Thursday, May 14, 2015


Post-Election: Thanks, Tears, and What Year Are the Lib Dems In Now (A Clue: 2015)?

Only the Liberal Democrats, hardened by a hundred years of losing and buoyed by an inextinguishable hope in Liberalism, could follow an ‘extinction event’ election by gaining more than eleven thousand new members in less than a week. Welcome, all of you! You might like to look at Liberal Democrat Voice’s New Members Day (new voices, recommended reading and party essentials). You help remind us all that for all the talk of historical precedents, the year we’re in is 2015. But tonight I’m still looking back with a sense of history and with thanks to so many Lib Dem MPs.

I’ve been writing my post-election thoughts throughout this week. Regular readers will be unsurprised to know that the article’s been getting longer and longer – and may well split into a series of about half a dozen. But in case I don’t have the energy to write them all, there’s something I want to make sure I say.

I’ve read a ton of historical comparisons over the last few days – some glib, some persuasive. But while there’s much to learn from history, we do need to remember that this is 2015, not any other year, and that the way back to wilderness or revival is not predestined. On the face of it, this seems most like 1970 in our share of seats and votes – 7.5%, down to 6 MPs, a surprise Tory victory – which would ‘put us back’ to before I was born. Those losses were followed by new ideas and something of a comeback at the next general election; I hope for new ideas, too, and though ‘Let’s dig out our answers from 1970!’ doubtless has some merit, I hope most of our answers this time are going to be a bit fresher.

Right now, I’ve been distracted from writing about what we might learn simply by how terrible it feels. I know and admire quite a few Lib Dems who’ve suddenly lost their seats. I can’t help wondering if, whatever year is the more precise statistical match, this feels more like the 1920s – when a much larger group of Liberal MPs with great records in government were suddenly hewn down. I remember when the Coalition was formed five years ago, one of our Peers telling me that at his first Liberal Assembly, in Llandudno in about 1956, he’d been introduced to an elderly man with an ear trumpet who had been a Liberal Minister in our government of what is now a century ago – and that he still couldn’t quite believe that now, though it had only come when he’d got that old himself, he was walking around Liberal Democrat Conference seeing new Liberal Democrat Ministers again… Even if it had to be another coalition with the Tories, which hadn’t ended so well in the 1920s. On the bright side, we come out of this one battered but surprisingly united, rather than with two rival Leaders waging war on each other. And those were the two pretty good rival Leaders. I joined the Liberal Democrats when we were founded in 1988, just after we’d had two pretty bad rival Leaders waging war on each other, and in elections the following year we crashed to 4% and won no seats at all.

If you want two hopeful signs for the future, signs that we are now in neither the 1920s nor the 1980s, not only is our membership rocketing rather than falling through the floor after this year’s defeat, but we are also not split down the middle, which helps. The Conservatives’ mean authoritarianism will not have an easy ride.

Around 80% of the new members in the last week are people who’ve never been Liberal Democrats before, according to the party’s membership department. On a more anecdotal level, a great many of our new Liberal Democrats I’ve seen online have been inspired more than anything else by Nick Clegg’s resignation speech last Friday. I’ve been a Liberal Democrat for a long time, and it inspired and moved me, too. I’d watched through the night in a sort of grim blankness, and wondered what it would take to break that numb feeling. Within a few seconds of Nick starting to speak, I was in floods of tears. Here are some of the words that meant the most to me:

“It’s been a privilege, a huge privilege, an unlimited honour, to lead a party of the most resilient, courageous, and remarkable people. The Liberal Democrats are a family and I will always be extremely proud of the warmth, good grace, and good humour which our political family has shown through the ups and downs of recent years. I want to thank every member, ever campaigner, every councillor, and every parliamentarian for the commitment you have shown to our country and to our party.

“It is simply heartbreaking to see so many friends and colleagues who have served their constituents so diligently over so many years abruptly lose their seats because of forces entirely beyond their control.

“In 2007 after a night of disappointing election results for our party in Edinburgh, Alex Cole Hamilton said this: if his defeat was part-payment for the ending of child detention, then he accepted it with all his heart.

“Those words revealed a selfless dignity which is very rare in politics but common amongst Liberal Democrats. If our losses today are part payment for every family that is more secure because of a job we helped to create, every person with depression who is treated with a compassion they deserve, every child who does a little better in school, every apprentice with a long and rewarding career to look forward to, every gay couple who know that their love is worth no less than anyone else’s and every pensioner with a little more freedom and dignity in retirement then I hope at least our losses can be endured with a little selfless dignity too.

“We will never know how many lives we changed for the better because we had the courage to step up at a time of crisis. But we have done something that cannot be undone because there can be no doubt that we leave government with Britain a far stronger, fairer, greener, and more liberal country than it was five years ago.

“Fear and grievance have won, Liberalism has lost. But it is more precious than ever and we must keep fighting for it. That is both the great challenge and the great cause that my successor will have to face. I will always give my unstinting support for all those who continue to keep the flame of British Liberalism alive.

“Our party will come back, our party will win again, it will take patience, resilience and grit. That is what has built our party before and will rebuild it again. Thank you.”

Thank you, Nick. And never-ending gratitude to Lynne, too, in particular. Many people in our party and beyond made a difference, but the unstinting efforts of Nick and Lynne above all made it possible for Richard and me to marry, after twenty years of waiting through Tory and Labour Governments that made us second-class citizens. We will never forget and never regret that. And I will miss other former MPs I admire for their Liberalism, for their achievements, and in several cases for their friendship. I will keenly miss Stephen, and Stephen, and Danny, and Simon, and Julian, and too many others.

I believe both Norman and Tim have much to recommend them as potential Leaders, but I hope it’s not too discourteous to say that one of the results that left me most distraught would have been my first choice for Leader, Jo Swinson. She so terribly nearly held on (with the lowest fall in her vote of any Lib Dem in the country, an example of the difference between someone who’s always worked hard and the bewildered ‘ultra-safe’ Labour MPs all around her who’d never had to do a day’s work for their seats and were buried under sudden avalanches). I hope she’ll be back, and that open-hearted Liberalism will rise over narrow-minded nationalism.

Among the most damaging mass results of last Thursday – along with our extermination across the South-West – is that all our surviving MPs are now white, cis, straight men. Do not blame any of them for this. They’ll have enough to cope with. And there’s no simple answer. We had women MPs; we selected women in most of our seats where the sitting MP was standing down. We didn’t hold any of them. The Labour Party in particular will be as ruthless in attacking us for the voters’ choices as they were in pouring in resources to defeat Lynne Featherstone – choosing to let marginal Tory MPs off the hook to make sure that they cynically brought down Lib Dem women.

I will offer ideas of what might help for the future. But for today, I simply ask you to be kind to Lib Dem MPs (and staff) who’ve lost their seats if you meet them, and to be even more kind to the eight Liberal Democrats who won. Because all of them suddenly have so much more work to do.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015


Phoenix of Liberty

Does any Liberal Democrat with computer graphics skills fancy redrawing the Bird of Liberty for this week? I’ve got two ideas for you.

On Friday Sal Brinton, President (and acting Leader) of the Liberal Democrats, told members:
“Our symbol, the Bird of Liberty, is also our phoenix. Since midnight last night to teatime today more than 650 people have joined the party on our website. The phoenix is already rising from the ashes of last night’s elections.
“Together we can rebuild the party that we love. Now more than ever this country needs the Liberal Democrats.”
Since the General Election, over five thousand new members have joined the party, bringing us to more than 50,000 members. I’ll probably have quite a bit to say about our future over the next few days. You can join here – and see why I believe the Liberal Democrats are needed here.

In the meantime, why not redraw the Bird of Liberty as our symbol of defiant renewal this week? Don’t its flowing wings just invite matching CGI flames in the same style? And our colours are black and gold anyway, which are perfect for a flaming symbol.

Either the Phoenix of Liberty bursting free from the flames…

Or, in the tradition of phoenix art, the Phoenix of Liberty (with slightly more upsoaring wings) surrounded by flame?

Come on, somebody, have a go.

In other news, Wil Wilshere of politicsandrants Tumblr and a few more in Liberal Youth have started a Thunderclap called #OperationPhoenix, set for next Friday. You can read more about it here.

Keep the flame alive.

Update: Or there are these, which are prettier.


Wednesday, May 06, 2015


Why Vote Liberal Democrat?

My answer to that and three questions behind it – what have we done so far? What do we want to do next? And, most importantly for me, what values inspire us to do it?

Freedom and Opportunity for Everyone

This is the sort of thing I do if it’s the day before an election, I’m on my way home, my head is buzzing with politics and I come upon an unsuspecting park.

I may be making it up on the spot this time, but you know it’s in my heart too (and a quickie because I’m too knackered to write what I’d like to).

Vote Liberal Democrat!

If you’d like more reasons, then there’s also…

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Thursday, April 30, 2015


Doctor Who – Thirteen Reasons To Watch #WhoOnHorror

The Horror Channel goes back to the very beginning of Doctor Who today as it starts showing forty-seven stories across the following months, beginning with the very first. So here are my idiosyncratic picks for the thirteen best stories showing (or just watch the lot, obviously). Horror’s now on both Freesat and Freeview, so everyone can watch it.

Liberal Democrats: activate your TV recording devices of choice and bookmark this article as number 337 of things to catch up with post-election.

Active members of other parties: sit down, put your feet up, watch Doctor Who and argue with my tendentious choices online!

If you’ve never watched Doctor Who before – just pick one, and watch one. This selection suggests which ones I most enjoy watching, but if you need something to tell you who is this Doctor anyway, here’s one I prepared earlier.

The Horror Channel has been broadcasting Doctor Who since last Easter under the banner #WhoOnHorror – initially a selection of stories from the first seven Doctors, they’ve been a ratings hit and so bought the rights to show more. It’s on every weekday in a double bill at around 10am, 2.40pm and 7.50pm, in more or less the original story order, with random movie-format stories (that is, with the cliffhangers and credits taken out) at the weekend. This is the first time their whole cycle of Doctor Who stories has started up again since the Horror Channel arrived on Freeview, so why not begin at the beginning?

The Thirteen Best of #WhoOnHorror

These are my choices. No doubt every other fan will disagree, so why not champion your own? You can point out (and I usually do) that every story has its faults – but I’m looking at what excites me this time. And why choose thirteen? Well, it is the Horror Channel…
1 – The Deadly Assassin
Tom Baker versus the Master and all the Time Lords in the greatest Doctor Who story of them all. It’s got Gothic horror, political satire, film noir, a major reimagining of the Time Lords (and the Master)… And just when you think you know what’s going on, it changes completely into gritty surrealism.
Reasons to watch: the Part One cliffhanger (you keep being told it’s coming, but still the series’ best WTF moment); it enters the Matrix (20+ years before The Matrix); one of the most bitter face-offs between the Doctor and the Master; it’s constantly inventive; it looks amazing (even if Horror’s print is a bit grubby and cuts a bit. If you enjoy it, buy the DVD).
My (surprisingly short) review here.
A brilliant scene here for the Master.

2 – The Curse of Fenric
Sylvester McCoy versus Evil From the Dawn of Time and vampires from the future. A multi-layered story intermixes the World War Two, Norse mythology, Dracula and a touch of The Arabian Nights, and contrasts the 1940s and the 1980s.
Reasons to watch: a brilliant villain; what really repels vampires; the Part Three cliffhanger twist and many other twists and turns; another one fizzing with ideas.
A brilliant scene here under water.
A brilliant line and a bit of a subtext here.
A brilliant scene here where the Parsons’ in trouble.
Yes, it has quite a few brilliant scenes. And keep that last page open, as several more I’ve written about there are coming up…

3 – The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Tom Baker versus good taste. ‘Doctor Who in the inner city: gangs, guns, stabbings and drugs’. But all in the Victorian era, so there were fewer complaints despite even more to offend everyone. From murders in the fog to a night at the theatre, it revels in Victorian cliché – and is probably the most utterly entertaining Doctor Who story of all (Russell T Davies: “It’s the best dialogue ever written”).
Reasons to watch: it looks like perfect horror, but is horribly funny throughout; the Doctor does Sherlock; the Doctor’s friend Leela takes no s**t; a double-act so brilliant they now have their own long-running series, Jago and Litefoot; one whole episode a brilliant conjuring trick.
A brilliant scene here with a comedy of manners.

4 – An Unearthly Child
William Hartnell – the Doctor – versus stupid humans for the very first time. Two teachers investigate a strange old man’s granddaughter… Their lives, and ours, are never the same again, as they fall into the TARDIS and into history. A brilliant beginning that starts off the series’ anti-authoritarian bent by showing how little teachers know – but at least they know slightly more than Stone Age tribespeople…
Reasons to watch: the first episode might just be the greatest piece of television ever; a fantastic introduction to the TARDIS; the Doctor as an hilarious git with brilliant facets; “Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles…?”
My review here (made of many one-liners).
A brilliant scene here where the Doctor invents Columbo.
And it’s on tonight!

5 – Genesis of the Daleks
Tom Baker versus Davros, the Daleks and history. A superbly filmed and scored war story. Perhaps the Doctor’s sharpest moral dilemma is whether to destroy the Daleks at their birth, but this is essentially the story of Davros, a fascist with depth and intelligence, who engineers his own destruction.
Reasons to watch: a completely compelling villain; the Daleks shot like tanks, as they should be; doubt as essential, and certainty essentially fascist; the big confrontation between the Doctor and Davros might be the most electric in the whole series.
My review here of the politics of the story (and of the CD).
My mini-review in the context of the stories it was first broadcast with and how they all fit together here.
A brilliant scene here where the Daleks exterminate for the first time.

6 – The Mind Robber
Patrick Troughton versus some very weird s**t indeed. Funny, silly, literary, intelligent… Our heroes find themselves first in a void where they get a massive shock, then marooned in a Land of Fiction.
Reasons to watch: the shocking Part One cliffhanger; the Doctor’s playfulness turning into steely determination; Jamie losing face; Zoe going all The Avengers (UK) against someone who might be from The Avengers (US).

7 – The Androids of Tara
Tom Baker versus the wicked Count Grendel. Imagine a Doctor Who summer holiday, with fabulous frocks, fishing and fencing with electric swords, where the big, serious quest is dealt with in a five-minute joke. Add Peter Jeffrey as a moustache-twirlingly wicked Count, a bargained-down bribe and a dash of sex, then sit back and enjoy.
Reasons to watch: it’s just about the least ‘horror’ Doctor Who gets; it’s sheer fun; it finishes with a proper duel. “Next time, I shall not be so lenient!”
A brilliantly ‘romantic’ scene or two here that should put you off weddings (we had it at ours).

8 – The Caves of Androzani
Peter Davison versus death (and versus big business, gun-runners, the army, poison, the phantom of the opera…). A cynical desert war, noirishly twisted love and revenge drama: an extraordinary mixture of the Fifth Doctor’s competing ‘arthouse’ and ‘macho’ styles, with a terrific script, dazzling direction, rattlesnake-eerie music and compelling actors.
Reasons to watch: pride comes before a fall in a fabulously nasty Part Three scene; brilliant debut for a director so good he did a lot of the 2000s stories too; an explosive regeneration before they were fashionable.
A brilliantly long-suffering moment here.

9 – Logopolis
Tom Baker versus the Master and the end of everything. A small-scale story of the TARDIS itself becoming perilous turns into portents of doom and the unravelling of the entire Universe – before the threat telescopes back in to the Doctor himself.
Reasons to watch: making the familiar sinister; a gorgeous, funeral music score; the Doctor’s most hearts-rending regeneration.
A brilliant scene here for the Master.

10 – The Dæmons
Jon Pertwee versus the Master, a great big Dæmon and the English village; science versus magic. If ever there was a Doctor Who story you’d expect to see on the Horror Channel, this is it. It’s not quite Dennis Wheatley or The Wicker Man, but it does have a Satanic vicar – in truth, the MASTER – and evil Morris dancing.
Reasons to watch: the victim of the Part Three cliffhanger; the perfect locations; the Brigadier and the rest of UNIT getting out and about; the pub. “Five rounds rapid!”
My in-depth review of the novelisation and how it compares here.

11 – The Ark in Space
Tom Baker versus Alien. This is much less comfy Doctor Who horror, out in pitiless space where the last humans are being devoured by giant insects – or possessed by them.
Reasons to watch: it was the first Doctor Who I saw all the way through, and it worked on me – it gave me nightmares; the Doctor’s friends Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan are wonderful; a huge influence on both Ridley Scott and Doctor Who’s 2005 relaunch.
My mini-review in the context of the stories it was first broadcast with and how they all fit together here.
A brilliant scene here after the end of the world.

12 – The Two Doctors
Colin Baker versus the Sontarans. And versus aliens who live to eat everyone in sight. With guest star Patrick Troughton being turned into one of them… Appallingly funny black humour. Like some of the other #WhoOnHorror, this was originally in forty-five-minute episodes, so Horror’s split it into their own twenty-five-minute episodes. Thrill at aliens attempting to order dinner before the music screams in!
Reasons to watch: the Sixth Doctor at his most charming and wistful; the Second Doctor at his most disturbing; Sontaran ships on the march to a great musical march.
A brilliant scene here in which the Doctor is interested in everything.

13 – Planet of Evil
Tom Baker versus a terrible scientific mistake at the edge of the Universe. More deep-space horror, more body horror and possession, a seriously convincing and icky alien world.
Reasons to watch: the series’ most alien planet; a Part Three cliffhanger that gave me the most recurring nightmares.
And here is what I think of that brilliant cliffhanger.

The Rest of #WhoOnHorror

As far as I’m concerned, they’ve made an excellent set of choices. The current forty-seven Horror Channel Doctor Who stories include twenty-three that I’d give nine or ten out of ten to – which is as dead-on half as makes no difference – and just six I’d score lower than five out of ten (which I suspect may have been chosen for their famous monsters rather than their quality). I won’t go into detail about the remaining thirty-four stories, but if you’re interested, here’s one line on each, from the completely brilliant to the, er, not completely brilliant, in roughly descending order of enthusiasm…

The Next of #WhoOnHorror?

First thirty stories… Then forty-seven… Which Doctor Who adventures will the Horror Channel choose next? In the sure and certain knowledge that they won’t read and follow my advice, I’m tempted to say – just buy the rest of the Tom Baker stories and show the lot in order, you’ve got half of them already! But in the spirit of diversity I used for my top picks, here are a further thirteen that I reckon the Horror Channel should consider next. Or that you should, if you’ve got hooked and are looking for a DVD.

There were six stories that I was so tempted by I would probably have picked most of them – The Aztecs, The Tomb of the Cybermen, Spearhead from Space, Pyramids of Mars, Earthshock and Revelation of the Daleks – but they’re occasionally shown on another channel, so I suspect the rights may not be available. Obviously, I thought of lots of others, too. The Time Meddler, a first-again outing for The Enemy of the World (though I bet the budget wouldn’t stretch to animating the one missing bit of The Web of Fear), Terror of the Zygons, The Hand of Fear, The Face of Evil – oh, just the whole of Tom, again – Survival, The Trial of a Time Lord… But that way madness lies. Particularly with the last one.

But the fresh thirteen above would be a good start, eh, Horror Channel? Go on.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Two Married Men Say Thank You to the Liberal Democrats

On Sunday, Richard and I celebrated six months of marriage.

And two-hundred-and-forty-six months since we’ve been together.

We had to wait twenty years. We had to wait until the Liberal Democrats were in government.

So here’s a video we recorded on Sunday to say thank you to the only party that’s always been there for us, and always been there for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

What We Said
We got married.

It was a fantastic day.

So many wonderful people celebrating with us.

And so much food.

We’ve been together a long time, and we’ve been to a lot of weddings, and there’s never enough food.

Trust us on this. If you ever get married –

– which is fantastic, by the way –

– then feed people and they’ll be happy enough that they listen to your speeches.

But the thing about us getting married is, we had to wait a long time.

A very long time.

Twenty years.

To the day.

It wasn’t that we had very strict parents.

Well, not much.

You see, I met Alex

And I met Richard

And we fell in love.

And we got together twenty years and six months ago today.

So we got married six months ago today.

Because we’re gay.

So it was a long wait.

In fact, we had to wait

Until the Liberal Democrats were in government.

In the ’70s, when we were born, only one party said as a matter of principle that they backed gay rights.

That was the Liberals.

In the ’80s, when we were at school, one party brought in Section 28, to put bashing the gays into law.

That was the Tories.

Only one party opposed Section 28 from the first.

That was the Liberal Democrats.

Labour were in favour of it.

Until they weren’t.

But they didn’t do anything about it when they had the power to in the ’90s.

Not for ages.

In fact the bit of Britain that first got rid of it was Scotland, in the early 2000s.

When the Liberal Democrats were in coalition there.

Labour had absolute power in Westminster back then.

But they didn’t bother changing the law for the rest of us until much later.

I remember the 1992 election, when one of the three big extreme things Jeremy Paxman sneered at a party leader for was supporting gay rights.

That was Paddy Ashdown and the Liberal Democrats, and he stuck to his guns.

Actually, Paddy doesn’t need guns, he’s dangerous enough with his bare hands.

That was Paddy Ashdown.

I remember the 1997 election, when one of the three big things the Daily Telegraph said a party’s manifesto was dangerously extreme for was supporting lesbian and gay rights.

That was the Liberal Democrats.

And eventually, in 2001, one party came up with the first ever Manifesto for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People.

That was the Liberal Democrats.

And all the promises in there were in their main manifesto too.

That was the Liberal Democrats.

And they did the same thing again at the next election.

That was the Liberal Democrats.

And meanwhile the other parties either kept on hating the gays

That was the Tories.

Or just didn’t have the balls to do anything in case it put people off.

That was Labour.

Liberal Democrats proposed civil partnerships.

Labour and the Tories voted them down. They were both against it before they were for it.

And even then the Liberal Democrats wanted civil partnerships as a choice for both same-sex and mixed-sex couples.

But both Labour and the Tories have always said those can only be a second-class option for the gays.

The government spent thousands and thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money in court opposing an equal age of consent.

That was the Labour Government.

They lost. And the government spent thousands and thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money in court defending the ban on gays in the military.

That was the Labour Government.

They lost that too.

So when the Labour Party boasts that it equalised the age of consent

Remember that they only did it because they lost in court and the court made them do it.

So when the Labour Party boasts that it scrapped the ban on gays in the military

Remember that they only did it because they lost in court and the court made them do it.

The Labour Party’s boasts are like a burglar caught red-handed and then found guilty who then tries to claim credit for giving all your stolen stuff back.

When you know they’re the ones who nicked it in the first place and only the court made them do it.

And then when the Coalition was formed in 2010

Only one party leader had said he was in favour of equal marriage.

That was Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats.

And that year the first British party ever voted to back equal marriage.

That was the Liberal Democrats.

And eventually the Lib Dems persuaded the leader of another party.

That was David Cameron for the Tories.

And later than that, another party said there was no need to have equal marriage – but in the end came in third to back it once it was already happening.

That was the Labour Party. They were against that before they were for it, too.

And one party was badly split about it.

That was the Tories.

And a lot of their MPs said they backed equal marriage because it was a “gesture” to “detoxify their brand”.

That was the Tories.

So as it was only a gesture, we can think of a few gestures to make in return.

But this isn’t tagged as an explicit video.

And another party didn’t care, and hadn’t bothered doing it when they had absolute power for thirteen whole years, but they jumped on the bandwagon last and then tried to claim all the credit.

That was the Labour Party.

But at least this time they didn’t oppose it tooth and nail until the courts made them do it.

No. So that’s something, I suppose.

But when one party said that to make it all properly equal, let’s make the law equal marriage for trans people too, and open up civil partnerships to mixed-sex couples so everyone has more choices

That was the Liberal Democrats.

The other parties said

It’s complicated.

No thanks, you’ve had your gesture, that’s your lot.

That was Labour and the Tories.

So next time any important issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights comes up in Parliament…

You know what’ll happen.

Two parties will swing with the wind and just vote whichever way’s fashionable.

That will be Labour and the Tories.

Because they always have. So you’d better hope lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people happen to be popular that year.

Good luck with that.

And one party will vote for equality for everyone.

That’ll be the Liberal Democrats.

Because we always have.

Always will.

Because Liberal Democrats believe in freedom and opportunity for everyone.

Freedom for every individual

For everyone to have the liberty to live their lives as they choose

For fairness and equality before the law

I’m Alex

I’m Richard

Thank you, the Liberal Democrats, for changing the law so we could get married.

We had to wait twenty years

Some of them Tory years

Some of them Labour years

Without the Liberal Democrats in Government, we’d still be waiting.

For more about why we believe in the Liberal Democrats, take a look at Liberal Democrats Believe – a Liberal quote for every day of the election (and more)!

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015


Doctor Who Anniversary Special – An Interview With Martha Jones

Originally published in Wonderful Books’ The Doctor Who 8th Anniversary Special… To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Doctor Who’s return to our screens, and today the eighth anniversary of her first appearance in Smith and Jones, here’s my interview with the Doctor’s friend Martha Jones:

“I chose my vocation a long time ago, and even meeting the Doctor was never going to change that,” says Dr Martha Smith-Jones. “With a family like mine, you grew up learning to make your own mind up – or Mum made it up for you! But the Doctor certainly widened my career development, it’s fair to say.

“There aren’t many doctors who’ve been swept off into time and space and then come home to work for two different secret alien-fighting organisations. Even the Doctor’s only worked for one! I met my husband through him, of course, and now we deal with them ourselves. Though my Mickey has a slightly more aggressive approach. He shoots, I patch them up. Or him, more often.

“I’ll always be grateful to the Doctor. Some men only give you crabs – well, his were giant! No, no, don’t tell him I said that. He says they’re no such thing.

“After that year of the Master I just decided it was time to move on. I mean, I wasn’t going to keep trailing around with the Doctor for ever. I had my own life to lead. I left the TARDIS with my head held high! Of course, he was the one who came back. Not that it’s not nice to see him, but those Daleks were terrible… And doctors who wring their hands questioning euthanasia don’t know they’re born. They should try deciding whether to blow up the whole planet.

“We still meet up for a gossip, some of us who knew the Doctor. Not Colonel Mace, after Mum slapped him, but she gets on very well with Jack. Well, who doesn’t? Dad, too. I think he’s helped bring them closer. He’s so generous – he’ll take them for weekends away, and after the three of them get together they always come back with such a glow. Mickey pretends not to like him, of course, but secretly he does. Sometimes they go fishing. Mickey says he got a taste for it in that alternative Universe.

“And the Doctor? Oh, I’m completely over him. Hardly ever even mention him these days.”

Wonderful Books

Paul Smith has produced a fabulous array of Doctor Who publications, which you can find out more about at Wonderful Books (there’s a new one out this week). All of them look gorgeous and are immensely readable, but only some are completely factual – and I have to admit, the ones that most appeal to me are those with the most unfactual ‘facts’, the ones that are both deeply loving and taking the piss outrageously.

My Wonderful Books favourite is the one he didn’t write all himself, though it’s not because I’m one of the contributors. I’ve rhapsodised before about the Radio Times Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special, a treasured and tattered possession passed on to me when I was a boy and still perhaps the most thrilling Doctor Who magazine ever published. Before websites or guidebooks, this was the unique source of thrilling photos and details of stories all from before I started watching (that is, prehistory). So I was utterly thrilled when Paul asked me out of the blue to write a piece for his version in the fiftieth anniversary year.

Paul’s concept was to give it a similar feel and length to the original Radio Times Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special by recreating it as if celebrating not the fiftieth but the eighth anniversary of a Doctor Who series that started for the first time in 2005. And to give it the range of voices of the original’s interviews, he approached other fans to provide some of the artwork and comment pieces.

In the 1973 Special, double-page spreads about past stories alternated with newly shot double-page photo spreads and interview columns for past companions with pull-out quote headlines like “THE NUTCASE PROFESSOR SWEPT ME OFF MY FEET”. For a column like that, I was given only 350 words to play with – imagine – and a couple of other rules which I contrived to bend subtly (such as the ban on alluding to pre-2005 Who). I was asked which companion I’d like to write about, and though several tempted me – Rose and Jack were terrific in 2005, and I loved Jackie and Wilf – I instantly thought of Martha Jones, or rather Martha Smith-Jones as she is now. Had I written Mickey and Martha as a pair, obviously, he’d have mentioned Rose in every paragraph before saying he was completely over her (and had I written for Rory, it would have been a one-joke piece where he dies at the end of each paragraph and then gets better).

From her first appearance in Smith and Jones, eight years ago today – making it the most appropriate day to publish my own piece from the 8th Anniversary Special – Martha was a breath of fresh air for me. It wasn’t just Freema Agyeman’s performance and giving as good as she got to the Doctor (and him not being interested), nor just that she was the Doctor’s first full-time TV companion who was black (after Sharon, Roz and others elsewhere), but that she wasn’t going off with the Doctor only because her life was a bit rubbish. Martha is the only TV companion since Sarah Jane Smith with a decent, fulfilling, even exciting career – and for all of us who are so utterly gripped by the Doctor and his adventures, that’s a more inspiring example than the implicit suggestion that travelling in the TARDIS is only slightly better than being in a dead-end job you’re bored by or hate, or than having your parents killed in front of you (and going off with the first available surrogate dad). If you’re an achiever with a lot to give up, but the TARDIS is still so exciting you’d go off in it without a second thought – well, you would, wouldn’t you? And, for me, she has by far the most satisfying (and self-chosen) exit from the new TARDIS, too, again after impressive achievements in her own right.

Other contributors took their own approaches, writing critical assessments or celebrations of their chosen characters, but with the Radio Times Special so deeply ingrained in me, I knew immediately that I wanted to write an ‘After the Doctor’ interview in that style, for the character rather than the actor, and that though I was going to be tongue-in-cheek in several ways (her earnestness, the Doctor) as well, I was going to set out first to say ‘She’s a strong, brilliant character’. And while it may have taken some time to think of all the other words, then edit them all back down again, my starting point leapt into my head fully-formed on reading Paul’s initial email to me:
Though, as you can see from the interview as published, Paul picked a different pull-out quote, though with a very similar feel.

As it turned out, Paul’s wickedly pointed ‘story summaries’ didn’t mention Martha at all, so mine was the only piece that featured her in the whole magazine, and I’m very happy to have done her justice (if thankfully not in an entirely strait-laced way). Happy anniversary, new Who and Martha Jones!

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Monday, March 30, 2015


#LibDemsPointing Meets Doctor Who – Snakedance

It’s finally come: the official end of the 2010 Parliament, and the official start of the campaign (“Not ’til now?” said Tegan, dismayed). And though you might think Doctor Who is all about the Liberal philosophy and not pounding the streets with Focus leaflets, I’ve found evidence of one of the Doctor’s companions standing for election is just the way Lib Dems do.

By chance, the Doctor Who story starting today on the Horror Channel is Snakedance. And there’s a photo-op from that story that shows exactly what I’m talking about. The Doctor tends to be a bit rough and ready in sorting out the big problems and then leaving before he has to do the clearing-up, but Nyssa, one of his friends from the time, was raised in a tradition of public service and proper tidying up (Cleaning up the Mara’s Mess! After Cleaning up the Melkur’s Mess! A Record of Sweeping, A Promise of More!).

We don’t see the TARDIS leave at the end of Snakedance, but you can bet the Doctor goes and hides in it while Nyssa takes over doing her thing. Or, at least, campaigning to be put in charge in the proper #LibDemsPointing way.


What Have the Federation Ever Done For Us?

Nyssa of Traken [pictured, pointing] is standing for Market Ward, Manussa, and campaigning for a new deal for the Scrampus System.

“The Federation have been in charge round here for five hundred years – today! And what have they done since ridding Manussa of the Mara? Nothing but lounged around fondling suggestive antiques on expenses. Market taxpayers have had enough.

“It’s time for a change. We can start by cleaning up this unsightly graffiti that’s all over Manussa’s ancient monuments.”


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Sunday, March 29, 2015


The People’s Flag? Mugs.

The People’s Flag is purple now
It’s to Farage that they kowtow
Now Labour’s values are unknown
Except the mugs with ‘Send them home’

The People’s Flag has changed its spots
For fear of UKIP’s ballot box
Those mugs keep lowering the tone
Their banner reading ‘Send them home’

I like to think that I’d instinctively be a Liberal and not a racist opportunist even if I wasn’t the son of an immigrant. After all, Ed Miliband’s the son of an immigrant too, so there doesn’t seem to be any correlation.

Thanks to Nick Barlow for eternal vigilance and #whynotjointhelabourparty, and to Richard Flowers for everything, always, but this time in particular for kicking off the lyrics. And a damned good kicking is in order (even from Labour MPs).

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Fifty Things I Love About Britain

Fifty days until the General Election. Fifty days of nothing but ‘why Britain is terrible’. Labour say it’s terrible now they’re in, so put back in the people who made it terrible in the first place. Tories say it was terrible when they were in, so don’t let them back in. UKIP say Britain has been terrible ever since we let any of ‘them’ in and hang up their ‘No blacks, no Polish, no gays’ signs. And the Lib Dems say it’ll be a bit less terrible if we’re a bit in. So, today, only things I love about Britain.

1 – My greatest Briton
…and Earthling, and citizen of the Universe, of them all, my husband, Richard Flowers

2 – Love and marriage
Having the right to marry the person I love, if they want to too, or not to marry at all

3 – That he did want to
…and that we did, after waiting only twenty years (to the day)

That’s all I need, really, but there are forty-seven more, including food, Doctor Who, more food, the Liberal Democrats (the whole bally lot of them), so much food… And that’s all just the other stuff that was at our wedding!

4 – Doctor Who
of course

5 – Being a nation made up of several nations
…all distinct and all having each in common, and being a people that has always been made up of many peoples and still mixing in people from everywhere else

6 – Being a nation where we all have multiple loyalties and identities
…by definition, and not letting people tell us what one thing they think we are

7 – Being always open to change
…whether it’s new people in our streets, new words in our language (often from someone else’s) or newly being comfortable with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and all sorts of other people who no longer have to be like everybody else

8 – My parents
…My Mum, who wasn’t born here but has always put her all into wherever she is, and my Dad, who was born in Glasgow, did some more growing up in Watford, and made a life for his family in Stockport, because we’re lots of different places and all one country too

9 – Inspirational heroes
…The four greatest British heroic myths: King Arthur; Robin Hood; Sherlock Holmes; and World War II

10 – Doubt
…and asking awkward questions

11 – Great big cliffs
…and windmills on hillsides

12 – Great crashing waves
…and nudist beaches when it’s bloody freezing

13 – Picturesque villages
…like Aldbourne, East Hagbourne, South Oxhey, Little Bazeley-by-the-Sea, Summerisle (but I’m more of an Escape From the Country guy, so…)

14 – Thrilling cities
…like London, Manchester, Edinburgh

15 – Stockport Town Hall

16 – The Beatles
…and especially George Harrison who, like me, swung wildly from terribly earnest to taking the piss, but who unlike me played the most gorgeous slide guitar ever heard – plus the movie of Yellow Submarine

17 – Electronic music
…from the likes of the Pet Shop Boys, The Human League, Heaven 17 and Delia Derbyshire

18 – Kate Bush
…and whatever the hell she does

19 – Punk rock
…Especially Tom Robinson and, right now, Ian Dury and the Blockheads and the wish that I could make my lists scan as well as Reasons To Be Cheerful

20 – Dame Shirley Bassey

21 – The Avengers
…Possibly the most British thing ever, and which wasn’t just style and subversion but which mattered – introducing to a mass audience the idea of intelligent, independent women who flung men over their shoulders. A fantasy of Britain where old-fashioned tradition and high-tech, sexually equal modernity went hand in hand (a hugely successful Conservative-Liberal coalition, you might say)

22 – The BBC

23 – Quatermass
…combining British ingenuity and a wish to build rocket ships with sheer naked terror (but doing it anyway)

24 – The Clangers
…encouraging us to love the alien and gently laugh at ourselves

25 – 2000AD
…the comic, not the year, particularly, which turned out a bit samey

26 – Carry On Up the Khyber

27 – Alastair Sim
…in drag


29 – Shakespeare
…A great many of his lines, anyway (and Queen Elizabeth the First, at least according to Blackadder)

30 – The works of JRR Tolkien
…even the ones scribbled on bits of toast and painstakingly reconstituted by his son. Mmm, toast…

31 – Clasping strange new foreign foods to our bosom
…over the centuries, making them our own so we couldn’t imagine life without them, like – the potato – and tea – and chocolate

32 – Chicken Korma

33 – Roast lamb

34 – Scotch eggs

35 – Pies
Pies. More pies. And especially appropriate today, Pieminister pies

36 – Margaret Thatcher, Tony Benn, Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage
…and the gladly exercised right to say thanks but no thanks, never have, never will

37 – William Gladstone, David Lloyd-George, Paddy Ashdown, Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson
…and the gladly exercised right to say yes, and I will again

38 – Being more or less democratic for quite a long time

39 – Mostly giving up an Empire with less fuss than is usual

40 – The NHS
…which on balance makes me go “Aaargghh!” less than it helps stop me going “Aaargghh!”

41 – Fulfilling the UN target of giving 0.7% of our national wealth in overseas aid and development
…a target set a year before I was born. It’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve finally met it (one of only about half a dozen countries that does), and in the last few weeks set it in law created by the Liberal Democrats

42 – The gap between rich and poor narrowing
…at last, over the last five years, after widening hugely ever since the 1980s

43 – The Rule of Law
…meaning that those in power get frustrated by the law applying to them too

44 – Signing the European Convention on Human Rights
…And not just being part of it, but Winston Churchill commissioning British lawyers to create it, in order to protect and spread our values

45 – Traditional British values
…like creativity, eccentricity, tolerance, generosity, fair play, standing up for the underdog, and universal, indivisible freedom

46 – Not having ID cards
…or being snooped on by the state at will, and the Liberal Democrats constantly being on guard whenever everybody else suddenly thinks that would be a good idea

47 – Making lists instead of doing anything
…making tutting sounds instead of hitting anyone, and grumbling but never giving up

48 – Inventing the train and the Internet
…even when each sometimes goes off the rails

49 – Many of the things we used to have but don’t any more
…like welcoming immigrants, Woolworths, Texan Bars, how Blackpool was in my childhood memories, The Daleks’ Master Plan, Nick Courtney, Conrad Russell and my Grandad

50 – The future
…even more than those I’ve loved and lost, and that there will always be many, many more new wonderful, beautiful, innovative, unpredictable and aggravating but loveable things to put on a list.
And that any list will be quite different for you, or even quite different for me tomorrow (I thought the best way was to write the lot off the top of my head), but still blatantly and brilliantly British.

So in fifty days’ time, why not vote for a Britain that offers more things to love than merely against the bits you don’t?

Here’s Nick Clegg on things he loves about Britain. I applauded him delivering this speech on Sunday and suspect he may have spent a bit more time and thought crafting this version than I did mine, but I agree with most of his, too.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015


Doorsteps, Dogs and Doughnuts – A Dozen Worst and Best Election Moments

The General Election will take place two months tomorrow, and while for voters at home it means just two months of wishing it would all shut up, for active political volunteers it’s two months of joy and excitement. Or hell and exhaustion. So from my many election campaigns past, here are my experiences of: worst Lib Dem candidate ever! Best old lady ever! Canvassing moment least likely to be repeated! Election secret I should have admitted at the time! Best and worst police! Best and worst dog bites! Best bakery order! Best conversation in bed! Most racist voter! And more!

Liberal Democrat Voice and the amazing Helen Duffett put out the call yesterday for people’s funniest canvassing stories, and though I immediately commented with a ready-made Eastleigh anecdote, my memories kept erupting. Particularly from the 1992-1997 Parliament, when I volunteered in every mainland UK by-election but one – celebrity visitors were snowed in, and I decided I wasn’t going to hitch-hike in that. Yes, I had even less money than my party and mostly got there and back by thumbing a lift, but in those days I was at least far more healthy and could survive it all (though my studies couldn’t).

And of course the vast majority of those by-elections were won by other parties – we’ve never won more than a handful in any one Parliament, with the four we took in the 1992 Parliament were very nearly our best ever. So next time a report exaggerates some terrible result by saying ‘Of course, in the old days the Lib Dems would have walked it, because they won every by-election’, we didn’t walk any of them – unless you mean until our shoes wore out, because they were all hard work – and remember the facts of how rarely we actually won and how great our joy every time we managed it, and how thankless all the many more (or, at the time, fewer) volunteers in the places we didn’t stand an earthly but still stood anyway. Also remember that by-elections were and will again sometimes be won by standing up for the right thing and not just the far right thing – Romsey in favour of Europe and immigration when the Tories were being UKIP Mark I; Brent against the Iraq War when both Labour and Tories backed spending blood and money like there was no tomorrow.

One – Best Doorstep Canvassing Experience Ever

Christchurch by-election, 1994 1993

A tiny old lady comes slowly to the door. I stand back but lean forward in my best I-am-listening-but-not-looming-threateningly-way. I ask her who she’s voting for. “Well…” the tiny lady says, in an even tinier voice. I lean in closer. “I’ve always voted Tory…” Suddenly she grabs me by both shoulders and shakes me as she yells, “But you’ve got to get the bastards out!”

Two – Canvassing Experience Least Likely To Be Repeated In May 2015

Newbury by-election, 1994 1993

The man who saw me coming and ran out of his front door to beg me for a stakeboard poster to have in his garden… Because every single other house on the street had one and all his neighbours were curling their lips at him. Freedom from conformity!

David Rendel might also have been the best by-election candidate for the troops that I ever saw: seemingly boundless energy on the doorsteps, and however late he finished, he’d always go round HQ and thank every volunteer as if every single one of us had made his day (no, they didn’t all do that).

Three – Best Candidate For Keeping Her Head On Bad News

Christchurch by-election, 1994 1993

A canvassing team out on a lovely sunny day with an enthusiastic candidate in a sharp jacket and all of us feeling the wind was at our backs. What could go wrong? The most sourly Tory street in the most sourly Tory ward in the constituency, where not one single person was voting for us and most of them gave us abuse, ranging from immigration to That London to ‘You’re a layabout, bothering me in the middle of the day – why don’t you have a job?’ (ignoring that we were the ones out and about and they were the ones at home).

We met up on the street corner to report each individual tale of woe from sheet after sheet of unrestrained misery. Diana Maddock, the candidate, stood with her head tilted listeningly and nodded gently at each setback. Depressed, we all looked to her. “They’re all fascists, you know,” she said brightly. “But I think they’re going to vote for me.” And they did.

Four – Worst Lib Dem By-election Candidate Ever

South East Staffordshire by-election, 1996

Jeanette Davy. An utter misery who drove all her aides to distraction, was never seen to smile, tutted loudly at voters when she wasn’t sighing, and was generally impossible to work with. For those who didn’t meet her, she helpfully appeared on TV to say that if people voted Labour to get the Tories out, that was “a price worth paying”. I remember one council leader who turned up to help, heard that, swore, got back in his car and drove all the way home again, saying he wasn’t going to help such a stupid [expletive deleted].

That’s excluding the one who defected to Labour on eve of poll in 1994 and wrecked both by-elections and Euro-elections for us – and I delivered for the git, whose name ironically was a portmanteau of two Doctor Who characters who betrayed humanity to the Cybermen, in a continuity error in the real world. The two of them were in those rosy days the only two Lib Dem by-election lost deposits in England for donkeys’ years.

Five – Most Racist Voter

Eastleigh by-election, 1994

The man one sunny day in a suburban crescent who got more and more heated about immigration while the other two canvassers did the whole rest of the street and all the neighbours stayed out one by one to listen. Never have I delivered so many calm “That isn’t true, sirs” or “I must disagree with you, sirs” at such increasing volume as the voter went from slightly racist to shouting conspiracy theories. After my final “I don’t believe we’re going to agree, sir, so I shall say good day,” he opened his gate and lumbered after me to the corner, screaming of our candidate “Chidgey’s not an English name!!” [Hilarious fact: actually, it is.]

It made my going all Churchillian when people argued about immigration and refugees when I was an actual candidate seem positively tame.

The same by-election gets runner-up awards for two types of paternalism:

The man who growled at the Lib Dems and refused to let me talk to his wife when I politely enquired, because she voted the way she was told. Canvassers, never treat a house as monolithic (even if there’s an opposition poster there – a Labour poster-bearer at a different by-election told me quietly that he was a member and had to, but was voting tactically). The second he slammed the door, the upper window sprang open, and she quickly confided: “I always tell him that for a quiet life. But I always vote for you lot.”

The Labour voter on the next doorstep along from me who thought government should tell the workers what was good for them and hand out what they decreed when Tony Blair got in, because Labour and the unions knew best. And the Lib Dem canvasser I was tag-teaming with stoutly telling him that, no, workers should be involved in management rather than everything being from the top down, and the Labour man’s incredulous cry of “You can’t let workers make their own decisions!”

Six – Worst Evening’s Canvassing

Hexham, 1991 (party of students up to help out)

In my late teens, shortly after I’d unwisely had all my hair buzzed off (and in a snowy January), and paired with an especially camp other Lib Dem in what was then a very Conservative and evidently conservative seat, it was probably the least successful evening’s campaigning I’ve ever had, from the very first house where my canvassing partner exclaimed “Oh, no, you’ll have to do this one!” and there was unstoppable tittering from the gate while I tried to keep my face straight asking, “Good evening – Mr Love…?” right to the point where we called it a night as one man set his dogs on us one way while trying to rev his van into us from the other.

My then-underweight (less than half my present size), skeletal student looks, though with hair grown back, were better deployed canvassing later that year in Kincardine and Deeside – almost as chilly, and shivering pitifully, I kept being sent to canvass old ladies because I got the best ‘mother me’ response from them.

Seven – Worst Day’s Leafletting

Islywn by-election, 1995

Where it never once stopped raining. I’d hitch-hiked there, eventually being picked up by the police while striding along the dual carriageway towards Islywn after being dropped at a motorway junction at 2am, and on hearing what I was there for they kindly drove me to the Lib Dem HQ (making them much nicer than the unsympathetic Leicestershire officers who’d arrested and charged me when hitching back from Bradford South the year before). Disbelieving Valleys coppers: “You’re wasting your time. A donkey with a red rosette gets in round here, and we’ve had one for twenty-five years” (thank you, Mr Kinnock). I snatched a couple of hours’ sleep against a radiator and half-dried one side before going out all day delivering.

The only metaphorical ray of sunshine was the woman who stopped me to ask why she should vote Lib Dem instead of Plaid – I quoted Lloyd George about hating fences and wanting to kick down any he came across, because Liberals don’t like neat little boxes and borders that individuals can’t cross, and that’s what we don’t like about nationalists. I got us that one vote, but eventually had to go back to HQ with half the leaflets undelivered: not because they’d turned to papier-mâché and were coming off in thick clumps rather than one at a time, though they were; not because the highlighter pen had run off the photocopied route map, though it had; but because the toner had run off the map itself.

Hitch-hiking back was even worse, because the time you most need a lift is when no-one wants to spoil their car with a soaking straggler. I remember being dropped, eventually, soaked to the bone and freezing, at Cockfosters – as far out on the Tube as possible – and teeth-chatteringly ringing Richard from a phone booth. He poured a hot bath and peeled me into it at the far end, hours later. When he towelled me down afterwards it was the first time I’d been dry in over two days.

Eight – Worst and Best Dog Bites

Taunton, Local elections 1999

Long narrow garden path, dog suddenly leaps out at the far end. I stuck the leaflet in and ran for it, but spent election evening 1999 in A&E and still have the scar.

Christchurch by-election, 1994

Dog locks its teeth around my thigh; owner comes to the door, pales, and immediately offers to take a super-size stakeboard poster. At the corner of two big roads. Result! And, bonus, no flesh torn, though card wallet punctured and outer card needed replacing from the canine canines’ dent.

Nine – By-election (Lack of) Experience I Shouldn’t Admit To

Winchester by-election, 1997

I’d been there a week, and the night before polling day, the sub-agent who was going to be running the sub-office – the secondary HQ out in the country somewhere, not the central city one I’d been at the whole time – fell suddenly ill. The agent was already worn to a frazzle, and everyone had all their jobs mapped out. Disaster! But, luckily, there at hand was a familiar face from all those by-elections, and a senior-ish figure (then) in the party. “Alex Wilcock will be running the sub-office,” she announced. I went for a late-night pizza with a well-known party staffer and blogger-to-be and confided just one tiny worry. Or, rather, hinted at it, though he immediately guessed what the problem was. In all the elections I’d worked in, I’d delivered leaflets, and canvassed, and done the press, and been a candidate, and even got the doughnuts. The one thing I’d never done was any of the agent-y stuff, so running a committee room or the art of the Shuttleworth were mysteries to me. Should I tell the agent? “Best not,” he said, trying not to spit pizza in all directions with laughter. “She’s got enough to worry about.”

So at 5am on polling day I was taken to be what appeared to be a disused aircraft hangar down a load of tiny roads, across bridges and through fords, and didn’t have a clue where I was or what I was doing. Trying to keep calm, I thought to myself, what can I do? I can learn very quickly on the spot, I can wing it brilliantly, and I can cheer people up. So, surrounded by experienced volunteers both local and national, one side of the room surrounded by ready-to-tear coloured strips that had some mystical connection with the election, I gathered my troops and gave them a brief word before they went off with the Good Morning leaflets. I told them how vital it was we won; I told them that the evil Tory had only challenged the result on a technicality, and that the voters wanted our candidate but couldn’t be allowed to be complacent; I said what we stood for (sadly our key topics from the leaflets rather than anything exciting); and I said something on the spot to make them laugh. All in uncharacteristically bullet-point brevity.

“There’s one more thing,” I told them, very seriously. “I’ll be here co-ordinating the day, taking all the information, reporting it to the agent, and I’m not allowed to tell you how we’re doing – in fact, even if the candidate walks in, I’m not allowed to tell him [he did, and I did as I was told and only told him it was very tight and he had to go out and do more]. Now, I know I’ve been put here by the main party, and that some of you have been working to win Winchester for years and know far more about it than I ever will. So as well as acting on your local knowledge whenever something comes up, one of the most important things I can do is make sure that those of us from outside are working in the same way those of you who live here do. Before you start knocking on doors, then, just so we know everyone’s getting it right, I’d like [potentially stroppy but very experienced local party member I’d been told to keep on side] to quickly explain to us outsiders how you do it here…”

By the afternoon, though I’d been told even I shouldn’t think about the data I was reporting to the agent, my estimate was that we were looking at a majority of well over 20,000, and I was worried that I’d got it all terribly wrong. I hadn’t.

Ten – Best Coming-Out Moment

Kincardine and Deeside by-election, 1991

Surprisingly, my best coming-out moment wasn’t while being an out gay candidate myself (the first time I was quoted as one of only two for the Lib Dems, which I was completely certain wasn’t right, so four years later I put together the list of over two dozen myself because no-one else was doing it), but at my very first Parliamentary by-election. Being driven up to North Aberdeenshire with a coach-load from Scottish Lib Dem HQ and then staying there several days, we all had to be found places to sleep. I was spoiled: unlike many later campaigns, this wasn’t a sleeping bag on the floor, but a big actual bed, with only one other person in it, it being assumed that studenty types wouldn’t mind. Nice bloke, we’d got on well while chatting earlier in the day, and as we tucked in he warned me hesitantly, “While I’m asleep, I tend to grab onto things, but don’t worry, I’m not a homosexual.” I’m sure there were many ways I could have broken it to him more reassuringly, but given a feed line like that I couldn’t resist replying, “Don’t worry – I am.” Which is the first time I’d come out to someone while already in bed with them. He was a good Liberal and absolutely fine, so we nattered away very happily until he said something about Americans and I did it to him again: coming out as half-American, though, made him groan and roll over.

Not a sexy story in the end, then, but back in 1998 I did manage to canvass for the Alliance Party in Belfast, where my accent managed to put off both ‘sides’, when a man in a much-too-small kimono that covered very little of his chest hair and almost nothing of his thighs came to the door, and I had to concentrate hard on remembering every single word of my usually automatic spiel…

Eleven – Best photo-opportunity

Wirral South by-election, 1999 1997

I worked for a couple of weeks in what was going to be Labour’s last by-election gain before the first Blair landslide, and our vote holding up surprisingly well was a good omen. My favourite bit, unusually, was a press conference wheeze I came up with: somehow our mostly-detached technically-Lib Dem local-ish MP David Alton had been persuaded to turn up in support, and wanted to run on law and order. The Major Government had cut police numbers in Merseyside, and we had all the very serious statistics of exactly how many hundred they were short which, amid the blizzard of daily figures from all the campaigns, no-one would listen to. Until I took two police officer pictures (one woman, one man) from our standard artwork, blew them up on the photocopier, and the press trooped in to find the wall covered with a photogenic 236 (or whatever it was) alternating A4 police heads to illustrate the point.

It was the only one of our press conferences that I remember getting decent coverage other than the one that was meant to be our Transport Spokesperson complaining about the trains, and which he had to give via his mobile when the train he was coming on broke down and stranded all the passengers (his researcher was later cleared of putting sugar in the engine).

Twelve – Best Result (ish)

Monklands East by-election, 1994

Squeezed between Labour and the SNP, though we had a great candidate he was never going to be their next MP after John Smith. But after spending a few days helping out there, I went to Germany for a meeting of European Young Liberal Leaders. As Chair of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (England and Wales) I was there, as was the Chair of the Scottish Young Liberal Democrats, and in those pre-Internet boom days we tuned in to British Armed Forces Radio first thing on the morning after polling day. We came down to breakfast arm in arm and grinning ear to ear. ‘Another great by-election victory?’ the others asked us. “No, we lost our deposit – but we went up to third and beat the Tories!”

Baker’s Dozen – Best Order and Dodgiest Opinion Poll

Eastleigh by-election, 1994

Possibly my favourite by-election memory was striding one morning into the local bakery to utter the unusual but satisfying words, “Could I have two hundred doughnuts, please?” They offered ridiculous discounts for multiple buys, so that, say, one doughnut might be 85p, but you’d get three for £2, or ten for £5, with escalating discounts the more you bought. These were for the cheery campaign HQ and all the hundreds of volunteers rather than personal consumption, but the huge stack of boxes had the advantage of obscuring the rosette that might have put off the opinion pollster who then stopped me on the street. “Oh no,” I remember saying, “I wouldn’t like that Tony Blair as Labour Leader. Margaret Beckett’s the one you want, she’ll be very popular, and John Prescott, he’s a sensible man.”

Since then, I’ve always taken opinion polls – and what people tell you on the doorstep – with just a pinch of icing sugar.

You’d think I’d have lots of stories from the two times I was a Parliamentary candidate myself, and I probably do somewhere, but they’re buried deep in a part of my memory labelled ‘long slog’. My first time, when I was the youngest candidate in the region, I did at least get some media attention, partly because the media wanted someone under thirty and I was it. The other reason was that the Lib Dems’ Regional Media Co-ordinator put me up for radio shows and other places where a candidate might be asked Very Hard Questions (actually, that reminds me of my debates in that campaign, but they’d need a post all of their own) because she claimed that there were only two Lib Dem candidates in the region that she trusted to know all our policies and put them across effectively, and she kept putting my name forward instead of the other one – because he was David Rendel and he had better things to do, like winning his seat, while I could do far more good for the party as a spokesperson than tramping round a Labour-Tory marginal in which I was inevitably dead meat.

If only someone had done a similar assessment for where to put Natalie Bennett!

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