‘There’s been a missile attack at Heathrow you’ll have to do the Today Programme!’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 11 – Be Prepared for anything!

With the IRA attacking Heathrow Paddy's plane was delayed and so I had to do the Today Programme...

Leader’s visits are the highlight of any election campaign. The 1997 General Election was no exception.  Paddy Ashdown was due to fly into Plymouth airport, twenty minutes from his first visit of the day at Saltash Community School in South East Cornwall, where I was the agent.

Colin Breed was to meet the leader at the airport and arrive, by battle bus at the school, to be followed by a 45 minute walkabout of the classes talking to staff and students.

It was an excellent visit designed to engage with the party’s top policy of the time to raise income tax by 1p in the pound to pay for education.

With an early morning press conference in London the leader’s entourage would board a plane from London to Plymouth, arriving at the school in time for the first lesson of the day.

The arrival time was anticipated between 8.30am and 9am.  As such a gaggle of local and national journalists began to assemble outside the school in anticipation.

A gentleman in a nice suit, from Special Branch, took a call and after a few moments of concerned conversation he sidled across to me to tell me some bad news. ‘There’s been a rocket attack by the IRA at Heathrow airport and all flights have been grounded until further notice, he’s going to be late, very late!’

Although this was manageable with the school a number of the journalists, especially those who were hoping for a live comment from Paddy at the gate were about to be disappointed.

One of them, from Radio 4’s Today Programme, had only turned up to make sure he had something for the programme before 9am, when it ended, and with 9am fast approaching guess who was press-ganged into action.

Thankfully I was not expected to comment on the party’s policies nor the reason for Paddy’s visit to the school, he just wanted the much better story of why Paddy was late and whether this was something we normally have to deal with. I told him it was not!

Paddy arrived about three hours later.


Intern if you want to – The Raffles of Rame

The Raffles of Rame was almost arrested for recruiting members to the Liberal Democrats...

As part of the interns’ series I remember when we had an intern in our office that was taken on to recruit new members to the party in South East Cornwall.

He was bright and affable and exactly the sort of target driven person that is excellent for the ‘salesman’ type job that is involved in encouraging people to join a political party.

He was able to travel around the constituency with his own transport so was taken on for a month to try to increase the party’s numbers.

He had an impressive record of recruiting a number of people every day and after a few weeks the total numbers were in the low 50s.

However, the phone rang in our Liskeard office, from the local constabulary.

A slightly nervous sounding receptionist said that the person being described was indeed a Liberal Democrat recruiter and there was no need for them to arrest him. 

This was his first brush with the law as the police had been advised that a young man was going around the estates of Looe trying to get money out of people for joining the Lib Dems, but it was all above board so the police were happy to drop the case.

The campaigner received his nickname ‘The Raffles of Rame’ (Rame being a peninsula in South East Cornwall and my County Council division at the time) not just because of this but because having locked himself out of his lodgings, which I should say were in a first floor flat, he climbed up the outside of the building to gain entry.

Thankfully none of the neighbours, nor the police for that matter, saw this escapade and so no formal charges were ever brought to bear on our intern!

‘Speaking from his Atlanta Hotel Mr Breed said…’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 10 – Make sure the boss isn’t in bed!

When giving out telephone numbers it is important to check the time difference...

One of the problems with politics is ‘events dear boy.’ They happen to everybody and need to be dealt with successfully.

Political life winds down in August, whilst MPs, staff and constituents find the time to spend two weeks away and have a rest from busy lives.

In South East Cornwall Colin Breed and the local Lib Dems had been campaigning hard for an upgrade to the old Liskeard primary school and as such when the news came through, whilst Colin was on holiday, it was important that we reacted to the story quickly. 

As such I immediately drafted a press release and sent it out. Colin is a very relaxed employer and is happy for press releases to be published from people he trusts and so I sent it out.

At the time, 1996, Colin was away at the Atlanta Olympics, as he, and his family are keen followers of Olympic sport and have been to many of the summer games.

As such a number of calls came through for Colin including the local radio stations.  Because I wanted to people to know that he wasn’t around I had in fact used the phrase ‘speaking from his Atlanta hotel, Colin Breed said….’ as part of the press release.  However, because of the importance of the story they were very keen to get an interview over the phone, from Atlanta. 

So, after some shuffling of papers I gave out the number to the relevant journalists.

About thirty minutes later Colin called to thank me for the interviews that he had done, but subtly pointed out that in future, whilst in America, could we restrict interviews to waking hours as he had been woken at 4am to conduct the interviews and wasn’t too sure they were any good because he simply couldn’t remember a word he had said!

I agreed.

Agent’s Training 11 – Polling Day is not an academic exercise!

Polling day is all about making sure you win, not watching the opposition win!

Agents, let’s face it, are not designed to be popular, that’s the job of the candidate.  It’s the agent’s job to make sure that an election campaign is delivered successfully.

This takes a range of skills from enthusing, encouraging, negotiating, arguing, urging and at times telling.

It was a long time ago, in the 1995 local council elections, when I arrived after chasing between South East Cornwall committee rooms back at the main office in Liskeard.

I arrived from very busy committee rooms back to serene silence.  The constituency secretary was sitting at a computer putting in data whilst pristine sheets of hand written shuttleworths sat untouched on long trestle tables around the room.

After the activity that others had been showing elsewhere I was momentarily stumped.  After a moment I asked the perennial question, ‘how’s it going?’  I received the response, ‘we’re doing ok in North but we appear to be losing in South. 

I then asked the question that received an even worse answer, ‘how many people are out knocking up.’ 

‘Nobody,’ came the reply.

As I could feel the red mist rising I asked what was going on with having a computer and the paper shuttleworths at the same time.  I was told it was easier to see how things were going by having the computer and paperwork too.

I walked swiftly over the computer, unplugged it and then walked over to the shuttleworths ripped off the three longest roads and sent the secretary on to the streets of Liskeard.

We won by 12 votes in Liskeard South and doubled our councillors that year on the local council.

Intern if you want to – The Case of the Smouldering Chalet

I arrived at the member's house to thank them for housing the intern to discover they had burned it down!

Working in politics you get to work with a lot of interesting, influential and even exciting people.  It’s one of the reasons that lots of people are attracted to work for the Liberal Democrats and other political parties as interns.

Over the years I have worked with many interns and many have found jobs in politics, discovered it wasn’t for them or gone on to great and better things.

During the last general election, in South East Cornwall, the party had two interns.  Both of them shared a chalet with each other in a very nice part of the constituency in a very rural location.

The chalet belonged to a member and they were happy to house the interns for the period of the election.  For one reason or another one of them moved out to be nearer the office leaving the other alone in the chalet.

Everything seemed to be fine for the period of the election, but there was some evidence that they perhaps hadn’t got on particularly well.  After one had moved out the other started coming in better dressed and less tired and this was welcome if a little surprising.  He seemed a little quiet, even sheepish, but he worked hard, which is what you want from an intern.

After the election was over and the seat was retained I went round to the member’s house to thank them for the accommodation they had provided to be met by a building that was black with smoke damage and clearly very badly burnt down!

In my shock I was told that apparently when one had left the other had taken to using candles for lighting and left one of the candles alight at night and burned down the chalet, and almost themselves with it.

The fire brigade had been out to deal with it and no one had said a word.  I was stunned.  It did however explain why the intern had gone quiet, and more importantly they had become better fed, washed and bedded.

So, my advice is, if you get an intern who suddenly starts to be cleaner, more rested and better fed, just check they haven’t burned down the place they are staying in.