It’s been a while since I went to an event to train as an agent. But, at the weekend I attended a course in Perth.
Having been an agent for numerous parliamentary elections, and by-elections, you might think there isn’t much I can learn, but with numerous legal changes and updates for next year it was very worthwhile, and extremely interesting.
As part of the training the lecturers went through a number of scenarios that should be avoided, and whilst they went through them I was reminded of one of the more memorable moments of the Eddisbury by-election, in 1999.
This was a very strange by-election caused by the appointment of Sir Alastair Goodlad as the new British High Commissioner to Australia. The writ was moved just 20 days before the election. The Conservatives had the right to call the date because Goodlad was a Tory MP. I was in London on the day the writ was moved, very helpfully the then Chief Whip, North Cornwall MP, Paul Tyler, called me so that I could get straight on a train back North, and within 20 days we had to select a candidate and run an effective by-election campaign.
I was to be the agent and Paul Roberts the candidate.
The campaign was fiercely fought with Labour very keen to take the seat whilst they were still even more popular than they had been when elected to government in 1997. Labour was so convinced they could win that Tony Blair himself came to the by-election to campaign for their candidate (don’t believe the myth that Prime Ministers don’t go to by-elections).
It was during this visit that a man walked into my office in Winsford.
Labour Party officials, particularly in those days, had a look about them. He sauntered up to the front desk and asked to speak to J. Ault. This is my first piece of advice to agents; no one who knows you will ever ask for you by your initial, so automatically our staff were on their guard.
Having confirmed my identity, the gentleman pulled a large piece of paper from his inside pocket, inadvertently flashing the distinctive yellow and red of a Labour rosette. He served me with a writ from the Labour agent’s London-based solicitors, and promptly left.
Over the next ten days he, and others, including the present International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander, visited me over a dozen times, including seven times on one day. For some reason they seemed to think we were trying far too hard in a by-election they were trying to win.
They failed to beat the Conservatives, we increased our share of the vote, and Alastair Campbell described the Liberal Democrat campaign as ‘more robust than we had anticipated’, and all that during a leadership campaign!