Saturday, 23 February 2013

Carry On Eastleigh

This morning, with snow falling and in sub-zero temperatures, a group of 35 volunteers, including two Members of Parliament, boarded the West Kent coach to help our colleagues in Eastleigh. Considering we all had to rise in the dark, on a Saturday, and drive to a windy car park to catch the bus, I think we look remarkably chipper (though someone did say we resembled the saddos who appear on Channel 4 TV show 'Coach Trip')

We arrived at Eastleigh in good time, the CCHQ directions being first rate. A few orange lozenges visible from the M27 were soon swamped by a sea of Maria Hutchings blue. And, I must say, we won the poster war hands-down. I know this means nothing in terms of votes in the ballot box, but the LibDems usually swamp us with their posters, and to see us winning this particular battle, in an area with a twenty year history of LibDem dominance, was certainly good for the soul.
I have sometimes been critical of CCHQ by-election organisation, but this time I can say only good things. Although there were three coachloads of volunteers arriving at the same time, plus 30 additional carloads, we were welcomed, introduced to the candidate and given our pre-bundled and clearly mapped canvassing packs and leaflets within minutes.
The plan was brilliantly thought through.  We had been allocated canvassing and delivery in one particular village, some distance from the Campaign HQ.  Someone local would board the coach with us, brief us en route, then direct the coach driver where to drop us off in small groups of 2s and 4s, with a convenient regroup point to re-board the coach. Brilliant planning and organisation - well done CCHQ.
We re-boarded the coach, the driver reversed, then reversed a bit more. Unfortunately, he reversed off the driveway and onto the wet grass and muddy soil. Then promptly became stuck. The wheels spun but we did not move, what was worse, we were blocking the drive. Twenty cars waiting to leave couldn't get out - and another coach (bringing volunteers from Epsom and Wimbledon) couldn't get in.  Tracey Crouch offered advice over the driver's shoulder. A woman in a blue quilted jacket with a voice like a gatling gun helpfully informed us that we were stuck in the mud. Several drivers kindly told us that we were blocking the exit.  An old boy with a stag's head walking cane and a green felt hat suggested we should stop trying to get off the mud as we were only making it worse. If Eastleigh is won by the Party whose members have the ability to state the bleeding obvious, then Maria Hutchings will be home and dry.  During the commotion, various CCHQ bigwigs came out, looked at us with a mixture of pity and disdain, then hurriedly disappeared back inside - I suspect it didn't take them long to work out that our predicament was beneath their pay grade.
Just when you thought it really couldn't get any more bizarre, it did. A man wearing pink trousers, wellington boots and duffel coat adorned with a red, white and blue rosette appeared from the neighbouring property. It turned out he was the candidate for the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party (I kid you not). He helpfully suggested we should all get off the coach then place branches cut off a nearby leylandi tree under the wheels to give the coach some traction. 
So we all got off. 
Branches were hacked and placed beneath wheels. Someone (I think it was Rupert Turpin from Rochester) thought it would help if small stones were placed in the mud. The gatling gun shouted encouragement. Green felt hat shook his head dismissively. Beer, Baccy and Crumpet man started telling me how it had all gone downhill since the good old days of Margaret Thatcher. Former Medway Mayor, Sue Haydock, even got behind the coach and pushed, whilst the men shouted advice and support from the safety of the driveway. Still the coach did not budge. 
At this point, plans were revised. Leaflet delivery rounds and houses to canvass were identified within walking distance - and off we went, leaving the coach and its driver in the hands of CCHQ, who were going to call a local farmer to tow him off the mud with a tractor.  By the time we returned, four hours later, all was well. The coach driver, liberated from wisdom of crowds, had extricated himself from the mud.
Are we going to win?  The honest answer is I wasn't there long enough to test the temperature so I cannot make any educated guess.  Certainly, in the area I was working, we were leading the field. The constituency was awash with Party activists. We had clearly won the poster war. Our organisation was first rate and enthusiasm from our members was as good as I have ever seen it. Most interestingly, there was no evidence whatsoever of the hostility governments usually face in a mid-term by election. 

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