Five Thoughts On Losing Elections (and a referendum)

Everyone has their own speciality. Mine is losing elections.

It seems to have become a primary passtime. More than a hobby, less than a national identity but part of who I am.

I’ve lost elections in school, university, the church and civic society. I’ve not become president of my College student association, nor a Member of Parliament, nor a Councillor, nor a Rector of the Univerity of Glasgow and I’ve recently not become a bishop.

I am proficient at it. It is my own special skill. I’ve done it so often that I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of my most triumphant defeats.

I can’t say that losing elections is easy. Each comes with its own particular disappointment; its own lasting murmer of what might have been if only things had been a bit different.

But it is from this perspective that I want to say something about how to lose an election and in particular how to react to having lost one particular referendum.

For a significant moment occurs today. At 11 pm this evening Britain will leave the European Union – and become the only nation in world history ever to have declared economic sanctions against itself.

I was in favour of remaining for all the same reasons that I was in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK. I’m predisposed to think that we should be in anything.

I remain of the view that the poor in the UK will pay the highest price for coming out of the EU.

So I was on the losing side of this one. I mourn our departure from the EU.

As an experienced expert on losing elections then, I tentatively offer the following reflections on how to lose.

  1. When you are beaten, it may be because the other side was better at it than you were.
    Oh, I know that this is difficult to accept. I’ve felt the pain of feeling robbed time and again. But one of the things I’ve learned from those who I’ve fought alongside in the liberal/left/pro-European corner of the political vineyard is that many of those I’ve been very close to just can’t accept the basic reality that those who have different ideas just might be better at getting them across. People who think differently might be clever. Might indeed be cleverer than thou. Accepting this hideous reality is the first step in coping with losing. It is far easier to claim that the other side cheated than that they were better. It is relatively rare that they did.
  2. Change happens.
    New opportunites present themselves. As soon as the dust clears from one battle, the pathway to the next becomes clear. There’s no going back. The world only spins one way. But one of the features of the way the world spins is that change is still always going to be part of the journey.
    In 2005 I took no small pleasure in nearly doubling the Liberal Democrat vote in Stirling and knocking the SNP into fourth place. The fact is that the seat has been held by Labour, Conservative and now SNP members since then. And I took tiny scintilla of pleasure in seeing how it changed hands at the last election, even though it wasn’t a party I’ll ever vote for who won. Change has always happened and always will happen. Recognising this is the first step towards getting back on board and standing publicly for something again.
    I hope that the UK forges a path as close as possible to the EU and ultimately rejoins. I’m in the minority here but that’s what I hope for. And learning what one hopes for is a large part of poltical participation.
  3. You don’t have to win an election to have an effect.
    Getting a higher turnout in an election is a good thing. Getting more votes for what you are standing for than people expected is a joy. Losing elections can be part of turning the tide in a wider movement for change. I cannot count the number of votes that those of us campaigning for equal marriage in the Scottish Epsicopal Church lost but each was a step along a journey that eventually led to change that has brought joy into the lives of people who didn’t know how much their hearts could sing. You are part of something. Try to see the bigger picture.
  4. You don’t have to win an election for it to have an effect on you.
    I’ve been changed by all the elections that I’ve fought and mostly for the better. I’ve probably been changed for the better more by those I’ve lost than the few that I’ve won. Participation in an electoral system is an invitation to learn from others. I’ve learned skills of persuasion and learned that people are interested in original ideas no matter how off the wall they first seem to be. I’ve learned that being able to see over the horizon is no guarentee of electoral success but I’ve learned to see a little bit further over the horizon all the same. There’s much  to be gained by standing. That isn’t invalidated by losing.
  5. It is about winning, all the same.
    There’s a time and a place for bitter regret. And that place is never in public. The tough reality is that sometimes one simply has to suck it up and accept that one lost. Whether one wanted a particular democratic event or not, sometimes the fact remains staring us in the face that this time it was a loss.
    It is particularly difficult seeing people and organisations who claim to be hugely committed to democracy finding it so difficult to accept that the Brexit referendum didn’t go the way they expected it to. Yes, some of the reasons some people voted were about xenophobia. Yes, some of the reasons were to do with reasserting a sense of Englishness which has gone sour in recent years. Yes, some of the reasons for voting in the recent election were, however misplaced, about a sense of self-interest. But they were real feelings. Change won’t begin to happen until ideas emerge from the losing side that capture or recapture the hearts of those who voted differently.
    All elections are won on hope. Even hope that you despise.

If rightwing populists can win the hopes of people across the world then anyone can win the hopes of an electorate. But that won’t happen automatically. It needs imagination, inspiration and those prepared to take risks, dream dreams and stand up for what they themselves hope for in public.

And it needs people prepared to lose elections.

Until one day they win.