‘Paddy Ashdown to welcome former Social Democrat David Owen to the Liberal Democrats today…’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 5 – Have a good hook in your press release!

The press release acted as the perfect hook for the local media who knew of the ongoing split between the Lib Dems and the continuing SDP

‘Today Paddy Ashdown will be welcoming former Social Democrat David Owen to the Liberal Democrats,’ read the press release. Myself and the local PPC decided that, in this desperate time for the party, we should try something creative to get the media interested in our campaign.

It was, of course the real Paddy Ashdown, but the David Owen in question was not former Foreign Secretary, David Owen MP.  It was a local student member of the continuing SDP had decided that, following the gradual decline of David Owen’s SDP he would join the local Liberal Democrats, and the visit of the newly elected Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, was a perfect opportunity to get the press involved.

So, duly we arrived in the local town centre with Paddy and David to what can only be described as a Lancastrian media scrum, which Paddy had to gradually let down the local media as he explained that he was delighted to be welcoming the student Social Democrat, David Owen.

Nonetheless the photo call went off well and it made an excellent piece in the local papers. 

The visit was in 1989, a particularly bad year for the Liberal Democrats, and any publicity was very welcome, as we had just polled 6% across the UK in the European Elections.

I seem to remember most of the rest of the afternoon was spent with Paddy trying to buy a pair of shoes off in the local shops!
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The Candidate Aide’s Briefing 5 – Don’t let the candidate get too big a head!

Polling Station 2

We went into a polling station in Lancashire and recieved quite a surprise!

One of the main problems with candidates is that they start to believe they are going to win.  This might be reasonable in some cases but should never be encouraged for fear of them becoming lazy and complacent.

Many candidates have come back into an HQ and told me they are going to win or that it is very close, and usually the best way to deal with this is to ask them if over 50% of those they spoke to actually said they were going to vote for them. As long as they cannot honestly say yes to this you are probably on safe ground.

But, one of the moments that most made me get big headed, as a candidate, was when I was given the task of ‘touring the polling stations’ in the 1994 European Elections. 

This might, to my regular readers, seem to be something that I would, as an agent, discourage, and indeed it is. But, knowing the size of the Euro-constituency and the complete absence of knocking up to be done, myself, Tim and Martin toured the polling stations to occupy ourselves, as well as visiting the committee rooms across the constituency.

As we entered one polling station Tim marched up to the polling staff, introduced himself and shook them by the hand and the introduced me, ‘this is John Ault, the Liberal Democrat candidate!’

Very ceremoniously, the polling clerk stood up and gave a genuine bow, I mean actually a deep, from the waist, bow.

After slightly amused looks between the three of us, at the spectacular moment, I shook him regally by the hand and asked him how the day was going.  Never sitting down he told me that polling was swift.

Retreating back to the car I wonder if he ever heard the laughter from Martin and Tim, though clearly the chap had spotted political royalty in the making, I had to put up with ribbing for the rest of the day, and had my head rapidly deflated.

Agent’s Training 8 – Winning at the Count!


Tim let out a cheer that made the Labour candidate's wife think there were no more jollies to Brussels and Strasbourg!

Agents will tell you that elections can be won at the count, and never was it truer than at my election for the European Parliament in 1994.

Lancashire South was not the most winnable seat, and throughout the campaign my agent, Tim Farron, was very concerned that we might not hold on to the deposit, which from memory came from personal funds.

As such he went to the count with one simple ambition, and this was to save the deposit.

Being the candidate I was told to repair to a nearby hostelry, with my team, Martin, Julian and Jeremy and Tim (who was at the count) would give them a time for me to arrive, in due course.

Before my arrival, Tim, being good with sampling and statistics, had worked out, based on the official turnout, that we need about 8,500 votes to save the deposit.

Standing next to the area where the counting staff were bundling, Tim let out an enthusiastic cheer when we passed the required vote to save the deposit, not knowing that the sitting MEPs wife was standing next to him.

Ashen faced, and clearly not an election aficionado, she asked;

‘Has our Michael lost then?’

Wanting to maintain the fantastic impression of a Liberal Democrat shock gain, for just a little longer, Tim said;

‘Looks like it!’

It took me a while to realise quite why so many people looked at me as I entered the election count, to the cheers of Liberal Democrat supporters!

Agent’s Training 5 – Saving the Deposit!

Tim Farron MP

Tim Farron and Martin Allen ran around the car park to try to make sure we didn't lose my deposit!

One of the key things that any agent needs to remember is to save the deposit.  Historically this was set at 12.5%, between 1918 and 1985, but nowadays it is 5% and the deposit that you have to place with the returning officer is £500.

As an agent I have never lost a deposit, but in 1994 I was in serious danger of losing my deposit when I stood for the European Parliament, in Lancashire South.

The constituency did not offer an aspiring Liberal Democrat candidate a great deal of hope, because the area was made up from seven Labour/Conservative marginal seats.

The Labour MEP, Michael Hindley, had the benefit of incumbency and as the campaign started John Smith, the Labour Party leader, died, making the entire election campaign rather a sideshow.

The election before had delivered lost deposits for the Liberal Democrats, in the worst ever election campaign for the party, polling 6% nationally.

So, I, my agent, Tim Farron and my friend Martin Allen, arrived at Chorley Town Hall, where the election was being run from, to deliver my nomination papers to the returning officer, with some trepidation.

Chorley is a windy place, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a piece of paper fluttering across the car park.

Deposits do not need to be cash, you can use a bankers draft, and our draft, for £1000, which was the required amount for European Elections under first-past-the-post, was drifting gently, but purposefully, across the car park towards the main road.

After much running and flapping from my team, while I tried to remain calm, it was recovered, and safely lodged with the Returning Officer and eventually saved, comfortably, a few weeks later. I can’t remember if we had been seen by the elections staff in this dance macrabre around the car park, I certainly hope not.

If all agents had to feel the pain of their deposit drifting away across a car park it might make them keener to prevent them being lost.

The Candidate’s Aide’s Briefing – Lesson 3.5 – Fork Lift Trucks


Beware of the erratic Forklift Truck driver

During the European Elections of 1999 we had enormous trouble getting our completed, addressed election addresses back from the printers in Essex.

But myself, and another Liberal Democrat activist, took a very large van down south, overnight, to collect the half a million addressed leaflets,and take them back to the Manchester sorting office.

A very helpful man from the Royal Mail, seeing we were rather jaded from our overnight expedition, unloaded our van in no time at all and with out incident, which is more than can be said for this chap. There are two forklift trucks in this piece.

Look out for the one on the left!

More on this story can be seen on The Telegraph wesbite.