Becoming an Elected Politician
Ten years ago (May 2005) I was elected as a public politician for the county council seat of Newquay North in Cornwall, UK. Whilst being the campaign manager for 17 county candidates and 1 Parliamentary candidate. Together we won 17 seats..
Here is my journey in politics not my whole life and not certainly not all the politics..
I reflect often that I coped with a messy upbringing by reading a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy books. They gave me a place to retreat to, but at the same time I was learning what society and what humans could become. They showed me how certain principles could be taken to the extreme and what kind of society we would end up with.
Why was it messy? Well my mother disappeared when I was 6 months old and I ended up in foster care for a number of years, changed schools a bunch of times I think 6 before the age of 14 and yep my father and step mother were both good fighters.
Fantasy books test the different ways people can grow up in a good versus evil environments. I got to explore many societies, many cultures, some human, some alien, and many pathways through life. The best and the worst of what society could become. I recall Spock once saying that with infinite diversity comes infinite possibility, maybe here is where my Liberal and Social leanings come from.. I have always known I want to leave the world in a better state than I arrived in it.
I once asked a teacher, why they wanted to be a teacher
“There are no innocent bystanders.”
William S. Burroughs
This quote has stuck with me for most of life, because it put words to something I already strongly believed in. This quote has driven me to go down the path I followed, it has made me feel guilty for inaction and has given me part of the reason to be better.
A little bit of confidence (1982)
In my last year at school I got involved in Young Enterprise (school pupils setup a business with help from local business people and try and make a profit), started as the Sales Manager and eventually became the Managing Director. This got me talking/selling in front of other people (on the street and in shops). I also had my first experience with public speaking to an unknown audience when we won one of the regional awards. I remember to this day how much I shook as I spoke.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Learning about Print and Design (1982 -)
One of the services we offered as a Young Enterprise company was Letterhead printing, as I had access to Desktop Publishing System (Quark Express and Apple Macintosh) through my Dad’s company. In fact, through this I taught Pagemaker and Quark Xpress to printing professionals and they taught me the print profession. I started to learn how to communicate effectively and impact fully through print.
Calm under fire? Strategy, Tactics and problem solving (1982 -)
Thinking through strategy, tactics and problem solving grew out of my Wargaming (Advanced Squad Leader, Warhammer 40K, Space Marines Epic). Dungeons & Dragons (tabletop role playing games) also contributed to my confidence and creativity as a teenager as well as the ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes. There were many times when I stood as the leader in chaotic circumstances and I developed a rep as “calm under fire” with my friends. Whether it was true or not, it formed a part of who I am now.
My first vote
In 1989 European elections and I voted Green. My view at the time was: no planet, no human race.. The result to me was shocking. Greens got 2,292,705 votes, nationally 14.9% (UK), and got not one MEP (Member of European Parliament). To me, the election system seemed screwed up, so this started my journey in exploring how elections worked.
Standing up for others (1992-)
During my first year at UoH (University of Hertfordshire) I found I enjoyed sharing my understanding of software/computers/networks. I have often found it “easy” to explain very complex things in terms anyone can understand through analogies. I quickly became one of the “mentors” and helped many students, and thus became one of the informal course representatives. This course (Software Engineering HND) was really well taught, I enjoyed it and performed very well and got offered the opportunity to move up to the degree course.
I think it was near Christmas when the student halls (Pembroke Halls) I was in were trashed. The University responded by sending a notice of eviction to all students and taking everyone’s deposit. This is a hall with 220 students and the walls were made of “paper”, one of the those temporarily buildings that stays around for a long time. The facts were unclear but cause was likely a mixture of students and locals from Hatfield who sneaked in. I worked with students to get their parents to challenge the University through the court and force them to prove their case. Of course they could not, and a compromise was established. Both the Halls Association and the Students’ Union did nothing.
So in the next election cycle I stood for both. For The Halls Assocation I stood for election as Vice-President and for the Students’ Union (UHSU) I stood as Communications Officer, and was duly elected for both. These elections taught me how uncomfortable it is to “sell” yourself. But these were my first elections as a candidate.
“We must be the change we wish to see in the world”
During my second year at University I expanded into unknown territory and became a member of the Drama Society. Standing up in front of people was shit scary. Overtime I learned to pace myself, I learned how to project my voice, I learned timing, I learned to practice and memorise my lines. I learned to take complexity and simplify it. I learned to perform and act a character that was not Eric. Whilst Roleplaying games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons) started this journey Drama took this to the next level.
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”
Student Politics – University of Hertfordshire Students’ Union (UHSU)
My year as Communications officer made me concentrate on student engagement/involvement/motivation, getting students to general meetings, demonstrations and also learning how to do publicity well e.g. putting up posters. During this time I used to go to food places to stand on a chair and tell all the students what was going on. I got used to speaking in front of a couple hundred people who did not care about what you care about, and I learned the best places to put posters.
The Conservative Government was in the process of removing students grants (money for food and accommodation) for University and considering charging for each year of attendance. I am not sure if I would have gone to University if it was not free. Free Education became a part of my political beliefs at this time.
I got the attention of the NUS Regional Officer (Nick Berg) who asked me to help out with training the colleges on Regional Training Weekends. NUS taught me how to train and share my knowledge. I trained a lot of FE Officers in East Anglia, UK. I throughly enjoyed teaching and learned from my students.
My third year (at University) I stood for election as the Union Affairs Officer, who managed the elections and the formal rules process of the Union i.e. The constitution, standing orders and policies. I do not remember the reason now, but I had such a strong disagreement about one policy that I resigned. I learned how ineffective resigning is, as now I could not influence anything.
In my final University year I stood for Academic Affairs. It was to be a busy year, as the University decided to change the way it delivered all of it is courses. I worked with Education & Welfare sabbatical (full time post) to communicate with students. In part, the way I handled myself through this change and helped the University to compromise, led to my election as President of the Students Union (UHSU).
President of the Students’ Union
Suddenly I was the leader of 350 staff, several bars/clubs/shops and the representative of 21,000 students. Its kind of like being a mayor. Watching, advising and criticizing is a lot easier than being the person at the top. My first year was a lot of cleaning up a business nightmare, we were running at an increasing loss, we employed 350 staff most of them without any employment terms, and most of our permanent staff were commercial facing with very little support for our students services. So we had a complete restructure. This got the University onboard for specific increases for our grant (for the Students’ Union) from them, setting us up for a healthier future. This was not a process without cost. We had to close some services and lets some people go.
And it led me into a tough election, which I won my second term but it was close. I would not have won this election without my colleague Sam Fawcett and my remaining friends. My second term focus was using my now established relationships to gain more resources for the students’ union, and advocate for students through the University and nationally.
“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.”
Albert G Hubbard
National Union of Students (NUS)
Through my training I had built a strong standing with my region i.e. East Anglia. When I stood for NUS Regional Council, I had a lot of support. Which eventually led me to standing for the NUS national executive (NEC), after my term as president at UHSU had finished. NUS was a battlefield of the left of the Labour party and the right of the Labour party, as most of the people in power were members of the Labour party.
This was one of the strangest years of my working life. I was doing a full-time job but earned part-time money and I could only work on projects I was authorized to. Expenses were signed by whichever political group was onside at the time. I felt that I had got elected with a lot of good people, but the culture of NUS was sick, and we inherited it and we were not always our best. NUS politics was vicious and at times petty compared to real world politics.
All of that said I feel I got some good work done with Mature Students, Peer to Peer Training (STADIA), Environment, Training and helping student unions grow. None of it was done alone there were many people who helped me.
As my term on the NEC drew to a close, I decided to stand for the NUS President. My standing for election as National President for NUS was really about making a point. I did not expect to get elected, but I wanted to make some points to wake NUS up from the US and THEM sick culture and the acceptance of Labour Leadership, which I was not against if it was more inclusive. I ran the campaign as an independent, took no deals, no money from parties, just from friends and other like minded people. I came really close to winning, I think just 42 votes out of a 2000 electorate. I learned an incredible amount from my time in NUS about campaigning, public policy, voting, block vote tactics, winning and losing. I was happy with the campaign and knew it was now time to move on. And that in politics, you may die many times – it’s the grace you do it with that will define your future and your friends.
There are many people I am thankful for in my time in NUS, who helped me survive and be a stronger advocate including Sam Fawcett, Andy Martin, Tommy Hughes, Kat Price, Colin Ross and many others.
“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”
My time in student politics taught me about diversity. Whether that be sex, gender, race, sexuality or age. These are part of my core because of the exposure to the real life stories, the debate and the polices. I am thankful for all the people in UHSU/NUS who educated me and helped me grow. And I would say now I am a passionate campaigner for equality of opportunity – passionate and sometimes clumsy, as I still have more to learn.
“Return hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
Choosing political parties
Before University I would have fitted into a Green or Labour voter. I was left of centre, I believed in social justice, but I did not fully know what that meant. I felt society should be fair, more of a meritocracy. And of course green.
In 1997 I met all the Parliamentary Candidates for Welwyn Hatfield. Without a doubt the best candidate was Rodney Schwartz, he was very authentic and round beat the other candidate Melanie Johnson, in the student debate. This was my first encounter with a Liberal Democrat and we often talked during the General Election. He lost gracefully to Melanie Johnson.
I found the the NOLS i.e. Labours Students very controlling, and I understood the timing was leading to a place where New Labour would form, and they needed to modernize to take on the Conservatives. Which I wanted them to achieve. It was their methods that bothered me.
NUS often felt like a battleground between the right and the left of the Labour party with students being left in the middle. I would say that I started out as a Labour supporter but my time in the NUS made me think about this decision. Overtime I got to know a few Liberal Democrats and even went to a LYDS conference, which I have to say put me further off party politics. Some of my closet friends were in the Green, Labour and Liberal Democrats but I felt more comfortable with the SDP (Now merged into Lib Dems).
The one thing I knew was I was not a Conservative. I felt Conservatives was for rich people who cared less for the vulnerable in our society, whose priority was business above all other things. Who were happy with the divide in wealth and classes.
Paddy Ashdown was the Lib Dem leader at the time. I liked the policies that the Lib Dems put forward. The Lib Dems were the only political party at this time stating that higher education should be free. I felt their stance on the environment and education were something I could get behind.
Liberal Democrats Youth & Students (LDYS)
My experience of this was very varied. I had a number of friends who were great supporters during my time at NUS. I stood for election after my time at NUS. I wanted to share some of my seven years of experience. It was my worse experience of an election process, it included character assassination and lies about me. They made Labour Students look nice. I never went back.
Working with a Member of Parliament
Lembit Opik (at this time MP) and I met during my time in NUS. With his policy brief of Northern Ireland (I lived there in the early 90s) and Children/Youth, we had a lot to talk about. Whilst we did not agree on everything, I think we helped each other understand very different perspectives. I learned about Rural policy from him and his then colleague Richard Williams, MP another Welsh MP. We worked with each other for a number of years until 2002.
Real World Campaigns
When Lembit Opik MP, invited me to come and help out in the first Welsh Assembly Elections (1999), I jumped at it. I could use my campaigning skills and learn a wider policy brief i.e. more than education. The Head of the Campaign, Chris Lines, was awesome and I learned an incredible amount from him, particularly about working with Journalists. We supported 40 candidates, whilst supporting a national and federal strategy. As I really started to understand the whole political partys’ policies I felt I had found a home. I still agreed with policies from some other parties, but their implementation was often different i.e. more authoritative rather than involvement of stakeholders.
General Election Manager for Wales & Organizer for the Leaders Office (March 2001)
Whilst at NSPCC I was offered the opportunity to Head up the Welsh Parliamentary Election campaign. I asked for a leave of absence and I was denied, even though others in the organization were being given time off to support their political parties. I handed in my notice and for the next four months lived and worked in Cardiff, Wales.
Who needs one job? Yeah so I also worked as part of the Federal Leaders office (Charles Kennedy MP) organizer of the final week of his tour around the the UK. Reporting into Niall Johnston, another amazing mentor for me.
During my time I was also a paper candidate for Pontypridd, Wales. It was a Labour stronghold, the candidate was a Government Minister and I did well enough to get my deposit returned. People should have a choice..
Becoming an Approved Parliamentary Candidate
This process really helped me flesh out what I really cared about, what were the policies I wanted to work on. What my underlining principles were. How I defined myself compared to other parties. What language I would use to describe these beliefs. For example, is the individual more important than society, or vice versus or a balance of both? Whist in the past I had agreed with policies, this helped me really think about what were the principles behind them and connect it all together.
I got myself through the “accreditation” process and became a valid Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate.
“You can often change your circumstances by changing your attitude.”
Selection in Totnes, Devon (2002)
When the seat of Tones came up for selection, I decided to take off 2 months.
As a child I always had fond memories of South Devon. I learned to swim in the swimming pool in Totnes, I went to primary school in Stokenham and attended my first comprehensive (High) school in Kingsbridge. It was a really interesting mix of people with its Art college, Hippies, farmers, tourist service providers, beaches, and a strong mix of rich and poor.
I rented a place for 8 weeks and started my campaign, going door to door to all the local (Lib Dem) members, learning what their perspectives were and what the future needed to look like. I got to know a lot of locals, not just voters in this primary/selection process. The vote came and I did well but not good enough. It feels very personal to lose a campaign where you meet all the electorate, but the choice is really about whether people perceive you as a potential winner, and a friend, and sometimes that takes years.
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away”
In between my political adventures, I occasionally had to earn money, so I did this by working for charities and non-profits. I learnt an incredible amount in specific areas of policy.
- National Union of Students’ – Further and Higher Education
- British Youth Council – Youth, Childrens’ Rights
- NSPCC – Paid Parental Leave, Childcare, Domestic violence, Smacking, Parenting and Child Development
- NCDL/Dog Charity – Animal Welfare
- Action for Blind People – Disability, Economics
- Consumer Rights – Economics, European political system, Housing, right to return, Advertising.
“The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
Hartlepool By-Election (Sep 2004)
After finally getting rid of my student debts, I got my TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and I went on a around the world trip lasting 11 months. In which I learned Spanish, met my Argentine family for the first time, and became a Dive-master. I remember diving off a beautiful reef and finding myself thinking about what would a perfect Education policy look like. I was bored and it was time to get back and do some “good”.
I headed to Hartlepool, UK for a couple months to help the Liberal Democrats in a by-election. Like most people in a by-election I did a little bit of everything. It was the first by-election where ‘The Guardian” plugged for Lib Dems over Labour.
During the campaign I met the then campaign manager for North Cornwall. He was considering leaving as he had been offered a civil servant position, and he talked about new candidate Dan Rogerson who I met many years ago and liked. This combined with the fact I was born in Cornwall: I wanted to rediscover my birth home.
Campaign Manager for North Cornwall Constituency
After an interview with Dan Rogerson & Paul Tyler MP, I headed to North Cornwall to live and work for the Liberal Democrats.
My first task was a by-election for Newquay Town Council.
Then I started preparing the campaign for 17 County Council seats ( for the then Cornwall County Council, which later got merged in with all the Cornwall District Councils to form Cornwall Council) and one parliamentary seat by getting to know each of the candidates and their divisions (election area). My role included producing our newspaper, leaflets, posters, volunteer management, election planning, election database management, message management, speeches, poster creation and placement, canvassing door to door and on the phone.
Becoming a Candidate for Newquay North (Cornwall County Council, UK)
We had a candidate for Newquay North, but he had to step down. I asked if I could stand in the seat, initially as a paper candidate (the intention is to give voters a choice but necessarily run a full campaign). Clearly I had other responsibilities i.e. 1 MP candidate (PPC) and 16 other county council candidates and to be clear I did not expect to win. The North Cornwall Liberal Democrat Leadership had a bit of a heated debate on it, but in the end they decided I could stand, and asked that I run a campaign in the area.
Some of my best friends came from all over the country to come and help me get elected. Ashley,
Malinee, Cheryl and others did some phone canvasing for me. Sandy (Samuel Carter) made a real difference, he tireless delivered leaflets for me, and canvassed for me. Without him it would not have happened. George Edwards also told many people that I was the man for the job, even whilst fighting for his own seat. And then there was Dan Rogerson, Steve Rogerson and Pat Rogerson, they were all invaluable in the campaign. We also collectively saved a bus route during the campaign!
During this time I didn’t rest much and worked on 18 campaigns. When I had spare moments I would work on Newquay North. I met a lot of people, I was careful not to promise anything, except that I would work hard. Where I agreed with voter I was clear and when I did not I was also clear. I described my values and principles. When I did not understand all of the issues I was honest and learned from them. I learned a lot.
We did good work together as evidenced by the results.
“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”
Being a local candidate (2004 – 2005)
It starts pretty tame and then gets seriously intense. First the letter of introduction, who are you and why are you standing and some defining issues. Going door to door gives you a real mixture of what people are angry at, sometimes they may even tell you what they would like to change and possible solutions. Sometimes they will use some choice words the moment they open the door and see you. There are some who will play along and pretend to be interested, to delay you as they are of another party. Some just want to talk and have human company. I met a lot of people and took copious notes, and found a few pieces of casework to investigate.
Print journalists really vary, some are just interested in who you are and what you believe in, others have a story and they want you to fit into that box. Sometimes they will paint you as something good and sometimes as something weak, either way it is part of the political life, something to get used to. You sacrifice your privacy, and the privacy of all the people close to you. Something else to get used to. People want to feel they understand you, both the good and the bad. It forces you to reflect on who you are as an individual, and in comparison to the other candidates. Learning to take the hits, reflect and move on is important in politics, just like the rest of life. I think quality journalists that check their sources, do not have an overpowering agenda, and seek the truth, are a fundamental part of our democracy, without them it will fail. Of course most papers have to make money, and thus need readers and thus need exciting titles. Then there’s radio, which can be much more combative, as each candidate wants to voice how different they are.
Few candidates get elected without volunteers, whether they be family/friends or party activists. The campaign will have many peaks, troughs and even moments of despair. Keeping your team in the loop and motivated is essential. I found sharing stories both good and bad was great for bonding, and also to prepare how to respond to questions.
And let’s not forget the other candidates. My view is, you never know who you will end up working with in the future, so be respectful. Anyone who has the courage to be put through an election campaign and lose part of their privacy in the process has a sense of civic responsibility.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Candidates with opposing views is a good thing, it allows “us” to test ideas out, to even make them stronger. Personal attacks will come, and some will also be offensive. Just because others play in mud, you do not have to.
I asked some friends to observe my count. We knew it would be close. I now had other responsibilities with counts in two locations (North Cornwall District Council and Restormel Borough Councils) and 17 candidates.
- 1279 – 37.6% – Eric Brooke – Liberal Democrat
- 1231 – 36.2% – Patrick Lambshead – Conservative
- 889 – 26.2% – Harry Heywood – Independant
The current politician Harry Heywood could not even shake my hand. Losing is hard, but I had practiced that I lot. Again it all depends on the campaign and how personal it gets. Pat was always respectful and always clear he was not my friend, either way I liked him.
“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen from Anthem
My next posting will talk of my experience as an elected politician