Monday, November 08, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

4,134 people paid their deposit and stood as Parliamentary Candidates on May 6 - which means that 3,485 suffered the same fate as I did.

People have asked me how I feel about losing the election. Lots of people write about winning, so I thought it might be interesting to write about losing.

Firstly, lets put this in context. Not getting elected is a bitter disappointment - but it's not a tragedy.

Millions of folk suffer and survive far harder knocks every day, indeed as I mentioned at the time some acquaintances of ours suffered a very tragic loss the day after the election and their awful pain and anguish put my selfish disappointment firmly in it's place.

Every day people fail exams, lose the sale, miss the school place, get fired, are gazumped - and not only do they recover, in the end nearly all these situations as one door closes a better one opens. Mind you standing for election has other challenges. Firstly, your disappointment becomes a very public affair. Secondly, you can't manage expectations like you can with, say, exams. You can't speculate about losing, you have spent weeks or even months publicly bigging up your chances to supporters and opponents alike - even candidates for the Raving Loony Party end up convincing themselves they are set to romp home.

It is even more difficult keeping a rational outlook while being the front-runner in a target seat. For months Torbay had been considered an nailed-on Conservative gain, the odds-on favourite. And as such I became the focus of the massed ranks of the lobbying industry keen to impress me ahead of my expected elevation to Parliament. Wads of expensive brochures arrived daily from campaign groups and companies and my email quota steadily grew to 1,000 a week. I had been invited to lavish receptions, regaled by national media, bombarded by calls from PR types keen to know my views. Even the Whips Office had given me a run-down of the likely timetable for the opening Parliamentary session. So I was not alone in mapping out my immediate future with the expectation of being an MP - unwisely I planned my business affairs on the same basis. That involved letting my London flat to tenants (as new MP's expenses rules meant I couldn't have used it for myself), gave notice to my work colleagues, closed off all client assignments and went on an extended sabbatical.

Election days are manic, frenzied affairs that start before dawn. There is a brief rest period for candidates between when the polls close at 10pm and when the counting starts. After knocking on doors right up to 9.45 that evening I went home and changed, taking in the early exit poll numbers from the BBC over a hurried drink. The house was full of friends and helpers and a small gaggle of us walked through the balmy night air along Princess Gardens and across Abbey Park and into the ERC for the count. At this point I was nervous, but still very confident - I knew from canvassing returns that our vote would be up a good deal on 2005, possibly to around 20,000 which in most seats is a winning total. I remained completely oblivious to the awful reality that was quite literally unfolding before shocked Conservative observers inside the hall.

The count runs in several stages. First the ballot boxes are opened and all the papers are counted to confirm the total number of votes cast - this figure used as a control total after the votes for each candidate have been counted. Then the ballot papers are sorted into piles by candidate and thirdly the piles for each candidate are counted. In all our election scenarios we had anticipated that the expenses scandal would impact incumbent MP's - and especially Lib Dem MP's who depend on Labour support. We thought Labour therefore would hold their 2005 figure, and Lib Dems lose votes to the Labour and the Greens - we thought our vote and UKIP would both rise, implying an increase in turnout.

I walked into the room just as the Returning Officer announced the total votes cast - it was up, but by a minuscule amount - just 64.6%. A brief look at the ashen faces of my closest supporters was the next massive clue that all was far from according to plan. It was apparent to those already there that our high profile and optimistic campaign had backfired badly. Being the favourite had meant that the more we looked like winning, the harder winning became as Labour voters responded by shifting to the Lib Dem camp.

The Party HQ decision not to allow attacks against the Liberal Democrats had made matters worse. While we were under strict Queensberry rules our local opponent was wielding a baseball bat. They promptly got stuck in to the negative stuff -that I was campaign manager for the Mayor, that I intended to be part time if elected and that I supported controversial planning proposals- all untrue but they served their purpose - galvanising support for their man in order to keep me out. What was becoming clear inside the hall was that Labours vote had just vanished and that the unthinkable had occurred, while our vote had risen as expected his vote had risen too, and by much more than mine.

What does it feel like to lose an election all your friends, your work and political colleagues and even many of your enemies thought you were nailed on to win? An election that many workers have been building up to alongside you for eight years, that they have toiled to raise the money for, bet the political farm on and expected to succeed?

There is a great scene in the film 'Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' when Eddy realises he has not only lost the poker game and all his friends stake money but run up a debt of £500,000 to arch villain Hatchet Harry. That is exactly what it felt like as I looked at the growing piles of counted polling slips in the 'Sanders' tray - the stack growing unmistakably faster than the pile marked 'Wood' . The world around goes grey and your vision blurs, you feel sick, people talk to you but you don't hear them - the cold, clammy reality that you have called it completely wrong, the horrible anticipation of explaining to friends and supporters that we didn't win after all, and it's all unravelling in front of the world on live TV.

Comments like "It's still looking quite close..." soon gave way to comments like "How have they done it -again?"

In slow motion the returning officer called us to her corner to notify us of the official result - this is done before the whole thing is re-enacted on stage so that candidates can compose themselves and also to afford a last opportunity for any appeal. She avoids looking at me, a small but important final clue before the worst is confirmed by her figures.

The only nice surprise of that evening was the discovery immediately after the announcement that while I was desperately concerned about how my supporters would feel and react, their main concern was about how I was. Even my opponent, in complete contrast to the bad-tempered comments he made in 2005, was offered some kind words, he said he has lost elections and suffered disappointment too in his time so he knew how I was feeling.

Our election party was a flat affair with a string of friends and colleagues urging me not to make any public announcements about not standing again - it looked at that stage likely that we would all be doing it again in the Autumn.

I sat through the night watching scores of my friends and colleagues being anointed as Conservative MP's and feeling very sorry for myself.

The emails, post and phone calls stopped as if someone has turned off a tap. On May 5th I received 127 emails, on May 7th - eight; by May 12th it was none. In my work I spend a lot of time counselling redundant senior executives: they live on adrenaline with endless calls, meetings, emails and pressure one minute and then within hours of being ousted it's tumbleweed time.

But oddly enough that experience has been very helpful. I took my own advice and by Monday my mind had turned completely to the problem of what to do about money; and within the week I had become totally absorbed into a series of new business projects; as a result the Wood finances are now headed back into health.

I also have my private life back, and what a luxury it is to be able to complain in a restaurant, wear old jeans or not shave for a day and know that nobody cares. It is also welcome break not having to worry about what our MP gets up to as either. He can be as lazy as he likes and I won't notice.

A couple of weeks ago David Cameron and George Osbourne held a reception at Downing Street for unsuccessful Tory candidates and I met up with scores of colleagues who, like me, didn't make it. It was great to go and see the hallowed place on the inside and surreal meeting David Cameron again but this time as our Prime Minister. That is the point really, our small battle here in Torbay may have been lost but the war was won.

Monday, May 10, 2010

So the result....

A very emphatic Lib Dem hold. Hats off to Mr Sanders and his team who seem to have really dug in to Torbay now; probably until he retires.

I am deeply disappointed, but resigned to the fact that I am probably never going to be an MP. Unlike a lot of people in politics the thought of sitting on green benches has not been a burning ambition since I was twelve, in fact I became involved largely by accident. So contrary to what some have been saying; I will not be leaving Torbay in search of a seat somewhere else - we are totally settled here and the last thing I want is to disturb my family who have stuck by me so firmly for the last 8 years.

Having studied the results from Thursday it is pretty clear now in a way that was not clear then, that the bay is a clearly divided place politically speaking with the mass on the left outweighing the mass on the right by roughly 20%.

After the build-up when we were so far ahead in the polls and all the positive feedback from our own supporters during the campaign it is perhaps understandable that we thought we were going to win. Unfortunately we picked up no signs at all of the fact that Labour were defecting to the Lib Dems in droves, we wouldn't though, would we?

Adrian Sanders team know exactly what buttons to press to garner support from Labour, and they pressed them.

I wrongly thought Sanders' support would be affected by the expenses scandal but it seems however much voters complained in public, in private they are happy to let him carry on - it seems there are at least 24,000 people in Torbay who still want 'anyone but the Tories' to represent them.

95% of the result in a general election is down to what goes on during the National campaign and 5% is down to the local campaign; I am satisfied we delivered our 5% but I fear the 36% vote share we got in the Nationwide result was nowhere near enough for us to take Torbay. When we used to hold the (current) seat the national vote share was never less than 40%.

We did everything we could, but Politics is never fair and the result is not often connected to the effort expended. I said at the start that main reason we had to work hard and leave no stone unturned was to be able to sleep with a clear conscience if we lost.

The ultimate irony, which will not be lost on many Torbay voters (especially Labour ones) is that we could end up with Adrian Sanders working on
our side of the House of Commons voting to support our manifesto - voting for huge spending cuts and a drastic re-drawing of the role of Government.

Quite where that will leave both sides at the next local elections is anyone's guess.

And on a last, philosophical point - it is only politics, after all. The day after the election, while we sat around feeling sorry for ourselves I heard that a friend of a friend had suffered an unimaginable personal tragedy on Thursday - and that really did put life into perspective.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Places, everyone!

Three days of campaigning left and it's all down to the process called 'getting out the vote'.

For several years we have been campaigning for one purpose; to make sure we win the most votes on Thursday. A big part of that process is ensuring the people who are intending to support us, actually do so.

Campaigning takes several forms; Firstly holding events to raise money to campaign with. Then we spend years listening to voters by canvassing on the doorstep, holding open meetings and doing postal and on-line surveys. Then as the election comes onto the horizon we define and refine our message, and deliver it to voters by leaflets and mail whilst also seeking to find as many people as possible who want to vote for us, and support and help us.

The most intense part of the process is the election campaign itself, in this case we started in January; we have been knocking door to door, six days a week since the start of the year seeking support and meeting a record number of electors, all the while building up a huge list of voters committed to back David Cameron as PM and myself as their MP.

Now we have to remind those voters to act on the day itself, and political parties switch into frenzied activity in the final remaining hours before the polls close at 10:00pm Thursday, monitoring who has already voted (to cross them off the list) and then basically nagging the rest into going to the polling station; even driving them there when necessary.

As the final preparations for the big day are completed it is feeling a bit like the build-up for a big wedding; everyone knows their places, what to say and how to say it, their moves choreographed and rehearsed to the finest detail; the stationary is ordered, the cars cleaned and prepared, the refreshments ready. And as the candidate I it does feel a bit like being a groom - with all the frantic preparations going on all around all I have to do make sure I turn up on the day, shoes cleaned and hair brushed.

We enter the last few days of this campaign in better shape that at any election in living memory; with more pledges, more helpers and more goodwill than any of us can remember.

To all of those dedicated people who have helped me campaign for what we believe in, whether for some or all of the eight long years we have been at it, I say a hearty thank-you.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

At a time when their leadership are trumpeting a new kind of politics it is a bit disappointing to note that locally the Lib Dems are engaging in some very old-fashioned negative campaigning. The latest broadside from Mr Sanders team contains more totally untrue allegations, to add to old favourites they put about during the last election.

The first myth is that I am the man from Windsor. Can I just point out that I have never lived in Windsor? My only connection with the place is that my Dad lived there for a bit when my parents split up in the '70's and I was once the Chairman of the Constituency Conservative Association. It is a matter of record that I live in Torquay, and have done so for years. My wife and I work here, my children go to school here, and all our friends live here.

The second myth is that I am connected at the hip to the Mayor. Nick Bye was chosen as our candidate in 2005 - and with everyone else I worked hard to help get a Conservative mayor elected. As the Lib Dem campaign team know full well I do not get involved in the local council political scene, I am not on the council, do not campaign, advise, or work for the mayor or any councillors in any capacity, I do not have a say on policy, planning matters or anything else.

The newest myth has just appeared in the Lib Dems latest leaflet. "The conservative intends to be only a part-time MP" - they shout. This is another wholly untrue allegation. They know full well that I have always made it clear that I intend to work flat out, full time, on being your MP if elected. Indeed the expectation is that the new Parliament will be working through many long nights to try and sort out the mess the last Parliament have left the country in.

And for the last MP to be shouting about the possible work-rate of the next one is a bit dangerous, it might just prompt voters to spot the fact that he and his colleagues spent the least amount of time working of any Parliament for 30 years - despite the worst recession in living memory, and after getting a record pay-rise.

As The Sun newspaper reported earlier this year: "Analysis of the working day at Westminster showed the House sat for just 139 days in 2008-09. Members' average working day lasted seven hours and 35 minutes - meaning they sat for 1,053 hours and 51 minutes overall. That was the lowest total in a non-election year since 1979."

Sunday, April 25, 2010

More pics from Camerons visit.

VIP Visitors - why they matter.
From my memory, and only since the last election in 2005, we have had the following front bench spokesmen and women to see us here, several of whom have made repeated visits:

Liam Fox, Defence
Eric Pickles, Chairman
Peter Ainsworth, Agriculture
Bob Neil, Local Government
John Penrose, Trade and Industry
Francis Maude, Cabinet Office
Andrew Mitchell, Foreign Aid
Tim Loughton, Children
Tobias Ellwood, Tourism
Anne Milton, Health
Mark Francois, Europe
Andrew Lansley, Health
Chris Grayling, Home affairs
David Cameron, Leader.

These busy people have sat in on Tourism conferences, visited local schools, toured hospitals, launched campaigns, met scores of local businesses and seen pressure groups and charity organisations at work. They have done this at my request, and I have worked very hard to get them here so that in Government they have first-hand knowledge of the problems local people have.

They come here so that we can teach them about Torbay.It has been a central part of my work as Prospective MP since 2002 to work to get senior front bench people from my party out of their London offices and down here; to understand the issues affecting the South West in general and Torbay in particular.

And every single one of these people has been shown the traffic problems we face daily getting in and out of the Bay, on purpose, and as a result all have offered to help us in our campaign to get the road built. This help culminated in Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers agreeing to see me in Westminster a month ago.

And the more front bench visitors from my party we get the more obvious the question. Where are the senior people from the other parties? With the noble exception of Paddy Ashdown who is camped out in Devon for the election there hasn't been a senior Lib Dem in Torbay for years.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Boss Arrives in Town
No election campaign would be complete without at least one visit from the Big Man himself; and our number came up today.

Due to the fact that Cameron is now a security risk the arrangements for a visit are normally left to the last minute and made in secret. This reached new heights of challenge this time when yesterday lunch-time while out canvassing in Preston I got an out-of-the blue phonecall from a senior bod at CCHQ - which went like this:
"David is in Devon, would you like him to drop by".
"Lovely, er, when?"
"Tomorrow, noon."
"No plans, no idea. We have got a team on their way, can you help? Find a location for a big set-piece policy speech to 100 or so people, plus at least another 100 reporters and cameramen, plus our own film crew (another 50), lighting and sound and of course we need room for a stage, and a PA system, power, and parking for three coaches, and about 20 cars. It must be open, but must be secure, must have disabled facilities, must be accessible, must look good on TV, must not be controversial and we must have owners permission to film; oh yes and we need you to find a location, obtain all the permissions and sort it all out in time to invite everyone, so say in about an hour or two?"
"Anything else?"
"Can you also choose somewhere that is iconic for your constituency?"
After a day of racing round the Bay with their location people we eventually ended up selecting the Palace Hotel up in Babbacombe from a very long list of possible locations. In fact the sheer scale of choices became an issue when trying to make a final decision late last night; and the final location was not agreed until long after dark.

It was a miracle to then behold the entire circus roll into town late last night and by early morning the stage was up, lights and cameras ready, sound tested, banners out, invitations sent and everything ready.

Unlike when Michael Howard came at the last election (when every detail had been thrashed out weeks in advance) Cameron people are far more relaxed and informal, to the point of being almost casual and decisions to ch ange things were made as the situation demanded.

It had been intended that Cameron would do his speech and then we would roll into Babbacombe, or Wellswood for a walkabout.

The media are housed on one coach and David's team occupy another. The plan was David would switch coach as the cort├Ęge arrived in Torquay at about 2pm, requiring a pull-over in Avenue Road. But the driver got confused and led the group out onto the seafront by Abbey Meadows, where there was no room for the coach to pull over.

Given the event was already running late, and fearing that we may not get our prized walkabout, I suggested that we take David off the coach by the Harbour in Torquay, meet some people there and then put him in the right vehicle to make his entrance at the hotel. It immediately transpired that David Cameron was very keen to have an ice cream while at the seaside (he knows Devon well!) so we d ecided to stop his bus, get off, buy an ice cream, talk to a few folk and then go. How difficult can it be? we thought.

Well immediately the press decided this would make a great 'photo-op' so instead of a simple few moments wander across to the sweet shop it became a media frenzy. The photographers ended up rowing with the TV crews for hogging all the good shots and the journalists scurried round asking perplexed passers by what they thought about David Cameron.

Interestingly thoug
h, DC really does stop the traffic. Within seconds the Strand was at a standstill and people were calling and waving from cars, upper storey windows and rushing out of shops and cafe's to see him; not out of idle curiosity, either; people wanted to shake our hands, wish us luck and cheer us on.

So after he bought me an ice cream (complete with choccy flake) we eventually went on our way up to the hotel where we met up with my neighbouring PPC Sara Woollaston, who led us onto the outdoor stage where David delivered an impressive 20 minute speech, mostly from memory (I could see his basic notes and he had a few bullet points, that was all).

He unveiled our seven point plan to clean up politics, which included adopting the kind of open primary selection of candidates we used in Totnes, then giving electors the power of recall for corrupt MP's, abolishing quango's and making ministers responsible for decisions again, opening up Ministerial decisions to public scrutiny.

Great stirring stuff and all great fun into the bargain. Although serious, elections are also theatre and no show is bigger - or more dramatic- than one which changes history.