“I’ll say this for you love, you’ve picked a great time to go into politics!” The man on whose door I had knocked guffawed loudly before adding kindly, “but I admire you anyway, I shan’t be voting this time, can’t trust any of them, but good luck to you all the same.” At least it was a friendly encounter. Not all of them were.
My timing was impeccable. With the Brexit mess obscuring everything and Parliament in meltdown, I decided to stand in a marginal seat for District Council election. As a Conservative candidate.
Demonstrating the same great timing back in the summer of 2008, bang on the eve of the financial crash, I used my BBC voluntary redundancy money to go into property development. It took a heck of a lot of hard work, but I managed to turn a decent profit back then, going on to buy, transform and sell six houses in the midst of a global depression. I reckoned I could apply the same grit to local politics.
I had been dipping my toe into the political waters for a while, trying on various activist roles for size. But finally cutting my 20-year staff and freelance ties with the BBC last summer meant I was now free to actually stand. I must admit it took a certain number of deep breaths to come out and nail my true political colours to one mast after so many years of being professionally impartial.
But I realised impartiality is easy. For large swathes of the population, particularly in organisations like the BBC, it is far easier to hide behind a cloak of neutrality and scoff at anyone who declares a political allegiance, especially if that allegiance is right of centre.
Easier and maybe a tiny bit cowardly? It takes guts to state publicly what you believe in and get stuck in, it’s so much easier to sneer from the sidelines.
I have many Tories who are friends, but not many friends who are Tories. However, I was able to muster a group of people who turned out in all weathers to help me shift pile after pile of postal vote reminders and manifestos. They did it because they like me, not necessarily my politics. A tolerant and supportive attitude that I wished more people possessed.
My sister even kindly offered to lend me her dog, a beautifully photogenic spaniel. Perhaps if I’d clipped a blue rosette to his collar he may have won me a few more voters’ hearts on the doorstep.
New to campaigning but coming from a journalistic background, knocking on doors was fairly straightforward. I am used to approaching complete strangers and trying to get them to like me sufficiently that they will tell me stuff. Canvassing took just a slight alteration in that I had to get them to like me enough to let me tell them stuff, before listening to them. Piece of cake.
My local Conservative Association was very supportive, driven by the commendable desire of its energetic, female Chair, to get more women to stand. But in this election where nothing could be taken for granted, every single candidate was busy fighting hard for his or her own seat, however “safe”.
Mostly I went out canvassing on my own; inexperienced, but keen, motivated but time poor. I have two children, a monthly live radio slot, two jobs, and a live-in father with Alzheimer’s to factor in. And I’m not by a long shot the busiest woman I know. Time, or the lack of, seems to be a large factor in why not nearly enough women put themselves forward for election. The Fawcett Society reports that 97 per cent of councils are male dominated and just before this recent election, the total proportion of female councillors in England was just 34 per cent.
There are, to put it bluntly, too many white middle-aged or elderly men occupying council seats, hardly representative of the population they serve. But who can blame women for not standing en masse when we’re already struggling to keep our own show on the road?
And there’s also an emerging threat of physical violence to contend with as the electorate boils with rage over the Brexit shambles and social media gleefully stokes the flames. Last month, one female candidate campaigning for Labour in Canterbury, was told that she might be “knocked out” if she knocked on certain doors; women in a lot of areas were being warned not to canvass alone.
So marginal was the seat I was fighting for – and so negative the public mood – the Lib Dems could have put up a yellow cuddly toy and it would probably have romped home. In fact the ‘big hitter’ candidate that they eventually deployed against me – wealthy, retired, white and male, naturally – is very fond of his Rupert Bear scarf and wears it often. I took his late appearance as a candidate as a compliment; I obviously presented a sufficient threat to draw in their top guns.
Even though Sevenoaks as a whole successfully bucked the national trend and remained under outright Conservative control, I personally lost by a huge margin. My 258 votes comprised just 12 per cent of the vote, compared to the Lib Dem candidate’s 683 and 686 votes respectively. The turnout in my ward was 36 per cent; out of nearly 3000 potential voters, only around a thousand bothered to vote. From what I encountered on the doorstep, voter apathy and anger over Brexit certainly accounted for much of this.
So will I do it again? Maybe. I do passionately believe that the only way to change things is from the inside out, and obviously we need more women in politics. I’m a big believer in putting my money where my mouth is, so now that I have valuable experience and my enthusiasm hasn’t been dented too much, all I can say is – watch this space.