choice as to how their money is being spent.

I am not impressed...

Campaign Diary: Day 13 - the importance of postal voters

Most Liberal Democrats, indeed, most political activists, understand the importance of postal voters. First of all, they generally vote - one survey I've seen indicates that turnout rates, even in local elections, is about 75%. After all, if a ballot paper comes to your door, why not fill it in? Second, in a short campaign, you haven't got much time to reach them, as they're likely to fill it in fairly quickly - the return rate falls off as time passes from the date of receipt.

My canvassing had, thus far, been targeted towards the postal voters. We're told where they live and who they are - it's marked on the electoral register - and knowing that they will be disproportionately more likely to vote, meeting them is a must if at all possible.

We knew that the postal votes would be issued on 22 May (a Sunday, curiously, but that's what Mid Suffolk District Council had advised), and it was decided that we would write to each of them. My job was to draft a letter which might persuade them to vote for me, a task made more difficult by the fact that such voters are only likely to get one leaflet.

I've taken the view that making a bunch of promises on issues is a hostage to fortune, especially because, as a District Councillor, you don't necessarily have the means to do big things. It's as much about acting as a champion for local people, finding ways to help them help themselves, as about ideology. On the other hand, how you do things is important, and as a liberal, I tend to think that an informed electorate is a good thing and makes for stronger communities.

So, I'm making some simple promises. If the voters of Barking and Somersham choose to elect me on 2 June, I will;
  • work hard
  • be available by e-mail, phone and in person
  • keep in touch through regular newsletters
  • attend Parish Council meetings and other local events
  • carry out village surveys
It isn't rocket science. It will involve effort on my part, but if you want to represent people, you have to do it properly...

Campaign Diary: Day 12 - finding out how volunteers in Offton and Somersham save lives

A Monday evening, and Ros and I were on our way to Offton, the second largest of the seven villages in Barking and Somersham by voting population - there are two more voters on the register here than in Barking. The trip had two purposes, firstly to do some canvassing and for me to meet more voters, second for me to attend the Offton and Willisham Annual Parish Meeting at Offton's relatively new Village Hall.

The sun was streaming down on what had turned out to be a rather nice evening, and we headed for the area near the Village Hall to knock on some doors. Our first leaflet had clearly hit doormats on schedule, and those that we got to speak to were happy enough to talk to us. And that, perhaps is the first hurdle to get across when you're canvassing. If people are hostile, it can be a bit dispiriting, but if people are willing to give you a hearing, then you can have a conversation, something I enjoy.

I left Ros to carry on, whilst I headed for the Village Hall, where I ran into Mark, who was standing by the new play equipment, not yet open for use (the newly seeded grass is still establishing itself). Mark is the Community First Responder for Offton, a volunteer who is trained to attend emergency calls received by the ambulance service and provide care until the ambulance arrives. In rural areas particularly, where an ambulance might be some way away, having someone nearby who can arrive quicker, can be the difference between life and death.

Having exchanged a few words with Mark, I went into the hall itself to meet with the Parish Councillors and representatives of key community groups (church, village hall committee and the like) and introduce myself. They might not have been expecting me, but they made me very welcome - the cup of tea was particularly appreciated.

I sat through the meeting, listening to the reports, including that of the County Councillor, Julia Truelove. Julia was elected in Ros's place when she stood down in 2005, and has carried on serving the communities across Bosmere ever since, and has offered helpful advice in terms of campaigning ideas.

At the end of the meeting, I was asked if I would like to say a few words. As I hadn't prepared anything - I hadn't intended to gatecrash their event, and was the only one of the four candidates in attendance - I simply introduced myself, explained what I would hope to do if elected, and asked if anyone had any questions. There weren't any, although, if I do get elected, I thoroughly expect that to change!

All in all, a very pleasant and informative evening, but time doesn't stand still, and I had to get home for more campaign preparation. All I could hope was that I'd made a good impression...

Campaign Diary: Day 11 - an unexpected gathering in Somersham

I'm not a big fan of canvassing on a Sunday. It's not because I'm religious, but I do think that Sundays are not necessarily a great time to knock on doors in interrupt what is still seen as a day of rest in some quarters.

That said, leaflet delivery is reasonable, and a gap in our delivery network needed to be filled. And so, Ros, Ben (our Local Party Youth Representative and a former member of the UK Youth Parliament) and I headed to Somersham to do some light delivering - I need the steps anyway, and I might as well do something useful whilst getting them.

The main core of Somersham is pretty compact, and I was making good time when my mobile rang. Ben had run into a group of people outside Somersham Baptist Church, and someone wanted to talk to me. So, I headed over, only to discover that the Baptist Church was holding an after-service barbecue for its members.

Sadly, my diet prevented me from having a burger, although there was a very thoughtfully supplied cup of tea, and I was able to talk to a number of those present and answer their questions on such issues as speeding and local representation. Mark Newcombe, the Pastor, is a Leicester City fan, and I told him how nice it was to see a team from beyond the usual suspects winning the big prize for a change. Perhaps it will be a metaphor for this by-election?

But there were still leaflets to deliver, and they couldn't wait, so, having said our farewells, we hit the streets of Somersham to finish our work for the day. Meanwhile, across Barking and Somersham, our volunteer delivery team were also out and about, spreading the word...

Campaign Diary: Day 10 - getting that all important first leaflet out

A bunch of nice shiny leaflets had arrived, and whilst there is a network of local deliverers out there who very kindly deliver our leaflets (and yes, they really are delivered by local supporters), there are always likely to be gaps, if only because people are away, or busy, or just can't get them out as quickly as is required during a by-election.

Luckily, as I have set myself the goal was walking 10,000 steps each day (and 12,500 in May), I was only too happy to fill some of the gaps in. I wasn't alone, with some of our key activists pitching in to get the job done.

I actually enjoy delivering leaflets. You can maintain a nice steady pace, listen to a little music as you walk and, helpfully, you're bound to meet people who can be canvassed for their support. In Barking and Somersham, that is made easier by the fact that people are used to Liberal Democrats, and vote for them too, given an opportunity and the right candidate.

As the candidate, I always think that it's important to be fairly self-sufficient and, besides, people aren't used to seeing candidates about the place. I have been told a number of times already that "we don't see very many candidates here", and I tend to the view that, if you can meet people, you should. After all, if you want them to vote for you, you should give them a chance to "look you in the eye", as it were.

And I have the advantage of being pretty amiable - I find people really interesting, so making conversation comes relatively easily, even with people who aren't likely to vote for me. Besides, a District Councillor has to represent all of the people, not just those that vote for them...

I got home to reports that the leaflet was safely going through doors across the ward. The campaign was running as smoothly as I could hope... 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Campaign Diary: Day 9 - I have a Candidate Manager

Whilst you have to have an agent to take care of the technical and legal stuff, and I'm lucky enough to have a very good one in Martin Redbond, it also helps to have someone to manage the candidate. That isn't to, say, tell them what to do, but instead to ensure that the candidate's time is used efficiently. And that's where Ros comes in.

Ros has, of course, done this before. She probably has the t-shirt somewhere to prove it, and knows what needs to be done. As the candidate, there is a danger in having so many tasks to juggle that you either lose track of some or all of them in the whirlwind that is a short campaign, or you risk being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the enterprise.

Ros has firmly suggested that a diary is necessary, and written a fairly detailed plan of what might happen when, so as to ensure that everything that could be done actually happens, and that has taken a lot of weight off of my shoulders, allowing me to keep campaigning. She has also taken on some of the organizing tasks, making sure that the leaflets go out, as well as joining me on the doorstep in Offton and Barking.

And it's also been a help on the doorstep to introduce myself as Ros's husband, as she is clearly still remembered by local residents from her three terms as their County Councillor. I never cease to me amazed by the number of people who have worked with her on some project or another, or who tell me that they voted for her. I can only aspire to be as good as she was, if I do win on 2 June.

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.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThe 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...