These reminiscences are part of a loose series that began with this article.
Even for local elections, there’s a big count. In our case, it was in the sports hall with every candidate in the west of the county milling around with their supporters (if any – I was surprised and gratified to find a couple of people who were there for me). Being a bit naive, I sought out the Labour candidate for the seat I was contesting. She was expected to be a shoo-in, they ran the town, and they’d been campaigning like mad, but I thought I’d be polite and wish her luck. She growled. Literally, she growled like an animal and turned away. Later I found that there are a lot of Labour supporters who hate the other parties, and anyone who is a member of those parties, not disagree with, actually hate. To them, it’s war. The Cons are less aggressive but more effective. The LibDems think that the world would be nice if everyone were nice. But I digress.
The result was announced, I’d lost by ten votes. Until I lost, I didn’t want to win, but having lost, I was disappointed. Up came to a chap I’d met earlier, very keen, full of bounce, who egged me on. Maybe it’s a counting error; you’re still in with a chance. I asked for a recount. The result was me by five or thereabouts. Another recount, me by twelve. I smiled at the losing Labour candidate, who growled, and I said to myself, Councillor Flood, what the Hell are you going to do now?
Have you ever wondered what a county councillor does? Me too. At a gathering in the town to introduce the new recruits, I was chatting to another rather boggled UKIP councillor when we were buttonholed by a woman who asked, reasonably enough, what we did. I burbled and bluffed, hoping the other man would give her a more sensible answer. He too, I realised after five minutes, was burbling and bluffing – in fact, looking back, I can see why Boris Johnson does that. I’d have to find a role in short order.
The annual town meeting saw some fireworks. We were introduced. A Labour woman demanded to know why I was a councillor when I didn’t even live near the town, knew nothing, and smelled of poo. OK, I exaggerate, but not by much. I pointed out that it wasn’t up to the Labour group who became a councillor, the good people of Haverhill had voted for me, and I’d do my best for them.
Start small. Someone had complained about branches growing over a footpath on one of my estates (my estates!), stopping the young mums from getting through with their pushchairs. Simple, find out who did that sort of work, ring then up and point out the problem and get it done. You no doubt know the telephonic circle of Hell. You ring A, who tells you to ring B. You ring B, who tells you to ring C. You ring C… By the end of the day, you are told by X to ring A. “Gracious me!” I exclaimed (or words to that effect), “this is ridiculous. It’d be quicker to do it myself!”
I got my saw, loppers and secateurs, parked next to the offending tree and had at it. The task was satisfying in itself because I was beating the obstructive system. Better still, the man who’d made the complaint came past, watched me for a minute, nodded, then wandered off. For the next four years, he took the mickey in a very good-natured way, teasing me about being unable to get the council to do its job. That was my introduction to my division, and it couldn’t have been better.
I found out what a county councillor does. Anything. Anything and everything. I fought and defeated a wind turbine above my town, which would have lowered nearby house prices by 12%, a near-miraculous achievement as the rules are written to favour the sort of people who own the land and have the influence to put up one of these monstrosities. I spent my locality budget on the library, on vital road repairs, on the respite care café, on clubs and training facilities, and whatever came up, fought against the closure of a children’s centre and lost. I stood next to some old garages with a bat detector, trying to stop over-development on estates that were already some of the most crowded in Suffolk and lost, funded a church café which encouraged kids to get out of their bedrooms to play Pokemon in the open air. I educated the rest of the councillors in Suffolk about what a joke their boast about being the greenest county was meant in practice. In retrospect, the comparison of the result to the cooling effect of standing on a small chihuahua was a mistake. I exposed what was going on with councillors abusing training budgets to hide the fact that they were using taxpayers’ money at the expense of my people, and learnt that the local press didn’t give a damn.
I helped at six by-elections from Manchester to Kent, one general election and several local elections in Suffolk, not all lost, which got me walking fit. Looking back, I can see that I was getting angrier week by week. We were the third biggest group, but we were helpless, putting forward motions that were voted down by everyone else, protesting and being ignored. Meanwhile, our party, that was supposed to be supporting us, was falling apart, with leadership contenders I’d not have let walk up my garden path, with campaigns that had nothing to do with my people and their problems, with rivalries which from our point of view looked like bald men squabbling over a comb. Grit your teeth and defend your people was the mantra that kept me going.
My people. There it is. My job was to defend about ten thousand souls from the greed and indifference of the rich and the powerful. They were my people. And I was losing. At a full council meeting, one Conservative leader made a disparaging remark about my town, my people. Two of our number had to pull me back to my chair as I leapt up, ranting, prodding with my finger across the chamber. “The problem with the Conservative party is not that you don’t understand. You don’t care!” He looked a bit ashamed, which was a miracle in itself. But it didn’t make any difference. Bury St Edmunds still got the bulk of the attention and money. The local press ignored our achievements and mocked our failures.
Some memories. During the 2015 general election, I worked up a bit of patter, a brief resume of my autobiography ending with ‘and even though they were pretty good jobs, the best job I’ve ever had is looking after Haverhill.’ It went down so well that the Con candidate nicked it and used it at a Haverhill meeting. “The best job I’ve ever had is being the MP for Haverhill.” Voice from the back: “But you’ve never had a proper job, have you, Matthew.” I love that gutsy town.
We came second with nearly 22% of the vote. We were never considered a target seat, never given any help or advice or press coverage, not a single word of support from those supposed to be our leaders. But Brexit was the goal, and we couldn’t rock the boat. We plugged away, doing our job in spite of rather than because of those in charge.