Sunday, July 19, 2009

How to Attend a Count & Lose Gracefully (I Think)

Tom Harris has started a series of blogposts on what it's like being a newbie MP. In the first instalment he recounts what it was like to attend his count and then head down to Westminster. Well, as the only time I have been a candidate at a parliamentary count was when I lost, I thought I would give you an account of what it was like to attend a count and be on the losing side. Believe me, this will be more painful for me than it will be for you! For the uninitiated I was the Conservative candidate in North Norfolk, fighting the incumbent LibDem MP, Norman Lamb back in 2005. Here's my story of polling day and the count.

If I am honest, polling day was a disaster. We had set up a fifteen or so Committee rooms across the constituency and had teams of people knocking up. Time and again I kept being asked the same question: "Are you sure these knocking up slips are right? We seem to be knocking up LibDem voters". Surely the agent hadn't printed off the wrong codes? I kept asking myself. She and I had been at daggers drawn since the day of my selection. Let's put it this way, she had gone out of her way to make clear that she favoured anyone but me. Half the local association wouldn't work with her, and I seemed to spend much of my time mending fences with people whose noses she had put out of joint. After a row on day one of the campaign, she walked out, only to repeat the exercise later in the campaign. But surely, I thought, she wouldn't have been so incompetent as to print out the wrong knocking up cards, would she? It was only six months later that I learned that she had gone round telling people she hadn't even voted for me, that I began to wonder. Anyway, I digress.

I had known for some time that winning was highly unlikely. I remember a day in February 2005 canvassing in the coastal village of Overstrand. Every single house we went to seem to deliver the same message: "Well, we're really Conservatives but we're going to vote for that nice Mr Lamb." I remember going back to my house in Swanton Abbott that night and saying to John, "That's it, I know now I can't win." If people like that weren't going to vote for me, the game was up. But I knew that I couldn't tell that to my supporters who had sweated blood in helping my campaign. The problem was that Norman Lamb was (and is) essentially a Conservative. His and my views were almost indistinguishable on local issues. He was even vaguely Eurosceptic (for a LibDem). He had fought three elections and made it his business to be a good constituency MP.

My strategy had been to play him at his own game, and demonstrate that I too would be a good constituency representative - but one who could get things done by dint of being an MP for one of the two major parties . By the time the election campaign started I had undertaken a huge amount of constituency casework, and had got a very good reputation for taking up local campaigns and getting things done. I probably got more good local publicity in local press and radio than any other candidate in the country. We produced good literature and built up an excellent delivery network, but the fact remained - he was the MP and I was a candidate.

In retrospect I made too much of an effort at name recognition. It was a mistake to book a giant poster site (the only one in the constituency) for the few weeks before the election, and it was also a mistake to make a CD Rom and deliver it to every house. The money spent on those two things would have been far better spent on more newsletters and constituency-wide newspapers.

Two other things worked against me. The fact that I was quite often on TV, I originally thought would be a good thing - name recognition etc. But all it did was give people the impression I was in London all the time and not local. I could witter on about how I lived in the constituency - and I did - while Norman Lamb lived 20 miles away in Norwich, but a fat lot of good it did me.

So I expected to lose. It didn't help that nationally the party wasn't making any sort of breakthrough. Although Michael Howard had done his best, people were still in thrall to Tony Blair. Howard hadn't been able to attract back those soft Conservative voters who had turned North Norfolk LibDem back in 2001. Nor it seemed, had I.

So as I criss-crossed the constituency on polling day, I had a fairly good idea of what was to happen later that night, although not even I could have guessed that the result would be quite so bad.

As the polls closed, I went back to my cottage to change and collect John. I felt strangely numb. I craved that feeling most other candidates in marginal seats would have been feeling at that moment - the feeling that they were hours away from their biggest ever achievement.

I've never understood candidates who turn up at their counts after most of the hard work has been done. I wanted to be there to support my counting agents, and to make sure that nothing went wrong. In such a massive constituency it was always going to take a long time to get the ballot boxes in. And so it proved. Just after midnight, the other candidates started to arrive and I made it my business to chat to them all and their aides, many of whom I had got to know over the previous 18 months.

The first few boxes seemed OK from our point of view. For a fleeting moment I let myself wonder if I was being unduly pessimistic. But it was only when I sat down and did some counting myself that I realised that a defeat was definitely on the cards. The counting seemed to be going very slowly. I was keeping touch with outside events on a small hand sized portable TV. I remember Justine Greening winning. I think I even let out a cheer. I was sitting on a bench cradling this small, CD sized TV in my hands. One of the fringe candidates, who was dressed as a circus clown, came over and watched with me. He put his hand on my shoulder. The EDP picture next day was of this touching scene but was captioned: "A tearful Iain Dale is comforted by a clown". I wasn't tearful at all, I was watching David Dimbleby!

The moment came when the returning officer asked all the candidates and agents to gather round to go through the questionable votes. He then read out the figures. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Norman Lamb understandably struggled to contain himself. His majority had increased from 500 to 10,600. My initial reaction was to laugh in disbelief. To this day I struggle to believe it. One or two of my people suggested we request a bundle check, just to check that some votes hadn't been put in the wrong piles. But before that could be requested the Agent had accepted the result. I too was not in a mood to question anything after hearing such a devastating piece of news. To be honest, my only thought was how I was going to get through the concession speech. Some weeks after the count I kept being told by my party workers: "There was something wrong at the count. We didn't like to say anything at the time." To this day I don't know what they think happened.

As we waited for the formalities to begin Norman Lamb apologised to me for some rather nasty, homophobic comments made about me by one of his councillors. I thanked him and said I appreciated that he hadn't run that sort of campaign.

Norman was then asked to the platform and he gave a gracious speech in which he made clear he had at some points over the previous 18 months feared the worst. It was then my turn. I have inherited my mother's tendency to have a good cry at the worst possible moment. Even an episode of Emmerdale has been known to set me off, so as I climbed up on to the stage I made sure I breathed very deeply and make sure that I didn't catch the eye of Deborah Slattery, my campaign manager and loyal friend. I knew she would be howling her eyes out.

It remains a speech I am proud of. I got through it intact, thanked everyone who needed to be thanked and paid tribute to Norman Lamb. I was told afterwards by several LibDem and Labour supporters that they were quite moved by it. As I left the stage I have a vague recollection of Norman Lamb putting his arm around me!

As John and I left Cromer High School to make the short drive to party worker's house for some food and drink it all came out. I broke down completely in the car. John said nothing, but just drove. There was nothing he could say. By the time we had arrived I had pulled myself together. It was meant to be a party but the atmosphere was simply awful and I couldn't wait to go home. I made another short speech thanking everyone, but it seemed like going through the motions. It was about 6.30am before we got home. I got about two hours sleep.

The next morning was the count for the county council elections. I was determined to go to it. No one was going to accuse me of not being able to show my face. As I walked into the school hall, many people (including LibDems and Labour supporters) spontaneously applauded. At that moment my sister Sheena (the punk rocker) phoned. I had to tell her I couldn't speak to her as I would break down again.

And that was that. I cleared out my office and started to think about what on earth I would do in the future. If the result had been anywhere near three figures I would have stayed, but this was just one of those occasions when there was little I could have done to change things. Did my sexuality play a role? I wrote an article in the New Statesman immediately after election denying it...
I didn't lose because North Norfolk rejected a gay candidate. I lost because the Lib Dems ran a relentless campaign to persuade Labour supporters to vote tactically. I lost because our national campaign, though highly professional and slick, did not ignite the fires of optimism among an electorate sick of personal insults and negativity. It may not be racist to talk about immigration, but it is perhaps not clever to put the words "racist" and "Conservative" on the same poster. And I lost because the Lib Dem MP had a huge personal vote, far beyond anything I've encountered anywhere else.
A candidate is perhaps not the ideal person to understand fully the reasons for a shattering defeat. Others can judge that, and many have offered their twopennyworth over the last four years. All I know is that I can look myself in the mirror and know that I could not have done more. I almost bankrupted myself, put in far more hours than most other candidates I know and in many ways ran a textbook campaign. Of course I made mistakes, and I have alluded to some of them here, but my biggest mistake was not to listen to those who advised me not to go for this particular seat in the first place! LibDem chief executive, Chris Rennard, who knows a thing or two about these things, was one of them. He told me before I was selected that he expected Norman Lamb to get a five figure majority. I thought I knew better. I won't make that particular mistake again!

Other than perhaps the initial decision, I have few regrets. I thoroughly enjoyed the 18 months up to the election, even if I hated the campaign itself. I met some wonderful people and would like to think that even as a candidate I made a bit of a difference to some people's lives. I've just looked up my blogposts from that period. THIS post in particular sums up why, despite some of the terrible things said about me on some websites in the immediate aftermath of the election, I did not totally lose heart.

The most important thing is to learn from what life - and the electorate - throws at you.


booksmurphy said...

I voted for you Ian and at the time was bitterly disappointed at the result. However am a regular reader of I D's D and feel that your contribution to the cause is far greater than it would have been as MP for N.Norfolk. Who has heard of Norman Lamb ?

TrueBlueBlood said...

That was an insightful piece and quite moving.

I sincerely hope that you will stand again in the future to Parliament. The House needs people like you.

Mark Thompson said...

That was a great post Iain and as TBB said quite moving too.

Maybe you should publish a compilation of the experiences of both successful and unsuccessful candidates (including this and Tom's piece amongst others). It would be a fascinating read.

Anonymous said...

From my own smaller experience as a WCC candidate in a marginal ward under the Porter regime I know that there is nothing worse than being at the count and seeing the votes pile up on the wrong side of the table, having worked one´s guts of for weeks.

Tory Radio said...

Two General campaigns (97 and 05).. two defeats but two very different experiences for me. Both were expected defeats - but it's those who worked for you that you feel for most.

Anonymous said...

Just consider its good for the soul. But since then - as 'books...' hs said the blog has given you more prominence than being an MP would.

Martin S said...

What an excellent post!

I once stood as a Green Party candidate for a town council election (it was a new council) and lost by 12 votes.

I felt gutted. Could I have campaigned harder? Did hand-signing 800 leaflets work? Or not? (My hand ached for a week, after that!)

I was not helped when the winning Conservative told me she had only stood as the local party had told her to, and that she did not want to be a councillor! Ah, well...

Martin S said...

Mark is right. There's a book in this idea, Iain.

Winners and non-winners might make a good title.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

You lost in North Norfolk not because of your sexual preferences, not because of the LibDem campaign. Leave aside the "have-yachts" (who ought to be voting elsewhere, at their main residence anyway) this is a constituency with a radical tradition. I am grateful that you once previously acknowledged my comments on just this score.

In 2005, you were not taken down by anything personal: I doubt that the bor and gel in the street took a blind bit of notice about your private life. Nor was it something as transient as mere party politics: this was a constituency who rewarded the outré Ralph Howell for serving his community.

You were up against a sitting member, who happened to be a LibDem, who had made his mark, who had paid his local debts, and was regarded as the best mover-and-shaker in sight.

My personal interest in North Norfolk? Apart from birth there, I was invited to be considered as the Labour candidate in 1974, but had been adopted elsewhere.

Nich Starling said...

If you wanted a "dodgy" count Iain, you should ahve been there in 2001 when we were told for some time that the Tories had won by 15 votes. North Norfolk officers were not keen for a recount, so we demanded to see the bundles again, and after one of our members stood on a desk to look at the bundles from a higher angle he shouted out "there are only tow bundles in that box", the officers from North Norfolk trotted across and agreed that what they had registered as 1000 Tory votes was infact 500 votes. Meaning Norman Lamb had won by nearly 500, not lost by 15.

I was not at the North Norfolk count in 2005 (I had lesson observations the net day) but I doubt if there were any inaccuracies. I was told the postal vote opening had us at 53% and we normally do worse in the postal votes than we do in the real election.

In 1997 David Prior made a very ungracious winners speech in North Norfolk and refused to shake Norman Lamb's hand. That stuck in my throat and was a reason why I worked even harder from 1997 to 2001.

Anonymous said...

How could you have been so surprised when the result was told to you? If you and your counting agents do your job properly (recording in your samples the votes for ALL candidates - not just you) and crucially you get the total number of votes cast in each box from the returning officer, you should be able to work out the result roughly yourself. We usually manage it by around the same time as the official result is declared, usually slightly before. But even if you can't manage it that quickly, the next day you can work it all out from the information you gleaned - including finding out which individual boxes you won and lost, which is very useful information for next time.

Expat said...

Thanks Chris - no blogging was better than rehashing old blogging

subrosa said...

I'd rather not know about the party people attempting to be MPs Iain. There are many people worthy of such a title but, unless they conform to the three main parties in England, they don't stand a hope in hell of a chance.

Thankfully we have the SNP here in Scotland as an alternative. They're not in the least perfect, but so far in government they've shown they are trying hard.

bladerunner86 said...

Why you lost quite frankly was because you did not come across as the best PPC and didn't understand the issues very well.

I didn't vote for you in 2005 because I thought you would make a rubbish MP so I voted for Norman Lamb.

Anonymous said...

@anon, 8.29pm... most non-Conservatives standing for Westminster council know the feeling of votes piling up for one's opponents.

In one Westminster ward, Labour once finished second behind the Conservatives - with 3.9% of the vote!

Mark Senior said...

So let's sum up , the LibDems did not win in North Norfolk in 2005 because :-
1 ) Norman Lamb is really a Conservative .
2 ) Lots of Conservatives voted for Lamb .
3 ) The LibDems persuaded lots of Labour supporters to vote for Lamb .
4 ) The votes were wrongly counted and the LibDems did not get 10,500 more votes than the Conservatives .
5) The few votes the LibDems did really get were in fact the work of the Conservative agent who was sabotaging the Conservative campaign .
Without all these factors the real result in Norfolk North would have been
Con 40,000 Lab 15,000 LibDem 2,000

Louise said...

When I first decided to become a Conservative Party Agent my dad gave me the following piece of advice "Remember, when you win you have a brilliant candidate and when you lose you have a rubbish agent."

I don't know the circumstances in North Norfolk, don't know who the agent was but I feel sorry for her being immediately highlighted in such a public forum as unfriendly and unhelpful. Will you offer her the right of reply? Did you let her know you would be attacking her professionalism publicly like this?

Your comments could be, for all I know, entirely justified but it seems a bit unfair that your first comments are an attack on a employee of the Association.

I would also suggest that having a campaign manager - who was not the election agent - is a recipe for disaster. If the agent, the person responsible for the legality of the campaign, is not allowed to manage it there will always be tensions which will distract from the good running of the campaign.

Having said all that I do hope that you decide to stand again. I think you would be a great addition to the Parliamentary party.

Iain Dale said...

Louise, you make a fair point and I have not said this before but she has now retired from the job. Don't take my word for it. Ask anyone who was involved and they will back me up. I was forced into having a separate campaign manager once I realised the agent was incapable of running anything.

I have a very high opinion of most party agents. They are hugely professional people and very dedicated.

Iain Dale said...

Mark Senior, that's not what I was saying as you well know. But I have learned in the past that it is rarely possible to have a rational debate with you so I won't start to try now.

Mark Senior said...

Iain , that is not qhat you were saying .

Point 1 see your Paragraph 3 .
Point 2 see your Paragraph 3 .
Point 3 see your Paragraph 18 .
Point 4 see your Paragraph 12 .
Point 5 see your Paragraph 2 .

Robin B'stard MP said...

Wallowing in self pity isn't an endearing trait and certainly not something i would have expected from you. Your piece, whilst enlightening, does provoke the reader to feel sorry for you.

The only parts that really need to be digested and learned from are the mistakes you made......

PS, we know you're Gay, you don't have to keep telling people, No one really cares anymore.

We love you for who you are.



Anonymous said...


Your honesty is to be applauded - a true gentleman and politician.

Anonymous said...

Correct the agent was useless.

Glad the Conservative PPC, Trevor Ivory,(who will be a way better MP than Norman Lamb)has a better agent.

Check out Trevor Ivory's Facebook group:

Anonymous said...

Here is Trevor Ivory's Facebook group:

Anonymous said...

If above does not work here is Trevor Ivory's Facebook group:

DMC said...


I canvassed in Belfast for the SDLP and it was obvious that Sinn Fein were going to win big and i did get to see the work put in by candidates and party workers like me and on election day it was tough seeing such a good candidate Alban Maginess go down to defeat and thinking that all that work was for nothing.

A much wiser man told me the real honour is not in the result of the election but in the way you conduct yourself in defeat.

I just want to say to you Iain, that the way you conducted yourself in defeat says alot about your character and you performed a public service by putting your name forward.

I hope to see your name on a ballot again.

Anonymous said...

Sea Shanty Irish here:

Iain, disagree with the notion that you're post inspires pity.

In my case - and in that of others I see - it inspires respect. For the hard work you put in, and "the way you conducted yourself in defeat."

Some of the less flattering posters do make some good points. BUT the thing that most impresses, is the diversity of cross-party support you have, from very rightwing Conservative & Unionist voters to progressive Irish Nationalists.

Your post also shows that it should only be a matter of time before some smart Conservative constituency party selects you to be their standardbearer.

Better luck next time - just try not to keep a good Labourite out of the Commons!

MG said...

Iain, believe me its no better when you nearly win!! I came within 100 votes. I was fine on the night apart from being utterly knackered from very hard campaigning. The next day my wife and I went out at lunchtime, we were alone in the corner of a restaurant and suddenly in a way I've never done before I just blubbed. I'm note sure I was embarrased or not but your not the only one. Thankfully I collected myself and we could laugh about it. But for a moment everything came out, all the tension and pressure of nearly 2 years.

Anonymous said...

Mmm, I think a lot of the posters on here highlight why they shouldn't have won and perhaps this especially includes Iain.

Politics is about issues and movements, not individuals who bleat when they lose and become arrogant gits when they win.