Every so often life throws you an opportunity that is just too good to turn down. Mine occurred one dark and stormy October night after a couple of glasses of Merlot in a backroom at El Vino’s in London’s Blackfriars.
At an SDP London meeting, branch chair Patrick O’Flynn was outlining how he thought a General Election was imminent. Patrick said he felt it was the right time for the SDP to make a soft launch in London and was looking for two volunteers willing to stand as SDP candidates.
Why did I put my hand up? Well, there were three reasons:
Firstly, I was disappointed with the way Brexit had been mishandled by David Cameron and Theresa May.
Secondly, an indecisive Brexit position, rife anti-Semitism and Jeremy Corbyn made me fear a Labour win.
Finally it quite simply felt like the opportunity of a lifetime to be involved in a process I was brought up to believe is the single most patriotic act a citizen can do for their country.
That being the case, my sense of panic kicked in about two minutes after my hand went up and my anxiety continued to rise and fall till about 4.30 a.m. on 13th December when the final count was given! Truth be told, I had no idea what I had let myself in for.
I stood for the constituency where I live, which is Tooting in south west London which has a voting population of 77,500. In the 2017 election, Labour achieved a majority of 13,500 and it’s in a borough where 75 per cent voted to Remain.
As a small pro-Brexit party we knew that it wasn’t just a hill we had to climb, but a whole mountain range!
Our biggest task would be explaining to under-40s who we are and to the over-40s where we’d been since 1992, which was the last time the SDP fought a seat in London. Our assumption proved to be correct because throughout the campaign the most common doorstep response to our introduction was “I didn’t realise the SDP was still going”.
We had limited funds and few London supporters. Our only resources were copies of the A-Z, 10,000 leaflets, stunning rosettes, comfortable shoes, a sense of humour and loads of optimism!
Where I was extremely lucky was to have two totally committed members who knew their way around a campaign. They were life-savers. We dubbed ourselves The Three Leafleteers and thus began our charm offensive.
For six weeks we pounded the streets, deftly wielding our spatulas — a leafleting technique designed to get past the more difficult letterboxes and snarling dogs. We spoke to anyone and everyone who opened their door, listened to grievances, agreed with those who “just wanted to get Brexit done”, admired front gardens, attended a Jewish Hanukkah party and even sang with a Christian revival group outside St. Georges Hospital!
I’m the first to hold up my hand and say I’m not a natural public speaker and I found the one hustings I attended terrifying. My brain turned to mush and my hands were shaking so badly that I had to turn to one of my opponents — a charming candidate from the Green Party — to help me turn over the pages of my speech. It will stay with me as one the most nerve-wracking three hours of my life. But much to my amazement people came up to me at the end to say how good it was to hear somebody who “sounded normal”.
We knew the odds were stacked heavily against us. Our opponents seemed to have a bottomless supply of money and activists when it came to producing and distributing publicity material. Labour delivered a different leaflet daily not to mention a ‘newspaper’, extensive advertising hoardings and videos — which appeared to be a bit of overkill given they already held the seat with a substantial majority.
Did we achieve our objective? Some might say that a return of only 71 votes does not look promising but we’ve taken the first vital steps in re-building the SDP in London.
I loved my experience and would heartily recommend it to anyone who is thinking of standing.