Yesterday I went to the May Fayre in Portsmouth, and the candidates who will stand in the forthcoming General Election for the main parties in Portsmouth South were all there. The tower of St Mary's parish church, as the Victorians who built it intended, rose above us and our tight-packed urban homes in godly oversight. Gerald Vernon-Jackson, who remains the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for that Party's once strong seat of Portsmouth South, handed out leaflets, words and helium balloons with a handful of colleagues from a small table jutted up against Margaret Foster's annual trinket stall.
It's all to play for in Portsmouth South. Pundit Iain Dale predicts a Conservative hold, but both the Lib Dems and Labour aim to surge. This General Election will undoubtedly affect our country for decades. It worries me. It frustrates me. And, as a left-of-centre pragmatist - a liberal, basically - I can't help but think of the one who got away ... and I can't help but wonder why a local party chooses to learn nothing from the past whilst its future crumbles. Yes, there are infinite futures out there - but you're not going to get one of the good ones if you keep making self-destructive decisions.
The supposedly smooth transition from Mike Hancock MP to his unofficial successor GVJ infamously turned into one of the worst baton-passing political shitshows ever, taking place over a painfully long period of time and under the full glare of not just the media but also Nick Clegg and Tim Farron, peaking in 2014. I'd personally had enough by January 2014 of the Portsmouth Lib Dems and what I saw as their mishandling of the Mike Hancock debacle, and resigned from the Lib Dem Cabinet (on which I served as the sole surviving woman member, out of nine members) and from the Lib Dem Group of councillors. I was done.
Into the midst of this maelstrom in 2014, in advance of the General Election in 2015, walked a potential parliamentary candidate for the Lib Dems who was intelligent, credible, articulate, and local. Tamora (Tam) Langley had attended Priory School in Portsmouth - which was my son's school - and had a long history with the Lib Dem Party and promoting women's political participation.
Her message was clear, eloquent and hopeful - if the Portsmouth Lib Dems picked her as their prospective parliamentary candidate, she would bring talent, dedication and a fresh start. It was certainly true that Tam was untainted by what had happened with Hancock - and she brought so many other strengths with her as well. She had (has) a great CV, a brilliant professional and political track record, and a wonderful real-life and media persona. She knows Portsmouth inside out, as well as London and parliament. In 2014, as now, people knew her name and her face. She helped with local campaigns and she had appeal not just to Lib Dem voters but also to 'soft Cons' and 'soft Labour'. Her literature, produced for the membership of the Portsmouth Lib Dem local party, was constructive, forward-thinking and offered the local party a way out of being forever anchored to a tarnished Hancockian past.
So what happened?
The Portsmouth Lib Dems dropped the ball. They selected their selection committee, and the committee selected a shortlist of three - GVJ, Tam Langley and David McBride; and then the local Party had the final meeting that would probably change the course of its history forever - they voted by majority to pick GVJ. That was the local Lib Dem Party's right, and that was their majority decision to make. They went into the General Election in 2015 expecting to hold Portsmouth South. As Liberal Democrat Voice wrote, on GVJ's selection as parliamentary candidate, 'this is a strong Lib Dem seat.'
The decision not to select Tam Langley met with surprise and some derision on Lib Dem social media outside of the Portsmouth bubble. Jo Christie-Smith commented on the Liberal Democrat Voice website, 'Well, that is a shame and a wasted opportunity to get one of our fantastic female approved candidates (I mean really, this woman has a really senior career, grew up in the constituency, is an experienced candidate, has bags of energy and really wants to change the status quo) into an approved seat. I really do despair of this party.' Keith Reed agreed. 'I absolutely agree. This is the quite brilliant woman candidate http://tamoralangley.nationbuilder.com/ who would have moved the local party on from its recent troubles.'
Nassar Kessell, a pro-GVJ Portsmouth activist, in the same Comments section on Liberal Democrat Voice defended the selection, saying that the 'more local, experienced candidate won'. I found this comment puzzling, as (a) Tam was born and brought up in the city, unlike GVJ, and had plenty of relevant experience, thank you very much, and (b) the reason reported by The News for Lee Hunt's defection from the Tories to the Lib Dems in January 2009 was that he didn't approve of Flick Drummond being a parliamentary candidate when she wasn't originally from Portsmouth. In fact Lee Hunt was earlier quoted in The News as saying, 'I do not feel Flick Drummond can represent Portsmouth. We should have a local candidate, not someone from Winchester'. In making 'local' such a big issue, the Lib Dems tied themselves up in knots, but they didn't care and there was no-one able to hold them to account - and that's the sort of 'logic' you just can't fight because like a knotweed it will evolve and adapt to cover over all eventualities.
Other 'reasons' for Tam's non-selection doing the rounds of the Portsmouth Lib Dem tricoteuses included them casting aspersions on her childcare arrangements. For fuck's sake. When would any male Lib Dem candidate ever be subjected to a negative reception over his family's childcare decisions? Pathetic. And presumably against the Party's rules.
For the Portsmouth Lib Dems, losing the seat was unthinkable. They were right, always right. Their literature was uber-confident and triumphant going into the final weeks of campaigning, proclaiming 'Gerald Vernon-Jackson Set To Win!'
But GVJ lost - and he lost badly. The local party that had bucked the national trend since 1997, through a combination of hard work, determination and local popularity simply flopped. I wasn't hugely surprised that Team Lib Dem lost, as the national swing away from the Lib Dems was pretty punishing - but the scale of the loss in Portsmouth South was remarkable. GVJ lost to the Conservative Flick Drummond, a woman candidate who interestingly had refused to 'play dirty' in her election literature. She didn't want to; and she didn't have to. Flick's share of the vote since she stood in 2010 didn't rise very significantly, but the Lib Dem vote fell like a stone.
The behaviour of some of the Lib Dems towards me at the count that I attended the following day, to watch the contesting of council seats, was typically revealing of their misunderstanding of their own role in what was happening to them, and my motives in resigning. These were my last days on the Council, after 13 years' service. I had some goodbyes to say. But for many of those who considered themselves 'inner circle' Portsmouth Lib Dems, I wasn't even to be allowed to do this unhindered. Even as I walked in to the count with a friend, we heard: 'Come to gloat?' directed at me from one of the cohort of activists. It was unnecessary and unhelpful, and underlined how little they understood me, what I'd done, and why I'd done it. For them, nothing could be about principle - everything had to be about promotion of self or promotion of the inner circle. You belonged; or you didn't.
Prior and subsequent to the parliamentary defeat of 2015, the Portsmouth Lib Dems enacted a destructive sequence of baffling decisions - a succession of 'Roman moments' that saw their decline and fall. They threw away their own hard work and their likeability factor. Some of them have appeared at times odd, brittle, cruel, undignified and defensive. The trolling to which I was subjected by some of the more inglorious members of that local party, their continuing support for people whose role in the Hancock debacle had been questionable, and their seemingly conscious and selfish entry into a state of collective denial, formed the backdrop to their most bewildering decision of all - their rejection of the undoubtedly electable candidate Tam Langley.
GVJ has been picked again to take on Flick Drummond on June 8th, with Labour fielding a strong local candidate. The Greens too are standing. Personally, I wish I could look forward to seeing Tam Langley's name on the ballot paper, but sadly it's not to be. Instead I wish her well - the one who got away.