Sarah Olney: Richmond Park By-Election was one of the best experiences of my life

Our newest MP has been talking to The House magazine, along with other recent by-election winners, about the Liberal Democrats’ winning campaign in Richmond Park. She described it as one of the best experiences of her life:

Running in a by-election was one of the best experiences of my life. I am very new to politics, I’ve never been involved in a parliamentary campaign of any kind, I’ve never been a candidate in any election before, so I had no idea what to expect. It was quite a high profile campaign, right from the beginning I was right in the media spotlight. For somebody who had not had any kind of profile of any sort before it was a massive learning curve.

My advice to Copeland and Stoke candidates would be to just go for it. Give it your all over the next few weeks. Go everywhere. Talk to as many constituents as you can. Do everything you can. Put your all into it. Be positive, be optimistic. But also don’t take it personally when people are beastly to you – because they will be.

There were times that she felt frustrated, though. There is a bit of a cultural thing, which is not entirely helpful, in the Lib Dems to treat candidates as though they are simply there to do as they are told. How often have you heard them described as “legal necessities?” Sarah said:

Mine was a high profile by-election, there was a lot of central office input and for me, what I found was that they tended to treat me like a cardboard cut-out. I was the candidate, I got moved from place to place and sometimes they stopped treating me like a human being, which was a bit frustrating.

It was like, ‘Sarah needs to do this, Sarah needs to do that, Sarah needs to do the other.’ I did call them up on it many times but they were just like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’ It wasn’t terrible but it was just one or two times where they did things and I’d be like “What? What am I doing?” And they’d say ‘you don’t need to know’.

There are going to be times in any campaign when people are working flat out and getting no sleep when things will be said that wouldn’t have been said in other circumstances. Campaign staff know what it takes to win. They’ve been doing this for years. They have tonnes of evidence and not always the time to explain everything in detail. If you have been around the Lib Dem campaigns culture and know these things, like former campaigns manager Willie Rennie had been in Dunfermline in 2006, you instinctively understand what is happening. Too much knowledge can bring its own stresses as well, though.

Every candidate sometimes has to take what their experienced campaign team has to say on trust. Every campaign team needs to make sure that their candidate feels properly supported. In my experience, a happy candidate brings joy to everyone and added energy to the campaign, so the goal is always to keep the candidate happy.

We are going to have a fair number of new candidates in the run up to the next General Election. We will have time to make sure that they know exactly what to expect. It is quite difficult to get across the pressures of a rapid by-election campaign at full pelt. It’s such a rare situation.

What we do know about Richmond Park is that the whole team, from literature writers, to front of house organisers, to strategists, to the thousands of members who delivered leaflets and knocked on doors and bought into the idea that we could do it, to an engaging and brilliant candidate, worked together to bring home a result that will be talked about as one of those moments in Lib Dem history. They should all be very proud of themselves.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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10 Comments

  • See the Canadian Liberal government has dropped Electoral reform, PR. There you go.

  • David Brenton 11th Feb '17 - 5:26pm

    Well done Sarah. I notice that the bye election victory in Richmond and many local successes has no resulted in us being invited on to Question Time. I have formerly complained to the BBC about UKIP/Farage being on every other week yet libdems not since last year. They have replied once about UKIP but are unable to get anyone to comment about the libdem question. Interesting. Perhaps supersmug Dumbledore is not cooperating? I will let you know “any answers”.

  • Matt (Bristol) 11th Feb '17 - 7:06pm

    Theakes – not directly relevant to the thread, but aaarrggghh:
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-reform-promise-referendum-1.3963533
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/federal-government-releases-electoral-reform-survey-findings/article33752806/

    Anyway, it’s good to hear Sarah more; she was often (unfairly, but perhaps understandably in view of what she says above) criticised by others for being a tool of the machine (although I acknowledge the LibDem machine strives to be a human machine). As our first new MP since 2005, she needs to speak with her own voice.

  • The last thing we need are candidates that are cardboard cut-outs.

    A combination of the devastation wrought in 2015 and the influx of new members means that we will have a lot of inexperienced PPCs. A strong input from experienced campaigners is going to be essential but we absolutely must let the freshness and enthusiasm of our candidates shine through. The electorate want change and individualism, not party hacks and professional politicians.

    The fact that Sarah Olney is willing to say this publicly suggests to me that she is not likely to be cowed!

  • Experienced campaigners sometimes … make mistakes!

  • theakes – how is that relevant to the main post ?

  • Tim: because in the midst of euphoria promises made are often not kept, even by those “cousins” we praise and use as an example of how to obtain power. Interestingly they are now falling back in the polls.

  • @Theakes and @Tim Hill: Enough on this subject. It has nothing to do with this article. Any further posts will be deleted.

  • Simon Banks 13th Feb '17 - 2:32pm

    How often have I heard candidates described as “legal necessities”? In fifty years of campaigning – never.

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