Wednesday, May 07, 2014

27 years ago today

27 years ago today, I was first elected to Gateshead Council. My ward then was larger than it is now but had a shorter name. Then it was Whickham South. Now it is Whickham South and Sunniside. My most endearing memory of polling day in 1987 was turning up for the count. In those days each ward was counted separately in its own ward. My count was at the Parochial School. All three main parties were confident of winning though why Labour thought they were coasting to victory was beyond me - all the indications in the ward were that their vote was going down. (Perhaps there are lessons for Labour here - they are behaving now as if victory is assured in certain wards in Gateshead. They made the same mistake in 2012 - and in other years as well. They don't learn quickly.)

The ward itself had been strongly though not safely Conservative. 1986 had been a bad year for the Conservatives in the local elections. That had helped us to win the seat from the Conservatives that year. We won with 47% of the vote, over 700 ahead of Labour who moved into 2nd place, and 1000 ahead of the Conservatives.

As we have elections by thirds, all I had to do was repeat the result when I was standing in the ward in 1987. The national political climate however had changed significantly. The Conservatives were on the up, Labour had lost a large amount of the support they had gained over the previous year. Those who believe that the national swing can on its own be the deciding factor on our patch need to learn the lesson we learnt decades ago - national swings help but if the work on the ground isn't done, victory is harder to achieve.

The Conservative councillor due for re-election in 1987 had decided to retire. The Conservatives chose the same candidate who had lost in the previous year. He was a retired teacher. I was a 23-year-old university student at the time. We had had one confrontation with each other during the campaign. Whilst out canvassing we bumped into each other in a street. He was accompanied by someone who could only be described as "Mr Angry". The Conservative candidate ordered me out of the street. I suggested that he could not order me around at which point Mr Angry sneered at me: "Mr Stokoe [the candidate] is a respected member of the community and he is not going to be spoken to by some kid like you."

"We shall see what the voters think of that," I replied. I had no desire to knock on doors of people who had just been disturbed by the Conservatives so I said I was going into the next street to canvass and politely suggested they refrain from going there that evening.

When I arrived at my count, the first person who spoke to me was the last remaining Conservative councillor in the ward. Indeed, he actually hunted me out, walking across the room to me to say, "Hello, I wish you a good second position." "I wish you the same," was my reply though whether or not he heard it I wasn't sure as he walked away as soon as he finished his well-prepared and very short greeting.

The final result was that I got 49% of the vote and a majority of 856 over the Conservatives. Labour slipped back into 3rd place. The look of astonishment on the faces of all our opponents was incredible!

We won the final Conservative seat in 1988 when we were in the middle of the SDP/Liberal merger and the opinion polls made our current poll ratings look dizzyingly high. The Conservatives again slipped back into 3rd place and have been there ever since though for a number of years they had a residual support that could give them quite a few hundred votes in local elections in the ward. That had shrunk to a typical 200 or so votes in the late 90s. There has been no election leaflet from the Conservatives since 1990. On our patch, they have all but disappeared.

Labour have eyed the ward before but only once put in a concerted attempt to take it from me. It was however so cack handed that Labour's vote suffered a significant collapse and they have never recovered from their disastrous campaign.

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