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.

Coming Out, Coming In, Coming Home

There’s a new online magazine launched today. It is called Mosaic Scotland, it looks gorgeous and it has an article from me in the first issue. It is classy, sassy and has articles by lots of people I know.

This is what I wrote for it:

There are not that many months that go by without someone asking me why, as a gay man, I choose to work in the church. Now, leaving aside the question of whether any vocation (nurse? teacher? dancer? fool?) is a really a choice, I do know what they mean.

After all, how can a gay man want to work in an institution which, though proclaiming itself to be going heavenward, seems hell-bent on making gay lives a misery?

Of course, life isn’t quite as simple as simple questions seem to suggest. The churches are each themselves a mosaic, a tapestry or a tartan of different colours, moods and temperaments.

Just as you can be fairly sure that not all gay men like Madonna so you can be sure that not all Christians are gay hating protagonists in the culture wars. And then there are those who just love both that Madonna and the Madonna.

I’m certain about some of the things that I believe about religion but I’m positively agnostic about others. What about the claim, often made, that gay people are intrinsically spiritual people? I find myself not knowing the answer to that. And yet, the number of LGBT people whom I encounter in faith communities seems to suggest that there might be something in it.

Step by step over the last decades I’ve seen such people coming together to challenge the status quo from the inside of the religious institutions that they belong to. And in recent months the equal marriage campaign is seeing straight allies from within the churches add their signatures and raise their voices.

They are dearer to me than gold and it is they who convince me that change in the churches is on its way. Some of our straight allies are going through their own coming out process with the pain and worry that coming out seems so often to be associated with. And guess what – congregations are coming out too.

Individual Christians weigh up whether it is worth being out at church and worry they will be badly treated. Similarly, individual congregations are going through agony trying to work out whether to come out to mummy and daddy – the congregational structures whom they want to please but which seem locked into a sexual morality from a generation ago.

Like it or not, religion is not going to disappear overnight. Whilst the dominant discourse of the denominations is against gay rights, all of us are at risk. Whilst churches throw their considerable influence in society against the human rights of LGBT people none of us are safe.

You ask me why I stay? I stay because some things are worth fighting for. Some things are worth changing.

And yet it is more than that. I stay because I’m nourished in a community of faith which includes people who don’t think as I do. They help me recognise what I think is important. They help to make me whole. They make me who I am.

And I stay because I’m in the joy business. Once you’ve got used to being paid to peddle joy it is hard to lay it aside. Never mind the privilege of being involved in the intimacies of being with people when their lives are falling apart. I never feel greater faith than when I stand at a grave and I marvel daily at the complex, wonderful stories that I hear from people who are working out how to be completely themselves in a world that is weird, odd and wonderful.

I recently went on a sabbatical trip away from the congregation which I lead in Glasgow.

I travelled in Canada and the USA for three months. I discovered three wonderful truths. Firstly that when I tried to discover the most interesting religious congregations to visit I kept getting referred again and again to places which were led by women and gay men. Secondly, I learnt that though church is the most dreadful thing at an institutional level it is also the most incredible network of kindness and goodwill on the planet. And thirdly I discovered the joy of coming home.

I came out in the church. My coming-out-from-the-pulpit story beats most coming out stories at gay dinner parties hands down though it is a story that I’ll leave for another day. Having come out in the church I also find it is also the place I come home to.
You ask me why I stay?

It is the place which convinces me to the core of my being that I am utterly, passionately, gloriously loved.

Now, head on over and read the rest of the magazine.