Tough. Tiring. And thrilling. I think that’s it in a nutshell.
I was selected for Corby & East Northamptonshire by open primary in October last year, and got to work at once. With my area campaign director and regional director (Simon Eardley and David Surtees, both of whom know the seat and its politics inside out) we conducted an audit. It was a bit daunting, as a new candidate, to be summoned to Francis Maude’s office to give him an overview of the seat. I’m afraid I spent my thirty minutes barraging him with an endless list of requests. To his credit, he was undaunted. Including at the moment I idly picked up his Blackberry and looked at the front of the screen, thinking “What? I don’t have an appointment with Theresa May at three!” (Mine was a new phone and looked identical. Sorry Francis).
We put together a detailed campaign plan, which obviously I can’t write about! Then I undertook to raise a substantial amount of money so that we could hire a full-time agent. Business plans were submitted to prominent local supporters who wanted to target their money effectively, and because of their generosity, we were able to hire one. Campaigning also started on the issues. One week I would be talking to community activists on Corby’s Kingswood estate, the next to groups of East Northants farmers who were (and are) suffering brutally under Labour’s regime. Our local elected representatives took me under their wings, and Corby has backing from all across the region. Alan Duncan MP, although a hugely busy Shadow Cabinet member, always made time for the local candidates. A highlight was campaigning in the town centre against Gordon Brown’s NHS cuts with Philip Hollobone MP (Kettering), Peter Bone MP (Wellingborough) and Roger Helmer MEP (East Midlands). They lent their support and we received more than 400 signatures in under two hours.
One of our biggest issues came when I campaigned to save the jobs of 80 prison service workers who were being forcibly relocated to Leicester. I wrote to the prison service requesting an explanation and was amazed to receive a somewhat patronising response from the Home Office, telling me why the decision had been taken. In helpful bullet point form, they explained that the “key factors” were that a) Corby people were too stupid, and b) Corby people were too “white British” (that is a direct quote) for the government’s diversity targets. Never mind that Corby is a more deprived town than Leicester, and has the lowest average wages in Northamptonshire. Outraged, I took this letter firstly to our local paper and subsequently to the Daily Mail. The story received a good deal of coverage, with the government trying to backpeddle and say the race issue had been just one unimportant factor. Unfortunately for them, I had in my possession the letter that listed it as the second most important factor in the decision making, and faxed a copy to any media outlet that asked for it. Philip Hollobone MP, who has constituents who work in the offices under threat, raised the matter in the Commons several times and we continue to fight for justice. It is currently being looked at by the Commission for Racial Equality.
As well as our normal fund-raising, association events, and issues campaigning, we prepared for several visits by Shadow Cabinet members, shadow ministers and MPs. Shailesh Vara was a guest at a sold-out constituency dinner. Jim Paice MP, the shadow agriculture minister, met local farmers with me and went to the local NFU – all managed on crutches, as he had hurt his leg. We were delighted to have Liam Fox visit and spend time all over the constituency, speaking warmly of David Cameron’s leadership in Oundle, and visiting an RAF and TA base as well as East Northants DC’s environmental project at Stanwick lakes. Liam spent so much time with the soldiers at the TA base in Corby that he missed two trains in a row to get back to London. Most importantly of all, we had the honour of hosting David Cameron in January. He understood the problems in Corby and called for a local train station. He greatly impressed the association and the local press – it was our first big splash of coverage. I, of course, was terrified. But David put me at my ease.
Campaigning involves a lot
of travel outside the constituency as well. There are fundraisers in
London, policy groups, lunches for neighbouring associations, speaking
engagements, meetings with donors who don’t live in the seat, and
work with field sports supporters. Principally, though, I worked for
our local councillors and candidates in last month’s elections, as
a footsoldier canvassing and leafleting in their campaigns. We had extremely
good results, doubling our number of candidates in Corby itself. Boundary
changes and LibDem targeting took their toll, but we gained from Labour,
and although our net seats were down one, our share of the vote in the
borough was substantially up. Very encouraging. The sensational result,
though, was Irthlingborough, which an inspired campaign took from Labour.
We won all four district seats and ten out of twelve town council seats.
It was a complete rout. East Northants District Council, meanwhile,
became with Fenland the joint safest Conservative authority in the country
– zero Labour, zero LibDem, and one Independent. You could sense the
anger with Labour, sense the change that is coming. We fought a positive
campaign and it worked. The team spirit was something else. East Northants
councillors who were elected unopposed worked day in and day out in
Irthlingborough or Corby to get fellow candidates in. And at the end
of the day, every Labour-voting pocket outside the center of Corby disappeared.
They now have no seats at all in suburban Corby or East Northants, and
have their lowest majority on the Borough Council for many years.
The downs? Mostly practical. We put our house on the market and had two offers fall through on the trot, which delayed the move into the constituency. We are now hoping to be there this autumn, and the children are registered for school. I am pregnant, which made things slightly harder, but I kept up a full campaign schedule. The commute was hard, and I won’t be sorry to get rid of it when we move in. And of course we are settling in for a long fight, since Gordon Brown will doubtless hang on by his fingernails. But it all pales into insignificance when we have the chance to fight and to defeat this discredited, Euro-loving, tax-and-spend, how shall I put it in politically correct terms… oh yes….omni-challenged government.
And finally, the highlight of it all happened this month. I was, at last, introduced to Lady Thatcher. Shaking her hand was one of the greatest honours of my entire life. She is my heroine, and I hope in the urgency of our fight in Corby & East Northants we can do her proud.