23 February 2014

Ugandan Journalist Gets Feel of British Election Campaign

An email from the local Labour Party was inviting me to join a team to drop off leaflets eulogising the deceased area MP Paul Goggins who had passed on suddenly.

Paul Goggins was one of the most humble politicians I have ever met. Whenever I went to visit him, he would rise from his seat. He also had an extraordinary ability to make one feel comfortable and cared for, a trait not common with many politicians.

It was through my interactions with him, backed by the desire to put in practice the knowledge I acquired from my graduate studies in Political Communication at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural studies that I got inspired to join the Labour Party in the UK. At a time of his passing, we had just had a conversation about the possibility of an internship slot in his office in line with my career.

In the previous 2010 UK general elections, I took part mainly as an observer accredited by the UK Electoral Commission and was able to get unlimited access to several polling stations during the polls. I also analysed how the UK media covered the elections and lessons to draw.

So when I received an email calling out volunteers to do leafleting for the late Paul Goggins MP's obituary ahead of the February 13th by elections, I grabbed the opportunity the way a hungry hyena would grab a piece of meat. It was a cold and chilly Sunday when I went to our meeting point at James Street car park in Sale Moor village at 2pm.

Surprisingly the first person who came to speak to me was Mike Kane, a teacher by profession, councillor for 17 years, and campaigner for the Labour Party. Kane introduced himself and told me he was seeking my vote in the party selection, a week away, to replace Paul Goggins.

Kane asked me if I would like to go with him to do the leafleting together. I told him that was okay although I had not done this before, to which he answered "don't worry, I will show you how to do it". He would use Google maps on his phone to locate the nine streets we had been allocated. He would go to one address while I covered the next one, literally running.

I would later realise that I had not dressed up warm enough for the terrible weather. Much as we had to do the exercise very fast which helped to keep the body warm, my fingers and toes were freezing, making it hard to pick up and push the leaflets through the letter box.

For a moment I thought about what the postman goes through to drop off our mail on a daily basis. Most of the letter boxes were hard and stiff. There's also a brush-like guard which one has to push through again using the finger for the leaflet to go through. I got several scratches to my already freezing fingers which felt like adding salt to injury.

Some addresses had dogs which would bark at any contact with the door and also attempt to grab a finger from inside. I had to be careful with these despite the speed at which we were working. In the meantime, Kane made me comfortable and kept chatting with me all through the process. He asked me what attracted me to the Labour Party and I mentioned my interaction with the late MP Paul Goggins and the current cost of living crisis, among others.

After a little over an hour, Kane declared: "We have finished! Well done, you have done so well".

We shook hands and then parted. Kane, whose campaign slogan was "Local choice with a national experience," was born and raised in the area but also led a national campaign of the living wage and pay-day loans. He was later to win the selection with a landslide, beating four other candidates.

This was my first time to take part in a British political party's selection process. There were 131 voters and 15 proxies, making a total of 146 voters. The contestants were given five minutes to speak about themselves and 15 minutes to answer questions. The questions were selected from the audience by writing on a piece of paper after registration. It is from these questions that 41 were chosen to be read by the coordinator of the meeting to the contestants. All contestants were kept out of the hall during the meeting, and answered the same questions.

The ballot paper had all the five nominees and we were to vote by numbering all of them from one to five in order of preference. This method of voting is useful in case two nominees tie, automatically the second, third up to the fifth will set them apart without necessarily repeating the process.

The voting lasted about 30 minutes. All contestants were now brought in to witness the exercise. Mike Kane emerged a clear winner in the first count. I was very excited, considering that we had just met and done leafleting together. He was later to introduce me to other Labour party members as if we had known each other for years.

Upon learning that I was a journalist, Andy Western, the regional coordinator, asked if I could join the media team and introduced me to the in-charge, Katy Dillon.

Campaign trail

It was now time for everybody to come together and fight the by-election. A campaign office was opened up in the constituency to coordinate the campaign programme and related activities. All campaign organisers and volunteers would report first at the campaign office before being deployed to specific areas, mainly in groups of about five, and they would return to the same office to give reports and feedback, which would be updated on the computer. On the first day of the campaign, we went door-knocking in Sale area with our candidate Mike Kane in tow.

Liam, the lead person, would read out a list of names of all registered voters in a given household and in some cases their party affiliation. I was later to learn that this information is provided by the UK Electoral Commission upon request by the candidate. This in addition to information gathered in the previous campaigns gives a fairer picture of the potential voter one is about to speak to.

One person per household, I started as a 'shadow' but later graduated and did this on my own. I would knock on the door and once answered, I call out their names to verify "Mrs or Mr so and so... .Sorry to bother you, I am Enock calling from the local Labour party to speak to you about the upcoming by-election... ".

The response would vary. Some people would say straight away, "not interested" and slam the door; others would say "I am not a voter" or "have never voted".Depending on the mood and tone , one would seek to engage them further with a view of interesting them to take part. We would also mention to them that we have the candidate with us and call out his name..."Mike" and beckon him to come and speak to them and probably shake hands.

Others would say straight in your face: "I will not be voting Labour" or "I will be voting UKIP (UK Independent Party)" or "I am a Tory (Conservative Party)" etc. Again, depending on the mood, we would probe further why they wouldn't be voting Labour and follow up questions.

All answers given would be reported back to the lead person who would write them down against their names for analysis, updating of records and future action. It is a campaign but sandwiched with research seeking to know the real issues that affect the people and gauge the support enjoyed by the party, among others.

The most interesting bit was when Labour supporters answer their doors. These were always warm, chatty and supportive. We would also ask them if they would like to take a poster to display in their window or garden to show their neighbours and everyone that they would voting Labour.

But who said everyone would be willing to let you go? One woman who was passionate about Labour held my hand and kept telling me how she has been telling off other candidates that approached her for a vote and how great Paul Goggins was. It became tricky for me to end the conversation without coming off as rude. It had to take the intervention of other team members who joined in the conversation before they could tactically end it so we could proceed as a team.

Others would say: "I am a daughter or son of a miner; so, I will definitely vote Labour". Many former miners continue to support Labour as a way of expressing displeasure to the way Margaret Thatcher closed the mines in the 80s and the suffering that their families went through.

No posters were to be displayed in public places or trees. If no one answered the door, we would push through a leaflet customised to address the local issues of that area. We would use different leaflets for different areas throughout the constituency.

Labour big guns

The other exciting thing was rubbing shoulders with top Labour figures, whom I had hitherto seen in the media. Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband visited the constituency and held a rally at the Forum in Wythenshawe. The Labour Party is also a natural home for immigrants. Miliband is a son of an immigrant. He was confronted by the question of immigration, as British opinion is generally anti-immigrants.

"It was the compassion of the British people that offered refuge to my father that has allowed me to be standing before you," Miliband said. "We need to continue with that spirit because we are a compassionate country. Immigration benefits our country but has got to be fair," he said.

He was later to be followed by Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls, Shadow Home-Secretary Yvette Cooper with whom we had an informal chat about crime and disorder in our area; Shadow Justice Secretary Jack Straw and almost all the Labour MPs in the nearby and far constituencies, with whom we campaigned under very harsh weather conditions.

We came across a couple of Labour supporters who were saying they would vote online or by phone. This would not be possible as voting could only be done through the post, voting by proxy or in person on the polling day. It was our duty to offer them civic education to salvage those votes. Every vote matters in this case.

On the last weekend of the campaigns, I arrived at the campaign office when the team was about to set off to different areas. Many were having a photo opportunity Jack Straw, MP for Blackburn since 1979 and minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The campaign office was buzzing and there was no space to park. By the time I arrived at office, the photo opportunity session had ended and it was now time to go out on the doorstep.

I was allocated a team to go out with but as I was stepping out, Kane, the Labour candidate, called me out and said, "Enock come in and sit with Jack Straw in the back".

I had never thought of ever getting close to Straw in this way. We had a chat, he asked me about myself and in the conversation he mentioned that he would stand down in the next general election to give way to his son Will Straw, who has been selected as Labour candidate for another constituency, Rossendale and Darwen in 2015.

"I don't want to prejudice him; I would rather join him to fight that marginal seat than stand in his way," Straw said.

When we reached the area to campaign in, he started door-knocking just like the rest of the team. This boosted my morale. I could even mention to whoever answered the door that we had candidate Mike Kane and Jack Straw with us, although they never really seemed as excited as I was.

On the actual day of voting, we started going out at 6am targeting only people who promised to vote for Labour to prompt and encourage them to go and cast their votes. This went on between 6am and 10pm when voting stopped and counting started.

Labour's Mike Kane would later be declared as the duly elected MP with 55 per cent of the vote, up from 44 per cent last time. The Conservatives and their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, were relegated to the second and third place respectively by UKIP, which came distant second. This was a sweet victory, considering all the hard work in very harsh weather conditions.

"Manchester has rejected [Prime Minister] David Cameron today and the rest of Britain will reject him tomorrow," said Mike Kane, in his victory speech. "We've had enough of his utterly-out-of-touch government."

The next day, we were joined by Labour Leader Ed Miliband to celebrate the victory. In his speech Miliband said the results proved that there was only one party that could stand up to be on the people's side.

"We have the right message for the country, our opponents are retreating and we are advancing," he said amidst chants. The campaigns will now continue nationwide into next year's general elections where Labour hopes to win and form the next UK government.

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