Impressions – from a very small cog in the Witney wheel

Purposeful efficiency at the Corn Street headquarters, a fair-sized room full of people moving about. Friendly greeting from the man with the large-shelved bookcase stuffed with leaflets and letters, whisked to the registration desk with people busy at computers behind it, more friendly smiles plus tea and cake.

It was the middle of Tuesday afternoon. And there was the candidate, Liz Leffman, pausing between trips out, pleased to meet another Cumbrian volunteer. I had just missed Tim, apparently, now on his way back to London after his fourth, penultimate, visit. (How had he managed four? I’d heard him address the North-West Lib Dems’ conference in Lancaster the previous Saturday afternoon.)

Now it was time to work. Here were three volunteers, two men and a woman, about to go out in a car to a Witney estate. Would I join them? Within half an hour, equipped with large bundles of leaflets and letters, a map and a list of the exact houses to be delivered, I was starting my round: leaflets for every house, addressed letters for many of them. There were no posters up. A man walking a dog smiled, but one householder thrust back the leaflet and letter, saying crossly that her daughter was at Uni but wouldn’t be voting Lib Dem anyway.

It was easy work for me on that modern estate with its clearly numbered houses. Yet after two hours I found my head was spinning slightly, my shoulders ached and my neck was cold.  Why was this simple exercise wearing me out much more rapidly than Cumbrian fell walks? I was glad when my companions, a bit younger and faster than me, rang to say they were finished and came to help me complete my second road. Apparently they had done nine hours’ delivering the day before. I thought, I couldn’t have done that.

They said they were camping out in the big house of a generous local Lib Dem. That took me back. Where had I done the same as a student Liberal? Wasn’t it Nuneaton? The candidate there didn’t get in (are there Lib Dems now in Nuneaton?), but in Colne Valley our late-lamented Richard Wainwright did, and of course David Steel in Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles. Happy days!

As dusk fell we re-entered headquarters: the room full of people listening to, presumably, the chief campaign manager, urging everyone to further efforts, and Liz being happy with all that had been done. Then there was a surprise – a little birthday cake with candles for Tom, one of my three companions, who had chosen to spend his 30th birthday like this, a true Lib Dem. ‘He’s just half my age’, muttered the man next to me with a rueful smile, no doubt recalling like the rest of us past birthdays and past campaigns as well.

But there was more work to be done. Would I go out and canvass with someone else? enquired the efficient woman organiser. I braced myself for the expected cold, regretting not bringing scarf, hat and gloves. However, I was reprieved. Liz would have to be driven back to her home in Charlbury by and by, could I take her? Meantime she would have some supper at the Three Horseshoes down the road, since it was good to be seen in the local hostelries.

I joined her there, with three new companions, and talk flowed over the quick meal. Then Liz and I walked to my car and I drove her home along the country roads in the dusk. I’d already absorbed what an excellent standard-bearer she was for us, and it was good to hear more about her life.

Next morning we were going to Chipping Norton – splendid! Surely the epicentre of our fantasy enemy, the uncaring Tory, indifferent to the plight of the poor! Liz was there in the centre, with her entourage including her (I presume!) P.A. for the day, one Paddy Ashdown.

A tall man carrying a large number of leaflets spotted my rosette, and came over to see who I was. This was Ian, all the way from Edinburgh, been there since Saturday, doing his own deliveries after collecting each morning from HQ. He had plenty of deliveries left, so I joined him and we drove to a spot in the town where we could each take a long street. And just as I finished mine at the top of a hill, I met up with Ed and helped him finish a last little estate and drove him back to Witney.

Ed’s satnav led us through quiet golden-stone villages which I remembered from living here, talking of his impending move from London to live in Chesterfield, and of art and the poetry of Blake and Keats. We were bumping over far more sleeping policemen than there used to be, on little roads all now speed-limited. Still, there were obviously a lot more sleeping Liberal Democrats waiting to be roused by the good fairy Liz and her many attendant elves.

It was the afternoon before Polling Day. Sal Brinton was at HQ, just back from canvassing. I had last seen our President at Lancaster the previous Saturday: wheelchair travel must be remarkably quick!

After greeting her I tackled a last job in a little estate by the river and just managed the deliveries in the gathering dusk. Back at HQ I was in time to hear the final urging of the campaign manager to everyone to pull out all the stops next day, and hear Liz’s final warm words, about her pleasure whatever the outcome of this splendid four-and-a-half week campaign. I looked at her, still fresh-faced, calm, friendly and capable, and said my farewells with regret. The gargantuan task undertaken by all involved would, as we know now, have an outcome which seems completely deserved, and is now being rightly celebrated.

 

* Katharine Pindar is a long-standing member of the Lib Dems and an activist in the West Cumbrian constituency of Copeland and Workington.

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