This diary is written by a Parliamentary candidate contesting a marginal seat in May.
A candidate must be a master of a good number of trades, if he or she (lets call them a ‘he’ for ink’s sake: it’s one less letter) is to successfully navigate his way from selection to election without falling foul. He must finance and account his entire campaign – for some running budgets in excess of £100,000. He must prove durable enough to walk in excess of 7 miles a day and have suitably robust knuckles to withstand a thousand door knocks. He must be arduous enough to withstand the elements thrown up by the notorious British Spring. But above all he must be peacemaker extraordinaire if he is to keep together a collection of individuals, seemingly pointing in the same direction but in reality possessing murderous intent, known as his Association. (There was no mention of organising protests on my job spec).
Who joins an Association these days? “Welcome! Can I ask you to deliver these leaflets – they should have gone out last week, but they need doing by tomorrow. And if you wouldn’t mind I need £25 for the privilege. We’re having a fundraiser on Saturday night – a Bridge evening at the social hall. Bring your wallet! Yes, you are the only person under the age of 65. It would be great if we could get some more young people like you (I’m in my late forties).”
The Bridge evening arrives. I head to the only place in my town where I am absolutely convinced I am going to receive a physical beating – in a social club behind the main Council Car Park. I am sure no-one has been in this building since the Bridge evening last year, and the year before that. Strikes me that I need to keep away from the cupboards; perfect place to hide a body. I have no idea how to play Bridge, so I focus on getting to know my councillors. I joined the Association to become their candidate, so don’t know many. My heritage in the Conservative Party is shorter than someone’s life expectancy if you hang around here on a Saturday night.
There’s a few home truths I wish I had been told about councillors when I started all this. The first is that most of your councillors, if truthful, couldn’t give a hoot whether you get elected or not. Their job is easier if in their monthly meetings they can rally against the local MP for some good press because he is from another party, whilst simultaneously relinquishing any responsibility of their own to improve their local area. They are what local representation is all about after all – not swanning around as a Member of Parliament. Members of Parliament are the over-paid, over-egged representatives who once elected don’t appear again for another five years. On the contrary, the noble councillors are sweating away on a poor wage dealing with day-to day vital issues such as blocked drains and pothole repairs. As the candidate you are the latest in a long line of privileged individuals who will be filling, at best, a notional role. I suspect the truth, as ever, is lost somewhere in this. The reality of local representation is that blocked drains and potholes are very important, particularly if they are right outside your home. But without the strategic representations of constituents at Westminster, the funding and Government attention will not materialise.
There are all sorts here. Councillor One is the leader of the Group. He has not had another job for 22 years although he “has tried”. He is almost universally disliked, (like me at this particular gathering), but has somehow retained control by promising positions that will never happen to certain members in the Group. Councillor Two is his right-hand man. Again, he seems universally disliked, but I have identified this theme some time ago; there is barely anyone here who speaks well of another. They seem perfectly nice to me, but I am perhaps glossing over the decades of seething resentment that has passed to arrive at this evening.
I make a beeline for Councillor Three. He seems different from the start. Large, affable – he has another job that he struggles to balance with his work of being a councillor. He explains to me though that a councillor was never considered a full time role – and is paid accordingly. Being a councillor used to be a ’service’ for your community which saw some reimbursements paid in the form of a small salary. These days, he tells me, being a councillor is a full time job for many, with many endlessly trying to get on Planning Committees and the like to attract a further wage. It has directly led to the tiny turnouts in council elections, and the revolt against any council action within the town. This is a shame, I say, because there is an awful lot of good our Council Officers do, with an ever constricting budget, but the elected councillors are so disliked that almost anything is greeted with derision. He tells me he is often ill-thought of by his fellow councillors for retaining his professional career, but it is clear he doesn’t give this much thought.
The evening ends with a toast, and suddenly I am asked to say a few words. There’s is plenty I want to say. I want to talk about how we are all in this together, how the Association should be a vehicle for social change in our town first and foremost, and not somewhere to hang out and moan because our real friends got tired of us doing that some time ago. Instead (I am learning to be a politician after all) I genuinely thank everyone for coming, say the evening has been a pleasure and make a joke about being mugged in the car park on the way out which was lost on everybody. Time to exit.
Funds are a sore subject. My Association was one of the most poor in the country. It was a sort of “well done for being selected – where’s your money”, but nicer. I have worked hard to elicit funds from those donors not yet reached by CCHQ. It’s not much, but it means I can pay for a few leaflets and perhaps even get some delivered. The trouble was my Association wanted them to pay a Merlin bill and some rent arrears from before I became a member. I set up my own fighting fund account and pay it into there instead, and appoint my agent to control it. This caused much mirth at the time, but there is a reason the Association was broke – they were terrible with money. If I pay from my own pocket to go and see donors then, I am afraid, the money goes on my campaign. With a sitting MP we can turn the Association around; endlessly paying bills to CCHQ will not. I’m sure the Conservative Party at large will see out another year without a couple of hundred quid from up here.
And finally there’s the gossip – the sort that only a political association could ever invent; the he said/she said is simply on another level. Complete dislocation from all and sundry is the only advice I can give – ignore everything. Best to still be aware that even with this tactic, some staunch souls will still genuinely manufacture events/stories that could see you sectioned for trying to work out where they come from.
Above all – keep going. Only six weeks left in the asylum.