Ten reasons why we wrote Fourth to First

I confess to knowing very little about anything – in particular political campaigning. But one thing I can talk about at length is how we did it in a small rural patch of North Norfolk (six shops, four pubs, two petrol stations and zero towns), going from fourth position last time to first in May 2017 with a majority of 420.

It was the first time I’d fought a campaign from start to finish, and it was quite a ride. So much so that Freya, my sister and campaign manager, and I decided to write a book about it called Fourth to First.

Regularly topping the top 40 within Amazon’s “Books > Society, Politics & Philosophy > Government & Politics > Political Structure & Processes > Elections & Referendums” category (what other category would readers of this blog even look at?!) – it was hardly a money-spinning undertaking. Instead, here are ten reasons why we did it:

1. To get information out of the heads of experienced campaigners and into the hands of everyone. I don’t know if our party’s reluctance to talk about tactics is because people are afraid that the Tories will steal our ideas if we share them… I certainly don’t know many Tories who would be willing to go to the lengths we went to and if there are, well, good on them: at least their communities will get hard working local representatives. We wanted to produce something that told the true, warts-and-all account of how to win a campaign so our fellow candidates and potential candidates had something to go by.

2. We’ve got to do something about the recruitment problem in our party, which is a function of politics in general. It’s not just that not enough capable, different people are coming forward to stand – it’s that not enough capable people of any variety are choosing to go into politics. I believe we’ll only change this when we can make politics a more attractive career path for talented, ambitious people who care about the society they live in. Telling the story of how we did it is our contribution to making trudging around in the snow delivering bits of your fingers through letterboxes sound more attractive.

3. Half the truths we take for granted are bogus. Like the frequency of literature mattering more than whether people find the content useful, interesting or entertaining. Or that you shouldn’t talk about your values on the doorstep. We wanted to work out what was right, root out the rubbish, and share the results.

4. We wanted to show that political campaigning can be tremendous fun. Putting yourself out there is nerve-racking, but it reveals a beautiful diversity about our species. No other job lets you step briefly inside people lives in such a wide-ranging way; it’s both humbling and deeply fascinating.

5. A lot of our success is simply about how we got out and spoke to voters. Listening to people is the best way to understand why they do things like vote Brexit, and it will make you a better politician and a better liberal. Most of the people I’ve met who voted to leave are competent, rational people who didn’t believe the bogus bus any more than we did.

6. To share the list of things you need in order to succeed – at the top of which is having someone like Freya. Freya has the fortitude of an ox and a near-fanatical belligerence that gets things done. There are more people like her out there. And you might not even need to work quite as hard as we did.

7. To put people off. I implore you not to stand as a half-hearted gesture, because it means your politics will be half-hearted. There are lots of people who really believe in our cause, and lots more of them would vote for us if we actually started behaving like we intended to win, and that means focusing our efforts where we will (even if not on the first go).

8. To debunk the myth of “where we work we win”, which is gold-plated nonsense. Working hard is not enough. Besides, a statement whose opposite is self-evidently true has little value. We wanted to know how much of what sort of work we needed to do in order to win, because I wasn’t going to stand unless I thought we could. This book will save you some of the hassle.

9. Showing that it can be done. We went from fourth to first and I hope that, in sharing our experiences of this campaign, you will find you can do it too.

10. Local politics matters and can change people’s lives. Radical change at national level might seem like a long way off, but even just campaigning can radically change individuals’ lives for the better. What some of us might see as trivial things can have a transformative effect on people’s happiness. And action and activism rub off and leave legacy – even if you don’t do it first time round.

* Fourth to First is written by Steffan Aquarone and Freya Aquarone and is available from Amazon here: and available also in pdf and epub here.

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14 Comments

  • ” To debunk the myth of “where we work we win”, which is gold-plated nonsense. ”

    Thank Cthulhu for that. This one has been one of my biggest bugbears for years.

  • And where we don’t work we never win, nor do we deserve to. I prefer item 7. “To put people off. I implore you not to stand as a half-hearted gesture, because it means your politics will be half-hearted”.

    It also helps to stand for policies seen as relevant, appreciated and understood by the electorate – which I don’t see particularly highlighted in these ten commandments.

  • David Blake 20th Nov '17 - 6:35pm

    I’m slightly concerned that the opposition will get hold of it and use it to win more seats…

  • paul barker 20th Nov '17 - 6:45pm

    I presume that 7 is not saying -” dont ever stand paper candidates”, merely that we all need to think seriously about what we are willing to do & be honest with ourselves & each other.
    Targetting implies that some wards will have paper campaigns with the candidate doing very little or nothing in the Ward they stand in. That is vastly better than having no candidate in some Wards, the only alternative if we are serious about Targetting at all.

  • Nice article, and you obviously had a great win. But I would gently take issue with #3. I don’t think many of the traditional campaigners in this party would argue that the content of leaflets doesn’t matter, or that we should never talk about our values on the doorstep.

  • Mick Taylor 20th Nov '17 - 8:32pm

    Many of the leaflets we put out, especially so-called surveys are an insult to the electorate.
    If we are going to survey people – and I think we should – then the surveys should be a serious attempt to find out what people actually think, rather than a series of biased questions designed to get people to agree with you.
    When I started in local politics in 1973, we used to produce leaflets that actually informed people about local and national issues and what we thought about them. The current ‘wisdom’ is that this sort of leaflet is too wordy and that people won’t read them. Well my experience is that people don’t read our leaflets anyway, probably because they are so trite.
    So I think that a return to serious information based leaflets linked to real local campaigns is long overdue.

  • Andrew McCaig 21st Nov '17 - 8:05am

    Another hear hear for Mick Taylor!
    The people who vote in local elections are the people most likely to read every word in a Focus leaflet… Give them positive words to read and they will respect you for it! As the election approaches the words may get fewer, of course..

  • chris moore 21st Nov '17 - 8:30am

    Hi Steffan

    You are right about Leave voters. They are as rational as we are. And deserve our respect.

    The party needs to really take that on board. We have alienated much of our former key support, by running a single issue general election campaign: for a second referéndum. We have to find a less quixotic way of being pro-European.

  • OnceALibDem 21st Nov '17 - 9:27pm

    “But I would gently take issue with #3. I don’t think many of the traditional campaigners in this party would argue that the content of leaflets doesn’t matter”

    This was Campaigns Dept orthodoxy in 2000-2010. They once had a whole conference with material branded “more leaflets = more votes”. That certainly ran through to 2010 when target seats were rated on how many leaflets they delivered each month. And some were really dreadfully generic. When it got to the point where campaigns officers were seriously telling people to deliver three leaflets at once I stopped taking them seriously.

    “The people who vote in local elections are the people most likely to read every word in a Focus leaflet” Undoubtedly true. Though in a general election twice as many people vote when this isn’t as true.

  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Nov '17 - 9:45pm

    This is a really interesting observation:

    ‘Most of the people I’ve met who voted to leave are competent, rational people who didn’t believe the bogus bus any more than we did.’

    If the internet is anything to go by (admittedly a dangerous way of thinking!) then a lot of people across the political spectrum really need to dwell on your remark. There seems to be no shortage of vitriol but a real shortage of thought as to why LEAVE got so many votes. Indeed, something in the order of a third of the then LDP vote I believe broke for LEAVE.

    Perhaps real life debate isn’t what the internet would have us believe it is. But the observation made in this article about LEAVE voters is, to my mind, an astute one. What to do about it is – of course – another matter.

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