It is twenty years since I stood against Sir Ted Heath. I look back with a sense of pride in a seat where Labour’s core vote has now dipped to just over 8,000 for two consecutive elections that I got 18,039 votes, only 3,569 behind the former PM on a 15.2% swing .
I first considered standing for Parliament in 1995, a year after I had been elected to Bexley Council. I inherited the Leisure Services portfolio during the selection contest. This enabled me to enhance my profile. Indeed, the day after being selected I made the Valley Gold draw at Charlton Athletic.
Millbank told me I was on my own and that all of my workers needed to work for Clive Efford next door in Eltham. This didn’t bother me. A candidate can always make their presence felt by intelligent campaigning .
My objective was to maintain a high visibility / low resource campaign which would make Heath worried and keep the Tories occupied in Sidcup. In 1992 Donna Briant had pushed the Lib/Dems into third place, but boundary changes had brought two of their wards into the seat and they had 8 Councillors compared to our 2. It was important that we retained second place.
The lack of outside help meant I needed by be creative. In those days, it was local papers rather than social media that was important. My doorstep canvassing was limited. We targeted the Lib Dem seat of East Wickham. I also topped up data in my own ward of Cray and on the eve of the election we came close to taking Sidcup East Ward in a Council by-election.
During the short campaign I concentrated on morning visits to railway stations, primary schools in the afternoon and pubs in the evening after canvassing . I utilised a loud speaker and visited various workplaces and old people’s homes. At the weekend we had street stalls in all of the main shopping areas .
Although the constituency boundaries were unrecognisable from the seat I contested in 1997, I had three living ex Labour MP’s in Lord George Wallace, Sir Ashley Bramall and Alastair MacDonald .
Lord Wallace was a victor in 1945 of the old Chislehurst and Sidcup seat. He lost in 1951, re-emerging as the MP for Norwich North between 1964/74. His big achievement for Sidcup was persuading Nye Bevan to open Queen Mary’s Hospital at the creation of the NHS. He worked in Harold Wilson’s private office in the two 1974 elections and was rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords. We held a 91st birthday party for George . This even made the local BBC News where my three predecessors enjoyed telling journalists anecdotes from the 1945 and 1966 elections.
Sir Ashley had an interesting parallel career with Sir Edward which stretched back to being student politicians at Oxford in the 1930s and they were actually de-mobbed on the same day after the Second World War together. Sir Ashley took Bexley in the 1946 by-election. Four years later in 1950, he lost to Heath by just 133 votes after the Communists had stood and split the vote. The continuing rivalry was even picked up by the Daily Telegraph’s Peterborough column in the last week of the campaign when they realised Sir Ashley had been out on the stump. Heath rather grumpily had said he had not got over being beaten in an election to the Oxford Union more than sixty years earlier.
Alastair MacDonald had achieved revenge for George Wallace in that he won the Chislehurst and Sidcup seat back in 1966, 8 days after I was born. Unfortunately his Parliamentary career only lasted four years.
There were even more wise veterans in my team. Jim Wellbeloved had been MP for Erith and Crayford, but defected to the SDP in 1981. Jim now lived in OB&S and rejoined Labour. On the first weekend of the campaign former Defence Minister Jim accompanied me to the Sidcup United Services Club along with Labour’s then Shadow and soon-to-be Defence Minister John Spellar .
I got Jim to sign my nomination form along with the Party’s former National Agent Walter Brown. It had been Walter who taught me how to canvass. His mantra was there was no such things as a doubtful. You needed to ask supplementary questions. It is good to see his legacy continue in the current canvass scripts.
Despite Millbank’s lack of help, one staffer – future Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson – played a role. Along with Margeret McDonagh, he helped me get photo opportunities with various Labour politicians and celebrities such as Alex Ferguson and Ross Kemp (Grant from Eastenders) at Conference. I used them to supplement my local press coverage to good effect.
Tom also visited OB&S when he was part of my entourage when he attended the Welling United vs. Kidderminster Harriers match at the start of the campaign. Welling was owned by the Hobbins brothers and had fallen out with the previous Tory Council regime. I had helped them with applications to the Football Trust and they hosted me, Tom and a couple of his old school friends when his hometown club played there. Unfortunately his team won 1-0 on the day.
Tom later told me that he won a sweep stake at Labour HQ because my swing was the largest of those nominated by his fellow staffers
By 1997 future Father of the House of Commons Gerald Kaufman was not considered to be a key campaigner. This surprised me because he was still well known and chaired the high profile House of Commons Leisure Select Committee. Therefore his brief complemented my Council one. The future Leader of the House made two visits. One for a constituency fundraiser and later during the short campaign. Both visits were covered widely in the local media.
I shared Gerald’s second visit with Nigel Beard and Howard Stoate who were standing in neighbouring Bexleyheath and Crayford and Dartford. Prophetically, Gerald compared the mood to 1945 and told me how soldiers returned from the war thanked Churchill for winning it and then voted Labour. He predicted that Dr Stoate would win, Mr Beard should win and that even I could win as the mood was moving decisively in Labour’s direction .
During an interview for the Telegraph Gerald speculated that I might topple Heath. Matthew Parris commented that would wipe the smile off his face to which the member for Manchester Gorton replied that to do that he would have to be smiling in the first place. That anecdote even made the paper review on BBC Breakfast.
I was later told that the local Tories were rattled. Jonathan Freedland wrote about the contest for the Guardian suggesting there was an outside chance of an upset. Heath had been told in no uncertain terms that he was not to play the Party grandee by accepting engagements to assist colleagues in other constituencies and that OB&S was to be his sole priority.
Indeed the week before election day the grocer even employed his former aide and ex Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to visit the local Tesco’s with him. I was also the first opponent since Sir Ashley Bramall in the 1950s who debated personally with him.
I met Heath once during the campaign when our respective teams were doing a walkabout in Sidcup High Street. The owner of the Chemist insisted on having his photograph with both of us separately. He almost apologetically said to me that he was only wanting Heath’s photo because he was an ex PM. He then promised me his vote .
In all my campaign exceeded expectations and my initial target of a good second place was reached with interest. The Referendum Party had mounted a strong campaign and the infant UKIP had also targeted the seat. It is ironic therefore that as someone who is staunchly pro-European that my name appeared on the Times’s list of Euro sceptics to vote for. They never asked me my opinion, but I suspect that it was who my opponent was that secured that endorsement .
In all my advice to the class of 2017 in non-target seats is enjoy the experience. It would be a great testing ground. I also regard it as a honour to represent Labour at a General Election especially as I was part of the class of 97.