GENERAL ELECTION FEATURE: Hitchin and Harpenden Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Hugh Annand on the campaign trail
- Credit: Archant
The reprehensible terror attacks in Manchester and London have meant there has never been an General Election like this one, punctuated as it has been with acts of unspeakable and utterly cowardly violence.
But despite overseas reports Britain is reeling, there is a sense the best way to stand up to those who aim to strike at the things we hold dear – our liberty, our democracy, our freedom and our innate sense of fun – is to carry on as normal.
And that’s what the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Hitchin and Harpenden seat, Hugh Annand, has been doing.
Hugh, 43, said: “In terms of our democracy, our best response is to keep calm and carry on.
“Unfortunately these are becoming depressingly frequent. Any loss of life is a matter of great sadness for those affected.
“It is also a matter of great sadness that people feel compelled to do that sort of thing through a particular ideology or through being brainwashed.
“My thoughts are with all those affected.”
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Hugh, who grew up in this country through the IRA bombing campaign during the Troubles, has also seen the effect such terrible acts can have on a country’s psyche, as he was in Brussels during the bombings of March 2016.
He said: “I was only a few miles away from the airport. My office was halfway between the airport where the first attacks happened and the city centre. Although I was safe, it felt pretty close to home.”
But what has been instructive is the differing response to the attacks.
He explains: “For British people of my generation we all grew up with the Troubles, and Belgium had not experienced this type of thing before.
“It was a real shock to people, and I’ve seen people months later who are still shocked and appalled – as indeed they should be – but on a kind of emotional level I don’t see in Britain from many who have become slightly hardened by it.
“I don’t think the foreign press fully understand the resilience of Brits in the face of such things. Some people sensationalise things – look at Donald Trump and his team and the Hollywood nonsense ‘London has fallen’, which had more holes in its plot than a piece of Gruyère.
“But yes, people make of it what they make of it – what we need to make of it is that the best response to terror is to refuse to be terrorised.”
Respects duly paid to the bravery and courage of those affected as well as the heroic first responders, and the inspirational response of those caught up in the attacks, the conversation turns back to the cut and thrust of the campaign trail ahead of Thursday’s vote.
Unsurprisingly we move towards social media – as a refusal to be terrorised, Hugh says, comes in many shapes and forms – including displaying the sturdy irreverence of British humour.
Social media user Hugh is no stranger to that – particularly as Lib Dems leader Tim Farron sent a tweet as long ago as May 2015 saying it was important to talk to potential constituents directly through such platforms.
And it appears his party’s Hitchin and Harpenden parliamentary candidate Hugh Annand has taken his leader at his word – by sending a series of quirky tweets since being selected to fight the seat.
He says: “I like to keep people entertained. I like to show people that I’m human. Other politicians have been criticised for not putting anything on social media other than the party line and bland repetitive statements.
“I want to get away from that and be frank to people and respond to them. If someone asks me a question that is ‘close to the edge’ I will respond accordingly, as long as they’re not downright offensive and don’t deserve an answer.”
Mr Annand – who lists his address as Brussels on the official candidate forms – has been busy posting a weird and wonderful selection of messages, including announcing he had been accepted by the party as their official representative, writing: “Nomination papers accepted. I suppose that means I am officially official.”
The Lib Dem candidate also joked he was a ‘celebrity’ after he wrote: “OK, it seems I am a celebrity. An American porn lady started following me... so it must be true.”
He’s also not been shy in using jokes to make a point against Tory leader Theresa May and her mantra of ‘strong and stable’ during electioneering.
In a jokey discussion with a constituent discussing if it was important for candidates should be local to the seat, Hugh tweeted a picture of Tubbs and Edward – characters in the cult comedy series League of Gentlemen – adding: “I call it the Royston Vasey question.’
When asked if he was comparing ‘potential future constituents’ to the two characters he clarified: ‘Not so much potential future constituents. More party activists and journalists.”
He added on the topic: “This is a question that gets asked a lot. ‘Are you local?’ And of course it is good to have someone who has local knowledge, and cares about the area and those sorts of things. But there is a lot more than that to being a parliamentarian. You need to be able to listen without your prejudices, then go and articulate those views to the right authorities – whether that’s in parliament or doing local casework with local authorities, or talking to local businesses. A too-narrow focus on whether someone is ‘local’ or not doesn’t necessarily give you the best indication as to whether they’ll be the best parliamentarian.”
His response begs the question to Hugh – just what do you do in Belgium?
“I translate things. Mostly for the European Commission. Most of it is incoming correspondence from member states. It’s their response to proposals and to the infamous audit reports. One of my specialisms is agriculture and everything to do with the Common Agricultural Policy, fisheries, transport. The member states keep us updated on how they’re implementing the environmental targets, for example.”
But in terms of ‘local issues for local people’, as they used to say in Royston Vasey, it was hugely instructive to experience the reaction from the 350-strong crowd at Friday’s Hitchin hustings, when a large collective groan came from the audience when the debate turned to the issue of Brexit.
But Hugh is adamant.
“I think the opposite is true”, he said. “The reaction from the audience showed that people were very concerned. The question asked was: ‘What are you going to do about the people who will suffer from Brexit?’ Namely, the many people from other EU countries who live in the constituency and many from elsewhere too. I even came across an old colleague from my time in France in the 1990s, who became a British citizen and works in a local school in Harpenden. So people who come here to this country and pay their taxes to prop up the NHS should have their rights guaranteed. And the Conservative Party is equivocating about that. Human beings are not bargaining chips.”
But with Tory candidate Bim Afolami voting Remain, surely the Lib Dems’ trump card has disappeared?
“No, not at all,” says Hugh. “Bim is standing on behalf of a party that wants to move headlong into a ‘hard Brexit’. Theresa May voted Remain – or at least she supported the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. She’s doing nothing of the sort now. I just don’t think any Conservative with the possible exception of Ken Clarke can be trusted to defend the rights and freedoms that British people have enjoyed for the last 40 years, against Theresa May’s ‘hard Brexit’.”
With many in the audience actually hissing some of the answers Bim gave on the night – unheard of for a Conservative candidate in a seat with a majority of more than 20,000 – what did Hugh think?
“In Hitchin, which is very politically mixed – more so than the south of the constituency – you have people who are very concerned with the way things would look under another five years of a Tory rule,” he said.
“There is a perception the Conservative Party, and by extension Bim who is their candidate, are not being entirely truthful about what their intentions are.
“And certainly they’re not being entirely transparent with the information they’re giving – which is incomplete. For example the cap on costs for elderly care. They’re not saying at this stage – which is quite an important piece of information.”
Hugh is campaigning hard on the doorsteps of Hitchin. One man chimes with what the Lib Dem candidate has been saying and also attacks the Tories.
The man, who tells Hugh he is a floating voter, also tells Hugh with no little frustration in his voice: “Why on earth is Harpenden part of Hitchin’s constituency? They’re all Conservative there.”
He also fondly recalls the days of Shirley Williams to Hugh, who is ambivalent.
At first I think it is because he’s not sure who she is. But Hugh has a grasp on facts and figures, and personalities – as befits the great-grandchild of a South Shields Gazette editor. It suddenly dawns on me that despite the esteemed Baroness Williams sitting in the House of Lords for the Lib Dems, she actually represented Labour when she was MP for Hitchin from 1964 to 1974, then Hertford and Stevenage until 1979.
On the theme of Labour, a cheery woman answers the door and starts to talk about Jeremy Corbyn’s improving performance as a leader, certainly when compared to the drop in approval ratings for Theresa May over the last couple of weeks.
Hugh says of May’s faltering performance: “This is something that has just dawned on me over the last few days. People have been banging on about how Jeremy Corbyn is ‘unelectable’ – but Theresa May, unlike Corbyn, didn’t even win a leadership election. She was unelected and might also prove unelectable. It would be very interesting if she did.
“I don’t like cursing people as such, but Theresa May is possibly one of the people in this world I like the least.
“I think it’s unfortunate Tim Farron has had so little media exposure. When people see him and hear him and learn about our policies, then unless they are arch-Eurosceptics they will like what they hear.”
What does Hugh make of his boss?
“I think Tim Farron is a nice guy. If he has one fault it’s that he’s too humble.”
But what about his views on gay marriage and gay sex?
“There is a whole level of complexity. Tim is a lot more sound on LGBT rights than some make out. He did vote in favour of the legal marriage bill. There was one particular reading which he abstained on over a technicality, but on the crucial first and third readings he voted in favour of it if I remember correctly. People are obsessed with idea of sin.”
But Farron said only recently that he was in favour of gay sex, as he’d only mentioned gay marriage prior to that – how does that make Hugh feel as a gay man?
“I’m fine with it. I understand where he’s coming from in terms of this idea of sin. What matters is what role we think the state should play in our private lives. And we believe it should be minimal as we believe you should be able to do what you like as long as you’re not harming others.”
And so say all of us, with the possible exception of another candidate in the seat – Sid Cordle, the leader of the Christian People’s Alliance.
Hugh explains that Mr Cordle believed the storms the UK suffered a year or two ago were God’s response to the Equal Marriage Act being passed, before eviscerating the offensive argument with eloquence laced with a dryness bordering on withering irony.
He says firmly: “The only sin that is affecting the weather is mankind’s greed in terms of using fossil fuels and their lack of care for the environment.
“Climate change is a real and serious issue. I don’t think that people’s sex lives is what is driving climate change...”
Hugh sports a rather natty fedora while knocking on doors, and he regales me with a good-natured Lib Dem ditty about the dangers of letterboxes to those who post campaign leaflets. But there seems an unexpected nervousness to him at times that could be mistaken for aloofness, when it appears to be a well-concealed shyness.
It is only a minor point as he more than held his own in front of 350 people at the Hitchin hustings and on doorsteps of the campaign trail, but does this gentle man believe he has it in him to lead a 24-per-cent swing to his party in this seat?
He says: “If I could make an appeal directly to people who have voted Conservative in the past – because they’re concerned with the economy, because they want an environment where enterprise can flourish, where they can trade, and all those type of issues – I’d ask them to think seriously about whether they should continue to cast a vote for a party which is putting us at a risk of a seven per cent drop in GDP. A risk of losing privileged access to our biggest market, to losing a number of jobs in the City of London, which are already starting to disappear.”
A man with a stack of leaflets sees Hugh posting through letterboxes in Hitchin and asks which company he is from. Hugh graciously explains he is the Lib Dem PPC for Hitchin and Harpenden.
“Oh,” says the man, “I’m from a double glazing firm” – clearly relieved the man in the fedora is not from a rival company. “Good luck then,” he says cheerily, and wanders off.
And that, to me, seems to sum up the Lib Dems’ position in a microcosm – popular but utterly irrelevant as a competitor.
Unsurprisingly Hugh utterly disagrees, saying: “No, not at all.
“In the coalition we had nine per cent of the seats but we managed to get 70 per cent of our policies through.
“During the last parliament we won eight seats, which went up to nine when we won the Richmond by-election. We have candidates in pretty much every constituency in the country. If people want to take a serious look at where we want to take the country, to look at our policies and to vote for us, they will see that we are ready to form the next government.”
But wouldn’t it have been better if his party and Labour had decided to field a single candidate between them in a Tory stronghold, in order not to split the vote?
“No. We did consider that very carefully. If anyone’s interested there is a very long lead on the Hitchin and Harpenden Lib Dems Facebook page as to why we didn’t do that and what our reasoning was.”
And what was the reasoning?
“Essentially we feel the Labour Party is too far removed from us on this key issue of how we go forward with the EU from here – and they are pretty much identical to the Conservatives on that. And to withdraw from the race and leave it to two parties a cigarette paper apart on the defining issue of this election would be a travesty of democracy.”
It’s no reflection on the candidates personally but another travesty of democracy is the fact that many would-be Parliamentarians simply cannot do what Bim Afolami has done and take time off to campaign. Certainly not the Labour choice John Hayes – who nevertheless gave a strong and well-received performance in the Hitchin hustings.
But does Hugh think he could have done more in terms of campaigning?
“I would have loved to have done more. In November last year Theresa May was saying: ‘I’m not going to call an election until 2020. There will not be an election because I’m strong and stable, yadda, yadda, yadda.’ So I thought: ‘Well, 2017 is the year I’ll be able to make plans for my private life’.
“So I booked this trip with my elderly parents-in-law to take them on their first-ever long-haul trip aged 68 and 69 – in what turned out to be slap-bang in the middle of the campaign. But I was not going to say to my mother-in-law sorry: ‘I’m going to cancel because Theresa May can’t make up her mind.’”
As I leave Hugh – erudite, civilised Hugh – to his canvassing, something he said to me earlier sprang to mind, when he talked about fighting the staunch Labour seat of South Shields in 2015.
He said: “The great thing about fighting a seat like that is that there’s no pressure on you to win, so no-one expects you to win.”
With a full 27,000 votes to make up in overhauling the Tories, based on the results in Hitchin and Harpenden from two years ago, it will be one hell of a celebration party if he does it.
Yet, whatever numbers Hugh polls, you can be sure he will keep calm and carry on.
Just like this great country of ours.