10 Things I learned from being a General Election Candidate

Ten years ago today there was a General Election in the United Kingdom and 10 years ago today I was a candidate in it. Indeed, 10 years ago as I write this I was wearily standing at the polling station for the last 20 minutes of polling, thanking a few final voters for turning out. I was standing in the contest to become the Member of Parliament (ie the Westminster MP) for the Stirling Constituency.

Here’s 10 things I learned

1 – You don’t have to win to do well.

I never expected to win and in the end I was rather pleased with myself, doubling the vote that the party I represented had previously got and moving them up a place, knocking the SNP into fourth place. (You can see the results here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stirling_(UK_Parliament_constituency)

2 – Lots of people know almost nothing about the democratic process
You find out when you knock on doors canvassing that lots of people just don’t have a clue how it all works. Very many people don’t realise that those who come knocking on the door are looking for people who might vote for their party and that’s about all. They want to encourage likely voters to turn out. They are really not interested in those sure they will vote for someone else.

But frightening numbers of people don’t understand how to vote at all. Vast numbers of people don’t understand devolution and have no idea which things are reserved to Westminster and which are devolved to Holyrood. (One discovers that this even applies to some candidates whom one might be standing against).

3 – You are always going to be asked about Trident/Abortion/Euthanasia/Palestine

You are also not going to be asked about them by many people at all. You are far more likely to be asked about the economy, jobs, transport (train fares/cars speeding/cycle paths) and dog poo. Dog poo is a topic that unites people of otherwise different political interests.

4 – Some people trust you if you are religious and others distrust you for the same reason.

It evens out in the end. However, if you happen to be a member of the clergy standing for election, one can find oneself stopped short by nice people saying, “Well we want to vote for you, but you are identified with the church and so we don’t trust you to be a decent person.”

5 – There’s nothing like working with a team all focussed on one thing

I had brilliant people around me who worked their socks off. I had an agent who worked morning, noon and night to get other people working morning, noon and night. Brilliant organisation pays off in the end. But there’s a buzz that is very satisfying about all that which I’ve never been able to capture in my work in the church. In politics, people unite (if things are going well) around the idea of just trying to get more votes than anyone else. It is a simple aim which leads to various tasks that can be easily monitored. In the church there are a thousand reasons for every person being present. Motivation is much more complex.

6 – Activists have more in common with activists from other parties than with non-voters

There were comparatively friendly relationships between political activists where I was fighting, which is why I feel the pain of some public bad behaviour in the current election campaign so keenly. Particularly after the election, we had informal pacts to take down one another’s lamppost posters. (Except the Tories, which we left in place for their own people to go round taking down, obviously).

7 – People are often nicer to one another in politics than the church

I know, I know. People don’t like to be told this, but it was very much my experience.

8 – It is incredibly moving to see the crosses by your name

It is one of the most extraordinary things going to count where your name is on the ballot paper. I was always moved to see the number of people who trusted you enough to make their mark by your name. Even if your stomach is churning with what might happen (which could change your life forever) it is still incredible to see that you’ve been winning people around.

9 – All politics are local

You don’t realise this until you go knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. “So Mrs Voter, I hear that the roads round here are terrible?” “Oh no, the roads here are fine, the road surface at the top of the street is terrible”.

10 – You learn more by standing in an election about mission than you do by anything anyone teaches you in the church

You learn that everything is a communication problem. You learn that every communication problem is worth trying to solve. You learn that change can happen. You learn that change will happen anyway so you might as well try to influence it. You learn the limits on power. You learn how hard it is to change someone’s mind. You learn that democracy is a sweet thing and not to be taken for granted anywhere. You learn that you need to aim to speak to 50 000 people as though you are addressing them each as an individual. You learnt that ideas matter, campaigns matter and above all that people matter.

On the election tomorrow

We’ve a Scottish parliamentary election tomorrow. My good wishes to all candidates – I know what it feels like to be a parliamentary candidate. You enter into this strange other worldliness where nothing else matters.  The focus narrows and all you know about is the task in hand and the team that are hopefully working their socks off around you. It is intense, it’s physical, you meet more people than you can remember and you have to speak coherently in public at odd times of day. Its all a bit like putting on Holy Week.

I was a Liberal Democrat candidate in 2005 in a Westminster election and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I learned a lot and was surrounded by great people who, bemused as I think they were by my day job, taught me more about mission and outreach than anyone ever did during my priestly formation.

I don’t campaign any more – when I came to Glasgow I realised that this job was a choice which ruled that out, at least for a time. I needed to concentrate on the task at hand and that was a good choice though I know that it did disappoint some folk and I can’t say it wasn’t made without sometimes wondering what might have been had I taken another path. It was widely known when I came here in the congregation what I’d been up to, so I’ve never felt as coy about talking about my own politics as some clergy do.

Not surprisingly, I feel for Liberal Democrat candidates this time around. People will have been working intensely hard, campaigning for years for a seat which a year ago might have seemed almost with their grasp, only for everything to fall apart as national disappointments about the current national Conservative – Lib Dem coalition have reached fever pitch. People feel betrayed by the Liberal Democrats over the tuition fees debacle and tomorrow is very likely to be payback time.

The last year has shown that the Liberal Democrats were barely ready for government. We might have guessed that by the run of silly gay sex scandals of a while ago in the Westminster parliamentary party and the lack of any really well developed economic policy. The disappointment is terrible, particularly for those who were looking for (and were promised) something different and have found politics to be business as usual but with an added dose of ideological right-wing cuts being rolled out in the name of conquering the all too real economic challenge.

“So,” people say to me, “how will you vote now?”

Well, I’m as disappointed as anyone else in the year that is past. So, I’ve made it my business to read the manifestos of the parties and made my decision based on them.  (If you want a quick shortcut, the Scottish Vote Compass will give you a quick quiz and then tell you which party you are nearest to).

So, who am I supporting now?

Having looked at everything that is on offer, I’ll be supporting the Liberal Democrats. It’s not a vote in support of the Coalition – I’m no more supportive of that than I was on day one. Its because I’m still a liberal at heart and policywise, that’s the party that I’m closest to. I didn’t become a Lib Dem because of Nick Clegg nor any personality. I didn’t become a Lib Dem because of success – indeed the idea of Lib Dems in government when I joined was, well, pretty unthinkable. I became a Liberal Democrat because of policy. Indeed, when I did apply to be a candidate, it was policy which carried me though – that and a humdinger of a mock speech, which I’ve still got knocking around somewhere.

So its clear where my vote goes – it goes with what I believe in not with the failures of individuals. And there are going to need to be people around to carry the liberal vision when this current Orange-Book liberalism which is in the ascendency at the moment, collapses in the face of its own contradictions.

Well, it’s clear where it goes on the Regional List ballot paper tomorrow.

The constituency vote is another game altogether.