Never having been involved in a Parliamentary campaign before, I didn’t know what to expect when I volunteered for service between Tuesday 21st and Monday 27th January 2014. All I knew was that Lisa Duffy, Party Director, was arranging accommodation for volunteers staying over: a train journey from Redcar East to Manchester Airport took me near to the scene of action.
Lisa’s temporary HQ was in Ravenstone House, Sale, where she had been loaned an office by a businessman supporter. Everyone could tell he supports the Party, because a huge UKIP flag flies right next to the Union Jack on his building. The office was fine, but it wasn’t in the shopping precinct where passers-by could see it and walk in off the street. Therefore, Lisa was in the process of renting an empty shop to establish as Campaign HQ for the duration. Time was spent examining a map of the Wythenshawe and East Sale constituency, welcoming returning leafleters who had already covered various wards, and listening to their stories of encounters with voters and dogs.
The accommodation at Manchester Airport Hotel was much better than I expected and paid for by Mr Alan Bown, a staunch supporter of UKIP for many years. There was a discount for having most of the First Floor occupied by UKIP campaigners! Heartfelt gratitude was our feeling toward Mr Bown and his generosity, as there is nothing like a good night’s sleep and a substantial breakfast to set you up for a day of Manchester weather.
First thing Wednesday morning we collected the keys and surveyed the empty corner shop from outside. The word ‘Cobblers’ was signposted in very large letters on two sides of the premises. Had Labour supporters made an early strike? No – this had once been a shoe mender’s. Lisa immediately gave the word: no UKIP material should be displayed until the ‘Cobblers’ sign had been covered over with banners. She didn’t want any passing joker to spot a tweeting opportunity. Once the grimy shutters were up and we entered the shop, it was clear that much work needed to be done before a single UKIP leaflet could be unpacked, let alone displayed.
Imagine a dark (no electricity), comfortless (no water or working loo) dirty shop that has been shut up for months, perhaps a year, from which the previous renters had fled, leaving behind a hefty electricity bill and piles of rubbish. Yes, this was the Campaign HQ which had to be ready for next morning’s Press Conference to announce the name of the UKIP Parliamentary candidate, John Bickley.
Let us draw a veil over the unsavoury details of the next few hours of toil and trouble. It was fortunate that an Aldi opposite stocked all the cleaning materials needed for four of us to effect a transformation by nightfall.
Lisa had to sift through the heap of unopened mail to find the electricity provider, who at first seemed to expect her to pay the outstanding bill before they would agree to restore the power. Then they said they would be round the next morning (some time) to reconnect us. Lisa, who has organised many a campaign and prepared many such empty shops as HQs all over the country, Lisa knew better than to rely on this arrangement. Off to B & Q she went to hire a petrol-driven generator and a tripod with two halogen lamps. And she was absolutely right: the ‘lecky’ men did not arrive the following day, nor the day after. Of course, there was no chance over the weekend, and when I went home on Monday morning, Lisa was still hoping they would turn up that day, but prepared to keep the generator going with cans of petrol from the nearest garage.
Our first visitor was an official-looking young salesman who entered through the cloud of dust emanating from the shop doorway. He examined the fire extinguisher (being used as a door stop) with a sharp intake of breath and cheerily informed us it was 20 years out of date and we would have to buy a new one forthwith – from him. Otherwise the Fire Chief would hear of it and be unhappy about our failure to observe safety regulations. The new fire extinguisher was purchased and fitted, and Lisa made a firm note to take it with her after the campaign to use elsewhere as UKIP property.
At the close of that day, the shop was cleaned and swept, the banners with John Bickley’s face on them covered the original signs, the freshly-washed windows were edged with campaign leaflets, correx campaign boards were erected, purple and yellow balloons hung to give an air of festivity, and everywhere you looked was the message : “Vote UKIP, vote John Bickley”. Lisa’s tireless organisation of an ever-changing stream of volunteers had achieved this, alongside the continuing leafleting of the wards. All this while coping with endless phone calls and writing press releases.
That evening, the whole team, with the addition of local supporters, plus Louise Bours (North West MEP candidate) gathered in the hotel bar to be interviewed for the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4. Against a background of laughter and chat, they recorded interviews with every person round the tables. I was the member “who came from a Labour heartland and had voted Labour in the past”. The programme was aired at 7.20 am on the Friday, all that material condensed to 4 minutes. To my surprise, mine was the (very Teesside) voice heard the most – given more airtime than Lisa or Louise. They didn’t mind though, as the whole piece was fair to UKIP and even featured an admission from Labour’s Hazel Blears that UKIP is a threat to Labour in the North West.
Having managed the interview well enough, I did not cover myself in glory on Thursday morning. An official-looking man entered the shop and began to examine the walls and fittings. Wary, after the fire extinguisher experience of the day before, and wondering what he might want to point out as ‘against regulations’, I asked “Who are you, please?” to which he replied “The Candidate”. Yes, it was John Bickley, whose attractive visage had been staring at me from over the door and around the walls for some hours. He treated my faux pas with good grace. John is not a career politician, but a local man from Wythenshawe. He has worked in various fields and runs his own business – just the kind of representative we need more of in the House of Commons.
Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall attended the Press Conference to field some of the questions after John had made a statement announcing his candidacy. Press and TV cameras circled the room and came in and out of the shop. Suddenly, I saw Terry Duckworth of ‘Coronation Street’ fame standing among the reporters and thought I must be mistaken. But I wasn’t: the actor who plays Terry also works as a reporter for the ‘Daily Mirror’ and was interested in an informal interview with Nigel Farage. Lisa promised to see what she could do.
After the excitement, it was back to work and for the rest of Thursday and Friday I wandered in the wilds of Wythenshawe delivering leaflets until it was too dark to see the puddles I was trying to avoid. Luckily, I always had a partner who could read the map and work out which bits we had to do next without encroaching on another area that might already have been covered. We encountered many cats who ran after us hoping we would let them into their house, and the people we spoke to were kind and friendly.
One couple approached us at lunch in a cafe, apologising for interrupting our meal but feeling they must express their firm support for UKIP. We felt like celebrities!
On Saturday morning, everyone was present and correct at the shop, rosette ribbons flying and ready to greet Nigel Farage on his flying visit. There were three times as many TV crews and reporters than on Thursday and Nigel gave a lengthy interview inside the shop with newspaper reporters before moving outside to conduct another with Granada TV. Then he went walkabout with John Bickley, chatting to shoppers in the precinct, followed by hordes of cameramen, soundmen with furry microphone booms, scribblers and snappers. One delighted lady who had just spoken to Nigel informed me “I’m going to be on telly!”
The last thing I saw before setting off with my load of leaflets was Terry Duckworth interviewing Nigel at the back of the shop. As I learned later, many people walked into the shop all the rest of that day, expressing interest, offering to distribute leaflets in their neighbourhood, picking up UKIP badges, balloons, key rings, DVDs, bracelets, beer mats and rattling their donations into the collecting tin.
Sunday was my last full day in Wythenshawe and, despite some aches and pains in the legs, I made the rounds of the Roads, Streets, Walks, Groves, Crescents and Closes of Wythenshawe, enjoying the feeling of having made a contribution to the campaign and hoping for that breakthrough to Parliament that UKIP needs.
I said my goodbyes to the team on Sunday evening, knowing I wouldn’t see them in the morning (every day was a very early start) and one or two asked if they would see me at another by-election. “Maybe” I said.
“Oh, we’ll see you again,” one said. “Once you get into them, you always want to do another.”