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.

Sermon – post referendum

Here’s what I had to say today in the pulpit following this week’s political turmoil after the recent referendum.



“Lord do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

And Jesus says no.

Do you want us to call down from heaven on them?

And Jesus says no. He rebukes them and turns and went elsewhere.

And that is the gospel for today. That really is the essence of the sermon for today.

There seems to be rather a lot of us-ing and them-ing about at the moment.

And they asked him whether to call down fire from heaven and he turns and goes another way.

Like a lot of things in modern life, Jesus never had to face the consequences of a referendum or any kind of political vote. He knew absolutely nothing about democracy and we much always beware of lifting words from the bible and plonking them down in our own day as though they will sort out all our ills.

But it seems that Jesus did live in a world where he knew about rage.

We tend to think of the Samaritans as being a jolly good thing because we’ve got that parable of the good Samaritan and the wonderful listening charity of the same name.

But the whole point of the Good Samaritan story is that everyone in Jesus’s immediate company believed the Samaritans to be downright bad. And we have a taste of that in this morning’s gospel.

Jesus was heading to Jerusalem – his holy mountain. And that put him at odds with the Samaritan villagers of the place that he wanted to pass through who would have been looking towards Mt Gerazim rather than Jerusalem as the location where God’s salvation history would all be played out.

Do you want us to call down fire from heaven on them?

And Jesus turned away.

I’m very conscious of reading this story in Glasgow in the weeks leading up to 12 July when the marching season is going full pelt.

I recently was in the company of a prominent Roman Catholic member of the clergy when an Orange Walk was going on locally.

I said to him that I was sorry to hear the noise of the those drumbeats still on our city streets.

His reply was one of the saddest things I’ve heard, “oh,” he said, “it is just something we get used to”.

And I made a mental note never to get used to it. Never to hear the beat of angry drums without remembering the look on that person’s face. Never to hear the beat of angry drums without remembering his sad words. And never to hear the beat of angry drums without asking myself what one step I can take to make peace, build peace and call people into loving respect for one another.

I’m also conscious of reading this story in a part of the world which is still reeling from two referendums which have each in very different ways divided friends and split families and been fought with a passion that has sometimes spilled over into something much darker.

Our political situation has put us right in the middle of various overlapping identity wars. And it is a confusing situation too. One brand of identity division doesn’t necessarily map onto another.

I tend not to preach my politics directly from the pulpit though you don’t have to go far to find out what I think. I was, after all, a candidate for political office on two occasions as well as standing to be the Rector of one of Glasgow’s illustrious academic institutions a couple of years ago.

I tend not to preach my politics from the pulpit not least because of my phenomenal lack of success in actually winning the elections I find myself standing in out of personal conviction, or maybe out of personal wanton stupidity and hubris.

Indeed, sometimes when I’m asked to list my hobbies I’m tempted to put “losing elections” down as my principle pastime.

But I think I would preach from the pulpit that each of us must stand up for what we believe in.

And I think I would preach from the pulpit that each of us needs to be formed by the scripture that we read week by week and allow the Godly values that we find there to seep so deep into us that we are changed so that we can change the world.

And I think I must preach from the pulpit this day the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. For this is our birthright, this is our dna, this is who we really are.

While the identity wars rage around us, we are already beloved of God and the fruit of the spirit is our manifesto – the agenda that we pursue, the identity we preach.

This evening three members of this congregation will be confirmed by Bishop Gregor. As they identify with our faith in prayer and in being anointed by the bishop, we pray that the Spirit will come upon them. And that fruit of the Spirit that we heard of in this morning’s second reading is the life we shout from the rooftops belongs to them and to whosoever seeks it and is the identity they tonight claim for themselves.

This place is a place where the congregation that worships here is very politically active and whatever party any of us align ourselves with, whatever movement, whatever side of whatever referendum we find ourselves on, I hope that the manifesto of the spirit drives us and compels us to act and listen in God’s name wherever we find ourselves.

A great deal of people don’t feel listened to at the moment.

A great deal of people with little power feel unheard by a great deal of people with power and influence.

And that’s my learning point in the middle of this particular turbulence.

The prosperity and wellbeing of the many is the pathway to peace.

The various fruit of the spirit may act as our stepping stones to get to a place of greater calm than we currently possess.

This is a time of some turmoil. It feels as though everything is being thrown up in the air and none of us know quite where things will land.

Let the fruit of the spirit be written on our hearts as we each take our part in finding answers.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.

And remember.

There will never be a referendum on the love of God.

That decision was made long ago, once and for all and is eternal.

God’s love is for everyone. In-ers, Out-ers. Voters. Non-voters. For the wise. For the foolish. For the foolish who don’t know they are wise. And for the wise who don’t realise they are foolish.

And one day love will triumph and there will be no us and them at all.

Just those who are beloved of God.

Always and forever.