The Candidate’s Aide’s Briefing – Lesson 2 – Helicopters

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When Paddy Ashdown tells you to 'close all orifices' in a moving vehicle you take notice!

‘Only leaders travel in helicopters,’ is a maxim that makes helicopters and leaders special.

The phrase, coined by Jim Hancock, former political editor of BBC North West, sums up three tales of when I joined the leader in his campaign helicopter.

Charles Kennedy is not a big fan of helicopters, which is a shame, because personally I think they are the biggest boys toys that have been invented.

I did fly with Charles from Harrogate to Westmorland but with the exception of the stomach churning flight over the ups and downs of the Cumbrian fells the trip to see Tim Farron, now the local MP, was relatively uneventful.

Paddy Ashdown and helicopters is a different matter.

European Elections 1999 – sharing the burden

When Paddy announced his retirement this was to be his last national election campaign for the party and as such his journey to the North West became something of a grand tour, stopping in Chester, (with the Eddibsury by-election in the offing), Southport, Kendal, Oldham and Stockport.

The tour landed in Chester, and having done a walkabout of one of Britain’s most beautiful cities, we returned to the helipad: a field I rural Cheshire.

A large crowd of well-wishers, and members, had appeared to give Paddy a big send off. Hilary Stephenson was the agent for the election and was on site to make sure all went to plan. Several people were questioning why I, and not Paddy, was sitting in the front seat.

An elderly member leant across saying, ‘weight distribution.’ We ascended, just!

Wigan By-Election, September 1999 – ‘close all orifices’

On the eve of Paddy’s retirement in 1999, and the last day of the party conference in Harrogate, Paddy agreed to come and support our candidate in the Wigan by-election.

On this occasion Paddy was in the front, I had learnt my lesson.

Flying across the Pennines, from Harrogate to a high school in Wigan, with a former Royal Marine and SBS operative was an education, the conversation, over the intercom, went something like this:

Ashdown: ‘Pilot, what’s that at 10 o’clock?’

Pilot: ‘That’s Bury Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘And what’s that at 2 o’clock’

Pilot: ‘That’s Bolton Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘Marvellous! Of course, I’ve always loved helicopters, by far the best form of transport. When I was a marine we had to do parachute jumps. The worst thing I have ever had to do.’

Pilot: ‘I see Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘In fact before every jump I used to tell my men, “close all orifices”.’

Me: ‘Chapter 3 of the Ashdown Memoirs – ‘Close all Orifices’

Ashdown: ‘Can you hear us in the back?’

(And for those that don’t know much about helicopters – they have a boot, which you can transport target letters back from conference in.)

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The Candidate’s Aide’s Briefing – Lesson 1 – Cars

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Leader of the Monster Raving Loony Party, Howling Lord Hope, had no driving licence which made him unsuitable to be a candidate's driver!

An important role in any election campaign is that of candidate’s aide. This person shadows the candidate making sure that they keep to their timetable, meet voters and avoid any pitfalls that might befall the campaign.

The team that travels with the candidate generally includes three people, as a minimum, in which ‘the driver’ joins the candidate’s aide and the candidate.

The driver is a vital role. This person can make or break the campaign, along with the candidate’s aide. I have been the candidate’s aide on a number of occasions in elections and cars, as well as other vehicles (to follow); can be influential in the outcome and media reaction.

So, when carrying a party leader, MP or candidate, remember the following rules.

Check the driver has a licence!

When on the Top Gear programme I was pitched against a number of MPs, and members of other parties, one of which did not have a full driving licence.

He came last, taking over 30 seconds longer than the penultimate contender, showing that a licence is an important aspect of any candidate’s driver.

Check they can drive

Some people who offer to drive candidates think they are good drivers. This should be checked. One present MP once told me that a local member offered to drive the candidate around during the general election.

The relationship lasted approximately 2 days, one for the candidate to learn that the white-knuckle ride was for real, then he recovered for a day whilst his agent arranged new transport.

Check the candidate and aide get on

Cars are enclosed spaces, and can become very fraught places if an event has gone badly or the timetable has become a fictional document. In one by-election I was involved in it is fair to say that the candidate and his aide were at daggers drawn by the end of the campaign.

This is best avoided and a redeployment of labour might be required if things cannot be resolved.

Agent’s Training 3 – the importance of lavatories!

I conducted the entire interview with James Landale from the lavatory!

I conducted the entire interview with James Landale from the lavatory!

This may strike aspiring agents as being obvious, but this is an important aspect of any campaign HQ.

Two incidents stand out from the Eddisbury campaign:

First – make sure there is a lock. The present MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Tim Farron, having been out on a canvassing session returned to the HQ in need of an immediate refresher.  He moved quickly towards the WC only to encounter a parliamentary candidate and the word ‘Occupied!’

He retreated until it was safe to return.

Second – A perfect place for Press Interviews.  The Eddisbury HQ was not large; it was two adjacent small shops that we had rented for the period of the election. As in many elections the candidate and his team were out campaigning and if all else fails the agent has to do press conferences.

A Times journalist, James Landale, now the Deputy Political Editor on the BBC, called (on the phone) to scope out the issues, and our chances, in the by-election.

Because my office was busy and the main room was full of activists, stuffing envelopes, I retreated to the only available room in the building – the loo.  The entire 20 minute interview went off without a hitch and Mr Landale, apparently, none the wiser went away happy with his story. 

He did at one point mention that it sounded quite echoey but I moved briskly on.

Agent’s Training 2 – Ladies of the Night and Chips and Gravy

There are disadvantages to having fast food outlets in the immediate vicinity!

There are disadvantages to having fast food outlets in the immediate vicinity!

Having written the tale of the recurring Labour Party writs at the Eddisbury by-election I began to remember other events.

Here are a number of key things that all by-election agents should remember.

First always make sure there are a good range of fast food outlets in the area.  At Eddisbury we had a plethora of these, a Greggs bakery across the way, two Chinese restaurants, an Indian and a newsagents. I have a memory we also had a pizza place, but we only went there once!

Second – make sure you have added security.  Anyone who has been to a Liberal Democrat conference will know that security is more of a concept than a reality. It generally is several enthusiastic volunteers who rifle through handbags with cursory interest, but at by-elections it needs to be a stocky chap or Pat Wainwright!

These need to deal with a number of potential incidents including an invasion of the local collective of ladies of the night, as they did at Eddisbury, and of course the occasional drunk.

Unfortunately my first piece of advice was contradicted at Eddisbury by my second, as one late evening whilst a large group of activists were busily labelling the election address, and as closing time approached, a small group of young men approached our HQ. Our frontline desk staff attempted to encourage them to leave the HQ, but unfortunately politics is something that attracts conversation and they began to offer us advice on our campaign!

After another round of encouragement to leave the boys showed us the disadvantage of having fast food outlets in the area as several sets of chips and gravy were jettisoned into the office, covering several parts of the election address, Hilary Stephenson’s hair and the ceiling. We were picking chips out of the freepost for days!

Fast food outlets in the immediate proximity of the by-election HQ can be a draw back.

Agent’s Training 1 – Beware men with a red rosette under a long coat with a piece of paper in their hand

Tony Blair visited the by-election on the same day as a man in a long coat came into our office for the first time...

Tony Blair visited the by-election on the same day as a man in a long coat came into our office for the first time...

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!