Twenty years ago today I was a candidate, nervously awaiting the outcome of my first electoral contest. I was fighting the Redland ward of Bristol City Council, where the Liberal Democrats had put in a derisory performance since the party’s formation four years previously. The seat was held by the Tories but Labour had come within 12 votes of winning in 1990, at the height of the poll tax protests. But this election was being held just a month after John Major’s triumph in the 1992 general election. At about 1o.30pm (local election polls closed at 9pm in those days) I learned my fate. I’d doubled the Lib Dem vote to a mathematically pleasing 1,111 votes but had come third. The new Conservative councillor, Mark Casewell, won with a comfortable majority over Labour.
Looking back, it’s remarkable how much has changed. Redland has had LibDem councillors since 1999. The Tories haven’t won a general election since that remarkable result in 1992. Bristol West was Tory for 112 years until Waldegrave lost to Labour’s Valerie Davey in 1997, who I beat in 2005.
But campaigning has changed hugely too. My campaign in 1992 would have been recognisable to candidates from previous decades. Our volunteers delivered two leaflets and knocked on every door in the ward. The leaflet text was composed on a typewriter and the black and white photographs were turned into dots for printing by a photo bureau. The canvass cards for door knocking were made by me and my agent (Sean Emmett, cllr for Lockleaze since 2000) spending two evenings cutting up the election register and pritt-sticking each street onto card. The results of the canvassing were written up by hand onto triplicate carbon paper, to be used when “knocking up” supporters on polling day. All of this now belongs in the museum of electioneering.
Just a year later computers started to make a difference. This time I was fighting the Cabot ward of Avon County Council. I was hoping to succeed a retiring Lib Dem councillor. But victory was certainly not guaranteed as Labour had come within 25 votes of winning the city council seat in 1990. Now the text (but not the photos) of leaflets was produced on a word processor. My campaign was a trial for some new software (pleasingly called POLLY, and I can’t work out the acronym!) that enabled us to record canvass results. This made it easier to produce target letters to supporters and swing voters. It also automated polling day, though we ran a manual parallel operation.
In the intervening 19 years the use of IT has mushroomed in a way I couldn’t have foreseen. I’ve used a public email address since 1997 and had a web site since 2000. Now, virtually every politician uses social media. I’ve been on Facebook for six years, started blogging after the 2010 general election and finally succumbed to Twitter a couple of months ago.
We can now communicate in so many ways. But I think there is still no better way to feel the pulse of the electorate than to meet them on their own doorstep or on a street stall. Whatever cleverdickery the geeks throw our way, politics should be primarily about people talking to each other. MPs and councillors shouldn’t allow their lap tops and smart phones to become a barrier to face to face meetings between politicians and citizens.
I’ve fought eight elections in the last twenty years, winning five of them. I was only really sure I was going to win one of them, when I defended my council seat for the last time in 1998. My next scheduled encounter with the electorate is in 2015. I’m sure there will be further campaign wizardry but speaking to people will be all the more vital in order to defend a ten year incumbency. The Coalition Government has changed the tectonic plates of British politics more than any innovation in campaign techniques. The last twenty years have been an amazing experience and I’m sure the coming years will be full of exciting twists and turns.