At the End of the Campaign Trail

It’s taken me a few days to clear up the physical and emotional remnants of this political campaign. I’ve worked on campaigns before – both in the US and UK. But none like this. It was the first time where I’ve been one of the candidates.  Why now? I think I explained part of this in a previous blog, the one where I compare British national politics and government to that of Italy. It’s time to tackle some world and national problems locally. I hate clichés, but it’s true ‘think globally, act locally.’

I told myself at the start that I was going to abide by three rules. Rule One – I wouldn’t let the campaign stress me out. I think I managed to achieve that. That’s not to say there weren’t times, especially in the final days, that I didn’t feel exhausted. Tiredness is one thing; stress is something else. What helped was the fact that I had other work to do – my academic slog – and I continued with my normal meditation and exercise routines. That brings me to Rule Two – I wouldn’t let my health suffer during the campaign. Many of you might cringe when reading this, but for the most part, I continued to eat heathy foods over these past six weeks, nibbling on fresh fruit and wholefood snack bars while my fellow candidates devoured biscuits and cakes (a Liberal Democrat staple). I only twice relinquished with a sliver of banana bread at an envelope-stuffing party and an oatmeal raisin biscuit at a team meeting. Rule Three – so that I wouldn’t be devastated if I lost, I focused on the campaign itself as the experience. It wasn’t going to be about winning or losing. This was about being a candidate and expanding knowledge of local issues in the event that I won. I managed to follow these rules with the support of my David and by keeping a campaign journal and a presence on Facebook as a candidate. David delivered leaflets, helped with canvassing, delivered leaflets, addressed over a thousand envelopes and delivered leaflets. Since my Facebook page speaks for itself, I’ll share with you one of the highlights from my journal:

Hello Neighbour – Knocking on people’s doors or ringing their doorbells is the easy part. The difficulty begins when they answer. I’ve seen friendly local residents in their bathrobes, pyjamas and curlers, and one woman who was only wearing a long t-shirt (when she stretched her arm, I could see Texas). A few people have spared me the domestic awkwardness by not coming to the door, opting instead to hang their heads out of a window. There should be a word for such conversations – fenesations?

I so do not like profile shots of me, but doesn’t Mr Allen look great?

There are those who say ‘not interested’ and slam the door before I could utter ‘hello.’ Where I do get a more welcoming response, as soon as the topic of elections comes up, I hear people grumble about Brexit and the mess that it has caused – and rightly that certain politicians are to blame. If I detect a fellow pro-European, we exchange facts and stats and commiserate together. If it’s a suspected Brexiter, I quickly deflect back to local issues. When I ask what we (the party) could do if elected, the answers soon become predictable – improve parking, reduce petty crime, plug up the potholes, create more cycle paths, increase services for our growing town (I resist calling Ely a ‘city’ when the only skyscraper is the cathedral).

With that the real work starts. Yeah, I did win. And so did many other Liberal Democrats, and that means change is possible. A new chapter in life begins.


A week in the life of a pro-Europe activist

Saturday: Spent one and a half hours in bitterly cold Ely Market Square working at the Liberal-Democrats’ Exit-Brexit market stall. One passer-by screamed at us, once he was far enough away to avoid conversation “The majority voted!” Another man blames the EU for Eastern European workers. I briefly told him how Britain invited Eastern Europeans here in 2004 and that other EU countries have different immigration policies – but I stopped myself. I’m grateful Eastern Europeans are here working on our farms and in our hospitals, making our country culturally richer. The man continued to say that because of the EU he can no longer go to his local pub.  At that point, I gave up and stepped away.

Sunday: Too cold to go out. Stayed indoors and wrote my blog about hearing Lord Adonis addressing Brexit issues earlier that week at a town hall meeting in Peterborough.

Monday: Ely for Europe co-chair Virginie stopped by with Open Britain and European Movement surveys. We discussed a strategy for getting our members to fill them in and get people they know to fill them. With hostilities in the post-referendum air, we can’t expect people to knock on strangers’ doors.

Tuesday: Sent an email to MP Lucy Frazer about the debate on how Brexit will impact the NHS in Parliament scheduled for Thursday. Urged her participation. Started following Lord Adonis on Twitter.

Wednesday: Signed online government petition demanding that the Referendum vote be made null and void due to illegal activities and influence surrounding Cambridge Analytica. A long shot, but worth a try. At least the act of signing the petition felt good.

Thursday: Attended a Q+A session hosted by Ely for Europe with MEP Alex Mayer. Met more pro-Europe supporters, mostly from Labour. Left the event thinking that maybe it’s not a matter of hard Brexit or soft Brexit. It might be a symbolic Brexit that does the trick. In March 2019, British MEPs leave Brussels (and lose their jobs) and the Union Jack is lowered. With the new passports, these gestures might be enough for the Brexiters. Other issues to do with trade, borders, funded research and so on could remain in limbo for years as people in the EU and Britain work around them, effectively remaining linked.

Friday: Learned that 15 cross-party MPs stood up in Parliament to debate how Brexit will impact our NHS – none of them was MP Lucy Frazer. No evidence that she was even there.  Engaged in stealth activism by delivering pro-Europe flyers from the Lib-Dems and the European Movement to unsuspecting letterboxes. Very satisfying and less angering than working market stalls.

Saturday (in France, a week is 8 days): Attended Exit Brexit march in Ipswich. Excellent turnout with pro-Europe groups from across East Anglia. On the train returning to Ely, while reading The New European, I looked up a few times at the flat landscapes, the farms, the villages and wondered what the future holds.

A Cross-Party Spirit for the Pro-Europe Movement

As party politics in Britain is being reshaped – maybe to the point of extinction – I find myself increasingly involved in cross-party events. This week it was a town hall style gathering billed as a ‘Brexit Listening Tour’ in Peterborough and led by Lord Adonis, a Labour Peer. The attendees for the most part didn’t identify themselves as belonging to or supporting one party or another. Those who did label themselves came from Labour, Lib-Dems, Greens and Conservative parties. Naturally, no one from UKIP, but I suspect they’re not in ‘listening’ mode these days.

From the timing of the applauses, along with the comments and questions, this was clearly an event for those who want the UK to remain in the EU. If you’ve been following my blogs, you know that this is not the first time I’ve been to such an event.  Adonis

I came away from the evening invigorated and inspired to get back to the type of face-to-face activism that I do when I’m back here in Ely. I also came away with a few points worth sharing.

First of all, perhaps the time has come for Brexiters and Remainers to unite against our government for running the simplistic in/out referendum in the first place. It’s easy to accuse the Brexiters of lacking knowledge as there was no mandate in the referendum explaining how we would leave, along with the assumptions (and lies) that made people believe that leaving the EU would make Britain better off. Even though those who voted remain obviously had some sense of what it would be like to stay in, there were still many things about how the EU works that Remainers- and I include myself in this- simply didn’t know. Had we known more about the customs union, the various immigration policies across EU member states, or the problems now facing Ireland and Gibraltar, our arguments would have been different.

Secondly, let’s not forget that Brexit is a symptom of the problems the UK has been unsuccessfully dealing with for the past few decades. Problems like unemployment, housing and a weakening health care system.  Perhaps this point is just another angle on looking at how the pro-leave vote was really a protest vote against life in Britain. Labour, the Greens and the Lib-Dems could easily unite on tackling these problems along with undoing the mess that has become Brexit.

A final point is more a turn of phrase than a point. It’s an answer to the tabloid press and The Daily Telegraph which continue to publish stories about the NHS being drained by immigrates and their children needing medical services. One of the attendees at this cross-party event said ‘You’re more likely to be treated by an immigrant than you are to see them in the waiting room.’  Well said.

Marching for Europe

Saturday I attended my first protest march in over twenty years. In a few words, it was in support of staying in the single market and remaining an inclusive society. In Cambridge some 400 people made up the trail of marchers. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s early days yet. This was one of those ‘gathering of the troops’ march and rally. Now that parliament has reconvened, I suspect future marches will be more focused on one issue or another concerning how we leave the EU – if that really happens. Speculations abound.

I came away from this activity thinking about a few things. First, there was the cross-party spirit of the event. The speakers at the rally included not only the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats, no surprises there, but also politicians from Labour and the Conservatives. The idea of leaving Europe effects so many people in so many ways. Working across parties is an aspect of being in the grown-up world, away from the club-house mentally of the zealot, of the closed-minded.

The march also gave me more face-to-face encounters with people who support Brexit. One man barked at us, ‘It’s over – go home!’ Is it over? Our government doesn’t seem to think so. Since the Brexit camp left us with no plan and a campaign based on twisted facts and some downright lies, how the UK actually leaves the EU is still up for grabs. Another person, an elderly woman, pointed her fingers at a few of us and said, ‘I’m from the North and we’re poor up there!’ This is just another example of the protest voting that happened on 23rd June. Yes, the divide in wealth between the North and South of England is something to be unhappy about – but why is that the fault of the European Union? What about our own governments over the last three decades? Before I had a chance to question this woman, she, like the uppity man, was gone. That to me sums up much of the Brexit campaign – single utterances or catch phrases without discussion, without debate.

These hecklers were few. As we walked with our banners, signs and EU flags through the windy streets of central Cambridge, we were greeted mostly by applause and thumbs-up gestures. When we stopped to wait for street lights or for some of our number to catch up, we were the subject of mobile phone photographs – dozens of them. There is something immensely comforting about feeling that your views are generally shared. Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

After a few casual discussions with my fellow marchers, I returned to Ely with a sense of dismay as well. There seemed to be strong agreement that the Liberal Democrats were the only party in total support of remaining in the EU and their speaker at the rally, Julian Huppert, was the best received and most inspiring. Yet – and here comes the disappointing part – some of my fellow marchers raised the point that the Lib Dems have the right message, but cannot speak to ‘ordinary people.’ One person said to me ‘They need to tone it down – keep it simple.’ I would argue that the simplicity of the referendum debate is what made it more about emotions and less adherent to facts and gave us the disasterous outcome we are now living under. It might take a generation, but perhaps we should flip this argument and raise the education and understanding of ‘ordinary people.’